PRINT April 2018



Detail of Omer Wasim and Saira Sheikh’s series “The Impossibility of Loving a Stone,” 2017, seventy-two ink-jet prints, each 8 1/4 × 5 1/2".

A COASTLINE has fractal properties, meaning its perimeter is infinite, even though it contains a finite area. While the ramifications of this paradox are reconcilable in Euclidean geometry, it dissolves our fundamental sense of solidity: That visible edge of land is amorphous and indefinite, a consequence of the tides’ erosion, in contrast with the hard, rigid lines of drawn borders. How can the latter be any more than cartographic caprice?

I waded through these porous questions at the fourth edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, a biennial “research and exhibition platform” founded in 2012 by the Samdani Art Foundation in Bangladesh. For nine days this past February, works by more than three hundred artists were on view in ten curated shows. The ocean—with its histories of imperial trade, ideological transfer, cultural communication, and literary metaphor—nominally served as the theme connecting the refreshing work on display, which for the first time explicitly addressed the exchanges and developments in contemporary art across Asia, from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Iran, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and still more countries usually neglected by the gatekeepers of the “global” contemporary-art community. Bangladesh’s own precarious geography—amid cyclones, monsoons, shifting riverbeds, and glacial meltwater—offered fertile ground for the narratives of decolonization and decanonization permeating the summit’s curation and symposia.

Ming Wong, Bloody Marys—Song of the South Seas, 2018, still from the 10-minute 35-second color HD-video component of a mixed-media installation with photographs, record covers, annotated music scores, and film ephemera.

Among its highlights were shows that zoomed in on a particular geographical context in order to turn local power relations on their heads and reclaim their histories. Sharmini Pereira’s “One Hundred Thousand Small Tales,” for example, mapped artistic production onto the political turmoil that led up to Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 and that continues to provoke traumas today. Vali Mahlouji’s breathtaking archive “A Utopian Stage” reoriented cultural production and avant-garde experimentation toward “the South” and “the East”; Mahlouji unearthed documentation of the Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis, which between 1967 and 1977 invited Japanese, Indian, and African troupes into a radical intracultural intellectual project, featuring the likes of Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Wilson, and Ravi Shankar. The festival’s demise was concurrent with the commencement of the Iranian Revolution, when a religious decree seemingly erased all signs of the event’s existence. A third exhibition, Devika Singh’s “Planetary Planning,” explored structures of world-making through South Asia’s architectural movements since the 1940s. Each of these curators presented works in a variety of media and included many artists who had never previously exhibited outside their home countries. As a few shows morph and travel to art institutions around the world, they reify their urgency, performing a kind of retroactive agitation. Of the hundreds of works I saw, I was held profoundly by three, each of which expertly negotiated the nebulous membranes of postcolonial identity as shaped by the hazards of the maritime and abraded by the heft of land.

Chief curator Diana Campbell Betancourt’s show, “Bearing Points,” was conceptually structured in accordance with the points on a compass, which provided orientations for types of dissent—in architecture, postcolonialism, ecology, labor, migration, and community—rooted in the hope for remembrance, resistance, and transformation. Included was Pakistani artists Omer Wasim and Saira Sheikh’s “The Impossibility of Loving a Stone,” 2017, which features what appear to be intricately fashioned maps—actually details mimicking the surface textures of a stone—realized as ink-jet prints. The landmasses stray from each other, connected only by the white of the page, an assumed waterway. The series of lines and diagrams were hung across a long wall and continued into a grouping of pages marked instead with text, so that two short sentences appeared on each sheet, left-aligned in English and right-aligned in the Bangla translation. As this complementary narrative progresses, the two languages seem as if they are in conversation, their scripts curling into and away from each other, perhaps referring to Bangladesh’s historical entanglement with Pakistan before the former was calved from the latter’s eastern wing amid a civil war in 1971, complicating the internal relations between subjects, and between subject and object. “Document and theorise the interaction with an inanimate object. Discover that the object has, in fact, the potential to be the subject,” reads one excerpt.

Bangladesh’s own precarious geography offered fertile ground for the narratives of decolonization and decanonization permeating the summit.

The full text is a pseudoscientific yet poetic conversation between the artists and an unidentified stone, which takes place as the pair sift through the rubble surrounding their own coastline in Karachi, which is patrolled by the army and infected by concrete. Their object-oriented perspective prompts them to reflect on their conceptions of time, once fluid and shadowy but now superseded by the tabular and repetitive structures of colonial control, especially with respect to geology: “30–40 million years of history is stored in the crevices of solidified rock formations around Karachi. It took them minutes to erase it.”The malleable margins, contracting and expanding like tectonic plates, were evidently part of a lost archive.To embody the stone, the artists seek inspiration from a former local—Wasim’s father, a geologist born in what was then East Pakistan who has not returned since the region gained its independence—and the sea, which they view as a mother figure: “Water kept caressing you, for years / centuries, carving you up, each time ever so slightly, to love you deeper.” The fact of Sheikh’s untimely death last year rendered all the more solemn this elegy for matter at the limits of sentience.

