Art Basel 2011: Basel, Switzerland

15 - 19 June 2011 

Public Days: Jun 15 - 19, 2011


For the “Art Feature” section at ArtBasel 2011, Chemould Prescott Road is foregrounding works by Nilima Sheikh (b.1945) and Nalini Malani (b.1946). Malani and Sheikh have had four decades of friendship and working together, a camaraderie that is rare among artists today. They first exhibited together in a long travelling show called Through the Looking Glass (1986-1989); subsequently, they have shown together at Dispossession, Africus: First Johannesburg Biennale, South Africa (1995) and the Second Asia-Pacific Triennial, Brisbane (1996). Belonging to a lineage of women working as professionals in their field, as first generation women artists, Malani and Sheikh have been conscious about the cultural ramifications of feminism in South Asia and have often alluded to social discrimination and violence against women and girl-children.


For the “Art Feature” section, the two artists will be showing new paintings that manifest their ongoing dialogue over the last three decades, combining scroll paintings with site specific interventions. This body of work, titled Gained in Translation, looks at the conventional plaint of loss in cross-cultural literary translation. As visual artists straddling different cultures, the need to translate has been an ongoing and persistent strain in their work. With a lineage deriving from western academicism and modernist parlance, and living in South Asia where the boundaries of historical linearity expectedly and unexpectedly collapse, these artists have turned boundaries into possibilities of extension. Extensions that are encompassing and inclusive rather than segregating: from one language and culture to another, one format, one medium to others. A retrieval of lost, loved tongues is not about return. It is about building a history, an archive, a thesaurus. In Gained in Translation Malani and Sheikh take on the work of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a renowned Pakistani poet of the Urdu language. His poetry has been translated into English by Agha Shahid Ali, familiar with Faiz from his childhood, who translated these poems with a degree of freedom and absence of literal reduction. Both artists pursue this possibility of invention into the visual domain.


In the last decade Sheikh’s work has attempted to bring a layered visuality to the strife-ridden state of Kashmir, a land whose politics too often provoke unforgiving binaries. Sourcing oral and written histories, lore and poetry, journalism and a wide Gained in Translation spectrum of craft and visual traditions, she attempts to lay bridges between the historical and contemporary. During the same period, Malani’s work has been notably influenced by German playwright Heiner Mueller who reworked the Greek myth “Medea” as an allegory for the process of degradation and violence in times of colonial domination. Malani, in two of the four works exhibited, draws directly upon Faiz’s poem In Search of Vanished Blood which has a very specific reference to the partition of India. The child of a family who lived through the partition of India, Malani links the past to the current theme of her oeuvre to chronicle the collective madness prevailing during and after this traumatic event. She also draws parallels of more recent occurrences of violence that have torn apart communities, sometimes causing worse rifts than those of partition. Sheikh on the other hand, draws indirectly on Agha Shahid Ali’s translation of Faiz’s poems. Her interest lies in the use of cultural histories embedded in text or image and in translating them into her own pictorial language.


Just as Shahid’s poetic strategies owed greatly to prior literary traditions, Sheikh’s painterly strategies draw upon the many traditions of tempera painting. In her work exhibited at the “Art Feature” section, Sheikh translates from a nineteenth century manuscript, most likely commissioned by the British, a rich record of craftworkers and other professions in Kashmir. By drawing on this manuscript Sheikh pays homage to the labour of the Kashmiri craftworkers attempting to bring pleasure and dignity to their struggle against the circumstances of their survival in the past and present. Both these artists are ‘midnight’s children’, born during the turbulent birth of a nation that tore the subcontinent apart.


Both have taken journeys that weave across boundaries. Issues pertaining to these very man-made boundaries and territories have provided deep historical resources to the practices of both artists. Inducting iconographies and translating them into their own, they have devised rich tapestries that allude to prose, poetry and image from South Asia, and across territorial frontiers into Central Asia. It is generally believed that something is always lost in translation; I cling to the notion....that something can also be gained. (Salman Rushdie from “Shame”)

-Shireen Gandhy, Bombay, 2011

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