Review by Indira Prasad
September 11, 2017


Contrabanned: Provocations Of Our Times
Curated by Myna Mukherjee
September 3-10, 2017
Art Konsult, New Delhi

Installation, video, photo, sculpture, painting; a plethora of mediums under the roof of Art Konsult Gallery in Hauz Khas Village, all unified in standing against an oppressive socio-political system. ‘Contrabanned: Provocations of our times’ is an interdisciplinary exhibition of cutting edge works from Indian artists, featuring new and specifically created works. The show is co-hosted by Art Konsult who consistently display works of both new and established Indian artists, and Engendered, a transnational arts and human rights organisation. Engendered brings together Asian cinema, visual arts, and performance to explore the complex realities of gender and sexuality in South Asian Society, and this concept indeed leaps to the fore in this exhibition. 

We are invited into one of the oldest restaurants in Lucknow with the show’s opening installation piece by Shashwatsound Collective, a restaurant serving the much loved Lucknow delicacy ‘tunday kebab’ which is typically made from beef, specifically buffalo meat. The piece is commentary on the Hindu nationalist governments recent tightening on restrictions of the beef industry, previously one of India’s biggest exports. The livelihoods of many, including marginalized communities, have been subjected to detriment since the ban as no efforts of redeployment have been made by the government. Supposedly the ‘beef ban’ which we have seen in many states is due to reverence for the cow, however ironically the dairy industry in which cattle are subjected to unimaginable and prolonged barbarity is still thriving and the consumption of dairy products continued to be encouraged. Within the dairy industry cattle are continuously artificially inseminated (or in ordinary terms; raped) forced to continually give birth (cattle, like humans and other mammals produce milk for the purpose of feeding their young) then have their calves snatched away as unwanted byproducts. The lactating mother cow’s are then hooked up to milking machines which damage their organs, and their produce is marketed and sold as India’s most celebrated products; Ghee, butter, milk, paneer (cottage cheese) and more, used in worship and everyday life. 

So our government, who supposedly cares about the welfare of cows, wishes to end one form of barbarity, and condones and encourages another. Reverence in the form of commoditisation? This is brilliantly illustrated in the sculptural work of Gargi Chandola and Yaman Navalakha. 

The norm in gallery spaces is ‘look don’t touch’ however in Aditi Angiras and Murari Jha’s installation piece we are invited to play and to touch everything. In this piece, designed to be moved and touched, there are an array of phallic structures protruding from the wall, including a curious box-like contraption with wooden phalluses jutting out from slots, which can, of course, be moved and played with. Various psychological sexual developmental theories would suggest that we as human beings find sexual imagery in all manner of mundane shapes and forms, perhaps as part of our in-built reproductive survival instinct. After all these are just wooden sticks with a rounded end. Pair this with society’s extreme imposed conservatism and we have the dichotomy which leads to dangerous imbalance in today’s society. 

For the first time since his incarceration, the works of Chintan Upadhyay are a central feature of the exhibit. He is perhaps most well known for his ‘Pet Shop’ works, in which he created sculptures of babies as a critique of the consumerist ‘designer baby’ phenomenon. However in Contrabanned, his series of small illustrations are being shown for the first time. Based on the Manga style of illustration, the small pieces depict a range of socially taboo issues infused with a generous helping of dark humor.

Valay Gada explores concepts of freedom of expression in his sculptural work. His sculptures have a visceral power, one being a giant brass colored tongue with nails driven through it as commentary on the silenced voices who dare to speak against the norm. The taught, curved tongue is an ode to Kali Maa, the embodiment of female power. The driven nails a society who would condemn us to quietude. 

Another sculptural work of Gada takes form of a huge white flower, drawing together ideas on hybridization, however the image which I take from this is the expectation of women to be paragons of virginal purity, the filament of the flower conjures images of the female sex organs and the petals the explosive potential of the sexuality of woman. 

It’s not only gender and sexuality explored in Contrabanned, but a range of political issues. The exhibit features three Kashmiri artists; Ahmer Khan, Veer Munshi and Mujtaba Syed. These artists focus on concepts of identity, nationhood and development. Two are documentary photographers and one is a painter, amongst the photographic pieces there is a photo montage combined with a video, documenting abandoned homes of the Kashmiri Pandits who once resided there. A small monitor plays the video footage of the interiors of the houses, a picture of dereliction, and is an ode to the sheer displacement experienced by so many in the region. Mujtaba Syed’s stylish trio of paintings are stand out pieces, using an urbane combination of pop iconography and satire to point out the absurdities in current capitalistic developments.

The very fabric of history is questioned in Sumantra Sengupta’s mixed media works. He uses old archival images layered with paint and muslin to look at India’s participation in World War I and the migration of soldiers to fight on the field of battle, and also the vested interest in the muslin industry at the time (hence the use of muslin intricately worked into the pieces). His other works similarly consist of paint worked over archival imagery. Maniacal figures in the foreground of a plane crash speak of the futility of war, and the names of fallen Indian soldiers inscribed over an archival image of a train station crowd commemorate the lives lost for the Britain; the nation which colonized the nation of India for over two hundred years.  

While the topics of India’s animal agriculture industry, political unrest in Kashmir, India’s involvement in World War I and the huge topic of gender and sexual politics may seem somewhat unconnected, this exhibition brings these things together under the banner of freedom of speech. The concept behind ‘Contrabanned: Provocations of our time’ is to highlight the voices of those who dare to challenge normative opinions. It brings to light those who are marginalized, and those ideas which are forced to the sidelines because the status-quo refuses to acknowledge them.