Cosmin Costinas’s exhibition, “A beast, a god, and a line,” was likewise inspired by geopolitical conflicts fought on the shores of Asia, and contained Ming Wong’s mixed-media installation Bloody Marys—Song of the South Seas, 2018, primarily composed of a video and the artist’s archive of materials pertaining to Bloody Mary as represented on Broadway. The character of Bloody Mary is based on a real Tonkinese woman who, during World War II, dreamed of opposing French colonialism on the islands of present-day Vanuatu and returning to her home in Vietnam. Wong, who is Singaporean, impersonates the character as she was played by the African American actor Juanita Hall—who was typecast as Asian, a Pacific Islander, and a number of othered others—in the 1949 musical South Pacific (based on a book by James Michener, it was made into a film in 1958).

Ming Wong, Bloody Marys—Song of the South Seas, 2018, still from the 10-minute 35-second color HD-video component of a mixed-media installation with photographs, record covers, annotated music scores, and film ephemera.

Wong parodies this caricature of race while singing “Bali Ha’i,” one of the musical’s original show tunes, to lure American troops to the titular mythical island (visible in the background as an unattainable volcano shrouded in mist, symbolizing a desirable woman) in the hopes of marrying off her daughter. The materiality of the video—a combination of archival footage, performance, glitches, and accelerated splicing from fourteen productions of the musical—blurs narrative time. Wong’s queering of Bloody Mary’s race and gender achieves a kind of reclamation of the exotic, and of sexual desire, as a force that can steer the course of history in his favor. Wong seems to lure his viewer to a different utopian island, one where alterity is attainable and ideas bleed into one another.

Léuli Māzyār Luna‘i Eshrāghi, a Samoan and Persian artist and curator, also charted a route beyond colonialism in his lecture-performance for the occasionally problematic program “Sovereign Words: Facing the Tempest of a Globalised Art History,” one of the Office for Contemporary Art Norway’s Critical Writing Ensembles curated by Katya García-Antón, which risked flattening terms such as indigenous and sovereign into universalisms. I thought the risk was worth taking in that it generated efforts such as Eshrāghi’s, whose work entwined aesthetics and protest so that one did not precede the other. Samoans consider their lands to be sacred, but they face extinction in the wake of Euro-American colonialism, with its military, missionary, nuclear, and economic arsenals. Eshrāghi’s work, ‘O tautua fāaliga mo lo tātou lumana‘i (Curating That Serves Our Futures), 2018, set out in search of this lost home with a lexicon haunted by a lush world of plants, animals, birds, and water, whispered to by elders. By incorporating the Samoan tongue, he argues for language’s use as a ceremonial-political practice to revitalize indigenous futures. The weight of his plea is clear from the beginning: “Vāsālaolao (gagana Sāmoa), Lul (Hakö), Na Ta (Kuanua), or Moananuiākea (‘ōlelo Hawai‘i),” he explains, “are a few conceptions of the Great Ocean in our languages, encompassing vast worlds of atoll and volcanic archipelagos, all connected through vā (relational spaces) across thousands of years of ancestral connections and exchange to every coast.”

Malala Andrialavidrazana, Figures 1853, Kolonien in Afrika und in der Süd-See (Figures 1853, Colonies in Africa and in the South Seas), 2016, ink-jet print, 43 1/4 × 59 5/8". From the series “Figures,” 2015–.

Eshrāghi frames cultural practice as a form of healing, a way to exchange the linear time of the colonizer for the oceanic time of indigenous peoples: “Many of our languages in the Vāsālaolao place the future directionally ‘behind’ and the past ‘ahead’ of us. All things are at once and in each specific moment, too.” This fluidity is not abstract. It allows for a more intuitive understanding of ancestral traumas, which aids us not simply in resisting various (invisible and specific) aggressors but in reinvigorating our own linguistic ecoscapes.

While each of these works spoke in a different register, all three added nuance to the ongoing confusion of articulating one’s identity in the face of an unwelcome other. Andrew Ananda Voogel’s Kalapani: The Jahaji’s Middle Passage, 2014; Raja Umbu’s Skirt with Kadu Motif, 2010; prints from Simryn Gill’s series “Pressing In,” 2016; and Malala Andrialavidrazana’s series “Figures,” 2015–, all added further context to the hybridization generated by oceanic travel, plotting personal stories of migration onto an imaginary post-national world. Andrialavidrazana’s collages, for example, combine clichéd nineteenth-century European maps, banknotes, and stamps to create mythical palimpsests that defy purely scientific conceptions of the world and reveal the violence inherent in colonial cartographic epistemologies. By employing the fraught relationship of land and sea as a metaphor, these and many more works at the Dhaka Art Summit made a place for edges and in-betweens—refusing the grids of military time in favor of the permeable channels of shared resistance—allowing multiplicities to flood, abluting ways of knowing and being, finite and infinite at once.

Himali Singh Soin is an artist and writer based in London and New Delhi.