Artists against imperialism

Print edition : July 04, 2003

Art exhibitions organised across the country to condemn the invasion of Iraq show that contemporary art is an integral part of humanity's struggle against imperialist onslaughts.

CONTEMPORARY art of the world has a powerful tradition of siding with the oppressed and the downtrodden. One of the best known contemporary artists, Pablo Picasso, not only painted his celebrated `Guernica' as a visual protest against the Nazi bombing of a Basque village of that name, but also chose May Day to start the work. Artists and fascists find it difficult to coexist. Hitler closed down the famous Bauhaus in 1934, claiming it was producing `degenerate art'. This is what the German dictator thought of artists such as Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger and so many others like them. Artists, of course, had even less respect for the fascists, and many, like George Grosz, actually left Nazi Germany for Britain and the United States. Others died in concentration camps.

Art for Humanity by Shobha Broota; acrylic on paper; 36" x 36"; 2003.-

Times have changed. Artists are bringing their canvases and paints out of their studios to condemn visually Britain, Australia, Spain, Portugal and the U.S., which have now taken on the mantle of world domination from the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, and have already destroyed some of the oldest sites of European civilisation in former Yugoslavia and are busy plundering one of the oldest urban civilisations, Iraq.

It is only proper that our contemporary artists should respond to the savage invasion of Iraq by the alliance now yearning to fill the space left behind by the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler with the same sort of passion that we found in Picasso during the Second World War. One of the first artists to respond was Atul Sinha, a young Indian sculptor who had painted a large acrylic on canvas, `Bombing Baghdad for Christmas' in 1998. The main motif of the painting, a dismembered human being, became the subject of a Christmas card that went all over the world that year.

Missile Attack by Jai Zharotia; acrylic on canvas; 36" x 36"; 2003.-

It is interesting that Sinha is pursuing a line similar to that of the Bauhaus artists, blending utility and design with art. He has, in fact, gone further than the Bauhaus, as in his sculpture, use is the basis of aesthetic understanding. He does not reduce the level of his artistic statement to understanding or utilitarian design. Rather, he raises the simple process of use to the level of a method of aesthetic appreciation. By this means he has successfully overcome the problem of the Bauhaus, of how to create useful objects without reducing their artistic value to that of designer products. So it did not surprise me in the least when he informed me that he was carrying his work of 1998 to the gallery Veira de Silva in the Portuguese Cultural Centre, where he was showing his sculptures, to exhibit it as a protest against the appalling bombing of Baghdad.

He carried the work to the venue and installed it there. However, it was hurriedly put away by the Embassy staff as Portugal was one of the countries in the alliance of barbarism that was conducting the war. Not to be defeated, Sinha carried his sculptures and the painting to the Gallery Alternatives in Gurgaon, which has become a centre for progressive art, literature and theatre, and continued the exhibition there.

Siddharth Tagore of the Art Konsult gallery mounted another exhibition of anti-imperialist art at the Arpana gallery of the Academy of Fine Art and Literature at Siri Fort. The important thing about this exhibition was that one got to see works belonging to a long tradition of anti-imperialist art, going back to the Second World War works of Chitta Prasad and Qamrul Hasan (lent by the Delhi Art Gallery), the Gulf War series of Sunil Das (first shown at the Art Heritage Gallery) and the latest work of one of our best emerging radical artists, Yati Jaiswal. This exhibition showed us how the contemporary art culture of India has had a consistent history of development covering the nearly century-long struggle leading up to Independence in 1947. Any attempt to represent it as the hybrid child of colonialism and revivalism as in Raja Ravi Verma's blousy women playing at street drama versions of epic scenes, can only damage its stature, content and reach.

Untitled by G.R. Iranna; acrylic on canvas; 36" x 36"; 2003.-

Another artist who organised an exhibition, largely of installations, was Vivan Sundaram a winner of a gold medal and a $15,000 cash prize at an international art exhibition held in Baghdad during the 1980s, in which Satish Gujral, Krishen Khanna and Paramjit Singh also participated. Vivan Sundaram had put up a major exhibition after the first Gulf War, featuring aerial visuals, charcoal drawings, Mesopotamian imagery on hand-made paper and stained with engine oil. This series emerged stylistically out of his Auschwitz series after a visit to the Nazi concentration camp in Poland. It is interesting to note how the strands of the anti-fascist struggle get picked up by the anti-Iraq war artists stylistically as well. The parallel between the U.S.-led coalition and the Axis powers of the Second World War is too strong to be overlooked.

