Picking up the Past

Review by Parni Ray
October 15, 2011


Review by Parni Ray
October 15,2011

Labyrinth of Absences
Reena Saini Kallat
March 8-26, 2011
Nature Morte, New Delhi

The display for Reena Saini Kallat’s “Labyrinth of Absences” at Nature Morte Gallery opens with a three-dimensional portrait of a man in a fez hat.  It takes a fraction of a second for the uninitiated (such as I) to gather that this face has been crafted, with dexterous delicacy, simply out of rubber stamps, painted but still retaining a visible trace of their original engraving announcing  a range of names and designations. The stamps act as building pieces for Kallat, lending the face both literal and metaphorical depth.  The medium of stamps grant the work a liminal standing -- suspended precariously between the status of a painting and a sculpture.  Unlike a painting, the portrait possesses an air of surrendered fragility, easily abandoning its apparent cohesiveness and breaking into pieces when viewed up close. Because of this dual nature of the work, the portrait is ultimately representative of both the unknown man in the fez hat as well as the individuals whose names appear, spectre-like, engraved on the rubber face of the stamps.

Kallat first used the motif of a rubber stamp in early 2003 in a sculptural assemblage, Kiosk, in which green, white and saffron-painted stamps were arranged in a jumbled mosaic in an attempt to recompose the colours of the Indian flag. As an artistic attempt to both highlight and finally obliterate the violent communal differences tearing apart the country, the work came accompanied with a mock MOU, reiterating and renewing the contract of inclusiveness promised by the Indian nation to its citizens back in 1950.

The rubber stamp itself is a compelling political metaphor, the power of which Kallat both acknowledges and exploits in her works. Apart from being a modest symbol of bureaucratic apparatus, notoriously capable of both confirming and obscuring identity, the ‘rubber stamp’, as a term, is used in political rhetoric to refer to people or institutions that enjoy a significant amount of legal authority in theory but have little or no power in reality. This understanding of the rubber stamp gives meaning to a number of ideas and images that emerge, flotsam-like, in Kallat’s works. Seen in this light, the portrait of the man in the fez cap no longer remains merely the face of an unknown, anonymous individual but transforms slowly into a potent synonym for a ‘whole’, which contains a tenuous and often invisible mélange of individual mosaic pieces.

The political logic of a democracy also operates on the framework of a ‘whole composed of fractions’ discourse. Metaphorically, the nation-state is a complex portrait composed of billions of pieces of mosaic units. On paper, a democracy enfranchises each of its citizens, allowing every legal resident of the country a say and a share in electoral power. Tragically, however, much like the man in the fez cap, the depth and expanse of a democracy quickly consumes the individual entity, rendering them (and, in the process, their individual rights) invisible. This constant disappearance of the individual in the crevices of the intricate grooves of the bureaucratic machinery is what haunts Kallat’s works.

In many ways, Kallat’s practice is an attempt to liberate the forgotten faces that the nation effectively confines to moth-eaten government files and discarded police records. Her spirit of remonstration seeps through specifically in a particularly poignant sculpture of a collapsed monolith. This untitled work shows what appears to be a fallen column of authority, shattered by the force of the fall and in the process splitting into a cascade of rubber stamps, seemingly trapped within its interior. While the phallic nature of the tower is undoubtedly a graphic reminder of the patriarchal nature of the state and the structural components associated with it, the image of the demolished monument clearly echoes the artist’s contempt for the clout of authoritative structures, which, despite garnering their power from the people, ultimately function by shutting them in and making them imperceptible. Only by destroying these hollow monuments of authority, Kallat seems to be saying, can the masses ultimately be liberated.

Crease/Crevice/Contour brings Kashmir, Kallat’s other core interest, to the forefront.  This work is a series of ten photographic prints of a torso stamped to mark the changing extent of the Line of Control that marked the boundary between India and Pakistan between October 1947 and December 1948. All ten images in the series show magnified images of a naked back, stamped cleanly in red with clipped, block letters declaring names. Up-close, the torso soon is revealed as a woman’s, sending an unmistakable tremor down my spine, for now the series ceases to be simply a piece of conceptual photography and becomes, effortlessly, almost a documentation. For haven’t female bodies been vulnerable to the brandings of territorial claim since time immemorial?  During the Partition, it was common practice for men of other communities to first rape and then further ‘violate’ the bodies of women by inscribing on their skin nationalist slogans, such as ‘Jai Hind’ or ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. The purpose of such brandings was blatant: it was an attempt at creating a memory, of declaring that this body, this woman, like a piece of land, has been claimed. The scars left by these carvings, though skin-deep, would nevertheless serve the profound purpose of reminding every man ever to see the woman unclothed that someone had outrun him, that someone had asserted his right on this ‘piece of flesh’ before him. The marking on a woman’s body is thus curiously akin to a nation’s flag.

Crease/Crevice/Contour is Kallat’s ode to the women of Kashmir, who have since 1947 been both the witness to, and the victims of, the incessant struggle between Pakistan and India. The stamp marks are both a visible reminder of the torture and tribulations that have marked the lives of the people and especially the women of Kashmir, and a memento of their unwavering, incessant, inspirational struggle for freedom.

The "Labyrinth of Absences" is therefore Kallat’s plea to remember -- to align our senses so as to see and hear and feel these phantoms of the past and the present that, though rudely gagged and muted, still continue to haunt our everyday. Her fury is lodged against the lifeless walls of historical silence. Her struggle as an artist is to bring into focus these imperceptible faces and embers of remembrance that continue to seethe quietly and sometimes almost imperceptibly within us.

(Courtesy: www.artslant.com. Images courtesy of Nature Morte and the artist)

Falling Fables – 2, Acrylic on Canvas, 44" x 78"