SAF hosts Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular show - GulfToday

SAF hosts Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular show

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Lubna Chowdhary’s artwork titled Certain Times LV.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) are presenting a major group exhibition of Pop Art from South Asia (Sept. 2 – Dec. 11).

Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the diaspora, Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular is one of the first major exhibitions to provide a substantial survey of modern and contemporary South Asian art that engages with popular culture.

The exhibition, which travels to KNMA in 2023, highlights artists who explore the aesthetics of print, cinematic and digital media, alongside those engaging with devotional practices, crafts and folk culture.

Besides, artists address the ways of local capitalism, from large-scale industries to vernacular ‘bazaars’, as well as those commenting on identity, politics and borders. Expanding the conventional canon of Pop Art, the exhibition puts front and centre, multiple layers and ideas embedded within the ‘popular’ in South Asia. Pop South Asia brings to light knowledge and research relevant not only to South Asia, but also to other regions across the world, equally shaped by forces of capitalism and media, as they continue to modernise and urbanise.


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The exhibition includes artworks by Abdul Halik Azeez, Ahmed Ali Manganhar, Anant Joshi, Anwar Saeed, Atul Dodiya, Ayesha Jatoi, Baseera Khan, Bharti Kher, Bhupen Khakhar, C. K. Rajan, Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Chila Kumari Burman, Chitra Ganesh, Dhali Al Mamoon, G. Ravinder Reddy, Hangama Amiri, Jeanno Gaussi, K. M. Madhusudhanan, K. G. Subramanyan, Lala Rukh, L. N. Tallur, Lubna Chowdhary, Maligawage Sarlis, Mehreen Murtaza, M. F. Husain, Mian Ijaz ul Hassan, Muvindu Binoy, Naiza Khan, Pushpamala N., Raja Ravi Varma, Ram Rahman, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Saba Khan, Samsul Alam Helal, Seema Nusrat, Seher Naveed, Seher Shah, Shishir Bhattacharjee, Sunil Gupta, Tejal Shah, Thukral & Tagra, Tsherin Sherpa and Vivan Sundaram.

The show features works across a range of media, including Atul Dodiya’s painting Gabbar on Gamboge (1997), a homage to Bollywood cinema’s iconic villain Gabbar Singh, from the 1975 blockbuster movie Sholay. Dodiya’s playfulness with visual narratives is expressed in the artwork’s pastiche of popular cultural references. Baseera Khan’s lantern-like Chandelier (2021) sculptures rotate and reflect light, referencing the joyous, cross-cultural associations evoked by disco balls.

Each of the patterns are specific to Khan’s family’s collection of Islamic Arab and South Asian textiles and embroidery designs. Other highlights include Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar’s Janata Watch Repairing (1972) and De-Luxe Tailors (1972), reminiscent of the ethos of shops and businesses across small-town South Asia and rendered in a style and iconography drawn from commercial painting techniques, and Hangama Amiri’s textile installation Bazaar (2020), in which the artist weaves her childhood memories of Kabul’s bazaars and transforms them to offer viewers a sense of place and time, alongside an awareness of the politicised present.

saf 2 Indian artist Bharti Kher’s composition Throb.

Pop South Asia is curated by Iftikhar Dadi, artist and John H. Burris Professor at Cornell University, and Roobina Karode, Director and Chief Curator of KNMA. On inaugural day, there was a talks programme which hosted Dadi and Karode and exhibition artists. Discussions about the works and key themes, including questions of politics, public space and identity and their relation to the ‘popular’ in South Asian art, were presented.

Earlier, in her introductory remarks, Hoor Al Qasimi, SAF President, noted that it was the first collaboration between SAF and KNMA. Dadi in his speech said that “Pop art practices uneven development, has layered aesthetic regimes and turbulent contexts.” International pop art was ushered in by Walker Art Center in Minnesota and by Tate Modern in London.

Khakhar’s You Can’t Please All was shown in Tate Modern. “There was no movement called Pop Art in South Asia,” Dadi said. “In places such as Dhaka, Vadodara (former Baroda) and Karachi, individual artists dealt in ‘proto pop’ before 1960.” Prints further helped pop art evolve as they made images more accessible. The VCR (Video Cassette Recorder) also helped decentralise media and develop pop art.

“Artists’ engagement with the “popular” not only was in response to celebrity images and consumer commodities, but situated it in a wider social and aesthetic field of historical and geographical signification” such as protests, politics, borders and partitions.

Dadi concluded that the exhibition, though not fully representative, emphasised intergenerational practice. Karode said that pop art questioned purist tendencies in art making. It indicated a renewed interest in “people’s culture”.  

She presented a series of paintings which specified the Pop style. They included De-Luxe Tailors, Janata Watch Repairing and Pan Shop No: 1 by Khakhar; Dodiya’s Gangavataran after Raja Ravi Varma; Pushpamala N’s work from the series Native Women of India (colour photographs) and Anant Joshi’s Happy New Year (2013).    

In the panel discussion, Pushpamala N said that Native Women was a photo-performance project that consisted of a set of ten photographs. They are “deconstructed images.” Artist Naiza Khan, based in Karachi and London, showed her work Henna Hands (2002 – 2022) and its afterlives. Abdul Halik Azeez from Sri Lanka, presented his country’s Lotus Tower, which, according to him, “symbolises Sri Lanka’s entry into the world.” The project evicted a large number of people, who had no legal recourse and were paid no compensation “by a militarised municipality.” He said that he photographed surroundings “compulsively” and tried to build stories “slipping between State narratives and media presentations.” Ayesha Jatoi, an artist based in Pakistan, showed her Lockdown posters, created in Lahore.

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