Artivism: reaching beyond trauma

29 November 2017

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Eugenio Viola talks to Phoebe Mulcahy about “I don’t want to be there when it happens”, his first exhibition as senior curator at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA).

“I don’t want to be there when it happens” is a complex exhibition which both memorialises and reaches beyond the aftermath of a specific “historical trauma”. Taking the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the Partition of India, which in 1947 resulted in the division of what had been British Colonial territory into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India, the exhibition was developed in partnership with the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney.

At Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), senior curator Eugenio Viola has made his curatorial debut by enlarging the scope of that exhibition and fully bringing into focus the still strained relations between India and Pakistan. With the politics of borders, immigration and religious extremism at the forefront of the public consciousness in the world today, it’s a timely and thought-provoking assembly of works that’s well worth a visit. Phoebe Mulcahy caught up with Eugenio Viola to find out more.

Phoebe Mulcahy: This exhibition was first shown at the 4A Institute for Asian Art in Sydney. How did it come to be brought to PICA?
Eugenio Viola: I was still in the employment negotiation process with PICA when PICA director Amy Barrett-Lennard asked if I was interested in co-curating an exhibition dealing with trauma, organised in partnership with 4A. I told her that I was, because it’s a theme that is very connected to my interests. When I came here a few months later and looked at the materials, I understood that the exhibition was too small for our space, so it was necessary to expand it.

Adeela Suleman – ‘I dont want to be there when it happens’.

PM: What form did that expansion take and how many of the works currently on show weren’t seen at the Sydney exhibition?
EV: 4A exhibited the two works of Adeela Suleman—the curtain and the chandelier, the Raj Kumar prayer mats and the David Chesworth and Sonia Leber video installation. Since the 70th anniversary of the Partition was in August this year, I added a set of Indian artists to the original exhibition. In this way, the fragile and complex relationship between India and Pakistan would become a kind of hypertext in order to address, in a more general way, our traumatic times. It was a curatorial experiment as well, in a way.

PM: You mentioned that the themes of this exhibition tie in with your curatorial interests — how does it relate to your broader practice?
EV: My curatorial practice has always been socially and politically engaged — I consider myself an “artivist”. We’re already living in a hyper-aestheticised society. I think that art has to show reality from a different point of view. That’s why I have worked with several Latin American artists for example — because they are very politically engaged; and that’s also why I have worked a lot with performance, which is a medium that is more directly connected with reality.

PM: In what ways then do you think this exhibition can potentially “build bridges” or engage with actual social realities in the world?
EV: I think art has to stand for the co-existence of all possible differences. The situation between Pakistan and India today is still very tense, but here at PICA you can experience artworks from Indian artists exhibited alongside artworks from Pakistani artists.

PM: What significance does this recurring bird symbol have in the exhibition?
EV: The whole exhibition can be considered as a kind of “conversation piece” with a lot of recurrent elements. The birds for example: they are present in Reena Saini Kallat work, in Adeela Suleman’s sculptures; in the Abdullah Sayed installation we see birds in the form of drones; and David Chesworth and Sonia Leber’s work uses a bird’s eye view. There are several different meanings connected with birds in this exhibition. In Adeela Suleman’s pieces they become dead birds — in
fact the shadow in After all it’s always someone else who dies is transmogrified into guns on the wall, for example. Every dead bird sculpted in her pieces can be considered as a memorial — a cenotaph for all suicide bomb related deaths that occurred in her town. In Abdullah Sayed’s work, the birds become a tool of indiscriminate death — recalling the drones that Americans have used in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In Mithu Sen’s work, the birds are more connected with purity — like doves — because that video is the result of an unscripted performance the artist did with abused girls in an orphanage in Kerala.

Abdullah MI Syed’s ‘Flying Rug of Drones’.

PM: How do you think these personal explorations of a specific historical trauma can be related to broader themes of conflict in our world today?
EV: Artists often use the problems and the contradictions of their everyday life as tools. For this reason, in all the societies characterised by social and political problems, the artistic field always reacts in a very committed way, creating artworks that can go beyond the circumstances in which they were created. Some of the problems connected with the Partition — like the discrimination against national minorities for religious reasons, as well as forced mass migration — are still connected with our present times. We are currently witnessing an upsurge of intolerance at every level, and this is a problem that we can experience in Europe, and even here in Australia.

PM: Finally, how would you describe the role of the various public programs that accompany this exhibition — how will they enrich or add to it?
EV: One of the main aims of all cultural institutions is to reach out to new audiences. This exhibition was partly conceived in order to meet the local Indian and Pakistani community here in Perth. That’s why for example, we arranged a rich public program in partnership with illUMEnate. This group mainly works with performative poetry, a genre that is very popular in Pakistan. It was fascinating to experience how they animate the artworks in the exhibition, conceiving some stories connected to the exhibited pieces. It was great to see some people experience an arts centre such as PICA in a more accessible way, and hopefully they will be back. This is also part of a socially and community-centred curatorial role that is going through, and beyond, the exhibition.

PM: “Artivism”!
EV: Artivism, exactly, once again.

Catch “I don’t want to be there when it happens” at PICA until 24 December.

Pictured top: Mithu Sen’s ‘I have only one language’.

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