Sub-Topical Heat

NZ Listener, 12 July, 2012


Multidisciplinary artist Sharmila Samant has been in the country for four days when I call her to discuss the socially based artwork she will develop in the New Plymouth community. Our conversation quickly turns to the availability of water. “The thing about water is that it is a free source,” she says. “It is something that everybody has a right to and the problem is that it is being privatised.”

Samant is one of nine artists showing work in Sub-Topical Heat, the fifth in a series of major exhibitions of contemporary Asian art organised by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery over the past decade. Curated by Rhana Devenport, the current show focuses on artists from South Asia, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, responding to global shifts in cultural influence and expression. And the title is Sub-Topical, not Sub-Tropical, as the press release is keen to point out. The work addresses some of the unresolved issues of our time: globalisation, social justice, urban and ecological change – and within that, of course, water.

Since 2005, Samant has worked with water diviners, locating wells and access to water in the slums of India. She undertook a project in a community that had 25 taps to provide for 3000 families. “I have done one video based on water divining as it is experienced in Bombay, which will be shown [at the Govett-Brewster]. It is called Mrigajaal, which translates as A Mirage – the promise of water, which is not there.” In Taranaki, Samant is evolving her practice to resonate with our particular situation by investigating the Maori connection to water. “What I am really interested in is understanding the knowledge and wisdom of what existed pre-colonisation, because it is funny how similar it is to most civilisations all over the world. There was a respect of the elements, of the land and of animals and things around you, which somehow with our so-called progress we have lost.”

These are not empty sentiments to New Zealanders as we face the privatisation and sale of more national assets. I wonder if Samant ever feels art is a limited medium in which to raise consciousness about the issues that concern her. “Well, I guess sometimes one does feel limited if you look at art as just an objectmaking device, but if you think of art as a way of being, a way of thinking and a way of communicating, then it is not limiting.” The featured artists in Sub-Topical – Samant, Bani Abidi, Sheba Chhachhi, NS Harsha, Naeem Mohaiemen, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Imran Qureshi, Gigi Scaria and independent publisher Raking Leaves – work in a range of traditional and new media, from the video work of Pakistan-born Abidi to the miniature paintings of Imran Qureshi, which draw on the Mughal heritage and look at violence, playing with that implicit fear of the “other”. “The issues aren’t being dealt with in a bombastic way,” says Devenport. “There’s always a great engagement with the sensual in India for a number of reasons; there’s a lot of very beautiful figurative work that is still urgent.”

Devenport describes the artists as young – most are still in their thirties – yet their calibre is confirmed in a range of international shows, from Tate Britain to the Shanghai and Sydney biennales. But how do you boil down an entire subcontinent into the work of nine artists? Clearly at one level the title Sub-Topical invites just as much as it denies: the powerful allure of the tropical. “There’s always a complexity when you’re addressing work from a particular part of the world,” says Devenport. “I really wanted philosophically and curatorially to give every artist their own space, so people got to know these artists and their practice very distinctly.”

For the most part, the exhibition will consist of pre-existing work being shown for the first time in New Zealand, such as Nations by NS Harsha. Nations is ambitious – an installation of 192 treadle sewing machines each overlaid with painted calico flags representing the countries that make up the United Nations. The sewing machines are connected and crossed by fine coloured threads, creating a visual parallel of a world divided by socio-economic lines. Initially, Devenport didn’t think the installation could be recreated at the Govett-Brewster, but assistant curator Meredith Robertshawe went to social media to find the 192 sewing machines, and the people of Taranaki provided. “The fact is they are historical pieces,” says Devenport. “And it’s not just the sewing machines, it’s the stories and histories that are associated with them. Taranaki has a whole history as a farming community … of making do, of looking after your own lifestyle and your own family.”

Following the Govett-Brewster’s 2010 focus on contemporary art from China, Sub-Topical Heat will be the most extensive show of art from South Asia presented in New Zealand to date. Devenport’s commitment to exhibiting this work runs deep. “What I’m trying to do over a period of time is build up those relationships with the art community in New Zealand so you can give audiences here different quite specific perspectives.”

image: NS Harsha, Nations, 2007.