The most organised effort, however, was that of the Art Alive gallery in New Delhi. It organised an art camp that was attended by 23 artists - including Nand Katyal, Jai Zharotia, Shobha Broota, Arpana Caur, Dharmendra Rathore, Sidharth Subroto Kundu, Harshvardhan, Neeraj Bakshi, Saba Hasan, Nupur Kundu, Yati Jaiswal, Sudhir Tailang, Sudip Roy, Iloosh Ahluwalia, Ved Nayyar, Gogi Saroj Pal, Apoorva Desai, Somenath Maity, Iranna and Amitava Das - all of whom created works that responded to the immediate situation they were confronted with on the television screen.

Bombs, Planes and Mother Earth by Ved Nayyar; acrylic on canvas; 40" x 36"; 2003.-

It was interesting to note that while the news coverage of CNN and BBC was largely sanitised, the artists presented us with the bombing of civilian targets, blood, wounded children and destruction. Sudhir Tailang, in fact, drew a blood-stained Bush eating the world for breakfast. Ved Nayyar painted the hail of bombs and missiles and Gogi Saroj Pal a sea of blood.

In fact, it is the powerful centering of art on the human figure that allowed the artists to explore the various human angles of the war. Apoorva Desai explored the damage done to combatants and Iloosh Ahluwalia to innocent children, Jai Zharotia visualised the men behind the missles, Sidharth Subroto Kundu, the commercialisation of war culture through the toy trade and Yati Jaiswal the connection between imperial wars and the rush of multinationals to capture markets.

The range of expression was remarkable, with even the practitioners of abstract art being able to evoke the horror, chaos and damage of war through colours and textures. The exhibition that followed was well-attended, with people reacting spontaneously and even enthusiastically, judging from the reviews the exhibition received in various newspapers as far afield as Kozhikode in Kerala.

Child with War Games by Sidharth Subroto Kundu; acrylic on canvas; 36" x 36"; 2003.-

Even more heartening was the news from Kolkata and Kochi, where artists put up their own exhibitions condemning the U.S.-led invasion. Art for humanity as a theme has proved successful among our contemporary artists, young and old, alike.

THESE programmes played a vital role in the anti-war movement. First they allowed creative people to express themselves physically against the war. They rose above the condition of being mere spectators helplessly watching on television the savage attacks on Iraqi cities. Second, while the war was bound to pass - and it has done so even sooner than expected - the expression of the artists will remain as an indictment of the U.S.-led aggression just as Picasso's indictment of the Nazis and General Franco has survived the Second World War, Hitler's Germany and Franco's Spain. In fact, while Francisco Goya's anti-war works still attract hundreds of viewers, Chitta Prasad's anti-imperialist art has a museum dedicated to it in Prague surviving long after British colonialism in India died.

Pools of Blood by Gogi Saroj Pal; acrylic on canvas; 40" x 30"; 2003.-

Contemporary art is not only effective as a condemnation of acts of inhumanity whenever they are committed; it is part of the ongoing struggle against it. Each such work of art represents a strategic attack in the battle to defend humanity and culture, while the genre as a whole has a powerful role to play in speaking out the truth and in exposing the real interests behind imperialist wars and the massive barbarism involved in carrying their mean designs forward.

The war in Iraq has awakened India's artists to the importance of art and culture in contesting the barbarism imperialism represents. It has been both timely and effective in countering the propaganda of the global news channels and keeping us watchful of the threat we face from its boundless greed and constantly growing aggression.

At the same time, artists have shown themselves capable of taking even this extraordinary event in their stride and being able to express their feelings without breaking the ongoing flow of their expression in the process. This reflects their maturity and, no doubt, will make their protest that much more effective.

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