Manchester, UK

Reena Saini Kallat, Light Leaks, 2008–10, metal, sacred thread, fly zapper. Installation view, 2017. From “New North and South.” Photo: Michael Pollard.

Reena Saini Kallat, Light Leaks, 2008–10, metal, sacred thread, fly zapper. Installation view, 2017. From “New North and South.” Photo: Michael Pollard.

“New North and South”

Various Venues

Reena Saini Kallat, Light Leaks, 2008–10, metal, sacred thread, fly zapper. Installation view, 2017. From “New North and South.” Photo: Michael Pollard.

Small white dots coalesce to depict a ghostly, incomplete circle on a jet-black background. What does the mysterious form represent? A cosmic egg disintegrating into nothingness? Souls floating off into heaven? Is it a symbol of hope or despair? This is My Small Dancing Particles, 2017, a diptych of ink on wasli (handmade) paper by Waqas Khan, a Pakistani artist trained in traditional miniature-painting techniques. Khan’s paper work is part of a solo show at the Manchester Art Gallery that is one of fifteen exhibitions in Manchester’s citywide extravaganza “New North and South.” A multi-artist, multi-venue, multi-curatorial venture, this sprawling display (parts of which continue through the summer) involved collaborations between the city’s museums and organizations in South Asia such as the Karachi and Lahore Biennales and the Dhaka Art Summit. It brought British South Asian talent together with practitioners from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to commemorate seventy years since the end of British rule.

Nick Merriman, director of the Manchester Museum, insisted that these displays do not have a connecting theme, adding that if they did, it would revolve around national boundaries. In the context, it is tempting to read My Small Dancing Particles as a political metaphor. Its circular form is split in the middle by a white line that could allude to the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, thanks to the stroke of a pen by a British lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, that resulted in the displacement of fifteen million people and more than a million deaths. If Khan’s mini markings hint at this history, then Reena Saini Kallat’s offerings at the Manchester Museum drive the point home. The Mumbaikar artist’s Light Leaks, 2008–10, is a sculptural re-creation of the gates between India and Pakistan at the Wagah Attari border, swaddled with bloodred thread.

The various exhibitions unpack postcolonial identity and its relationship to Britain’s past and present with varying degrees of subtlety—and sadness. At the Museum of Science and Industry, Goa-based Nikhil Chopra delivered a forty-eight-hour performance, Blackening: 3157, 2017, for which the artist set up camp next to Locomotive No. 3157, a train built in Merseyside in 1911 that served in both British India and Pakistan. In the company of this great engine, Chopra slept, ate, and drew a vast, sooty-looking landscape referencing both Manchester’s industrial past and its entanglement in the partition. Hetain Patel’s video installation The Jump, 2015, at the Manchester Art Gallery, features the artist in a homemade Spider-Man suit performing a slow-motion leap into his grandmother’s parlor in the greater Manchester town of Bolton, to the astonishment of seventeen family members. His movement is so protracted that time seems to stand still—perhaps literally enacting theorist Ranajit Guha’s famous 1998 essay “The Migrant’s Time.” Meanwhile, at the Whitworth Art Gallery, London-based Raqib Shaw mourned the loss of his Kashmiri homeland via characteristically glittery, Swarovski crystal studded paintings. In Kashmir Danaë (After Gossaert), 2016–17, we saw the kimono-clad artist gazing sorrowfully upward; behind him the Himalayas emerged in a dreamlike distance while glowing lava rained down on him in place of the gold in the Greek myth. Shaw’s show also included works from the Whitworth’s holdings of artifacts from the era of the British Raj. For instance, an Orientalist fabric by William Morris was juxtaposed with Shaw’s wallpaper After a Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2017, showing gold-flecked fairies prancing on gnarled tree branches in midnight-blue skies. But is trauma too pretty in Shaw’s world? Does it end up aestheticizing Britain’s grubby imperial past?

Manchester has a large South Asian community, which Merriman has said he is keen to entice into its museums. Yet the best works make no effort to seduce. Risham Syed’s postcard-size paintings at the Manchester Art Gallery are also about borders—but there is nothing romantic about these works thematizing real-estate development in Lahore, Pakistan, where the artist is based. Rather than the glamorous high-rises one might expect, the dilapidated structures around them here occupy center stage. Untitled Lahore Series 4, 2010, for example, focuses on the dirty black wall next to a pristine building. What is generally kept out of public view is as important as what is allowed in, Syed seems to warn. Perhaps the curators of this ambitious endeavor could have taken this advice to heart: The project as a whole makes too little effort to grapple with Britain’s colonial guilt. Instead, the attempt to appeal to a new demographic by beguiling visitors with sugary half-truths and nostalgia amounts to another missed opportunity for the British establishment to make amends to the very community it seeks to woo.

Zehra Jumabhoy