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ArteEast Exclusive Interview: Osmancan Yerebakan Interviews Sumeshwar Sharma

Posted: Apr 05, 2017

In February, Aicon Gallery opened its doors for Seed for History and Form—Tebhaga, a group exhibition organized by Sumesh Sharma, presenting works by a roster of international artists. The exhibition includes works by Amadou Badiane, Richard Bartholomew, Jyoti Bhatt, Biren De, Haren Das, Aurélien Froment, Laxma Goud, Somnath Hore, M. F. Husain, Mohammad Omar Khalil, Rachid Koraïchi, Mary and Roop Krishna, Aurélien Mole, Somnath Mukherjee, Bita Razavi, Krishna Reddy, Armanath Sehgal, and Michael Kelly Williams.

Sumesh, who is the co-founder of Bombay-based curatorial initiative Clark House, joins the exhibition with an installation dedicated to a Satyr sculpture he created utilizing aluminum from old cars used to their maximum in Europe and now disposed in Senegal. I had the chance to interview Sumesh about the exhibition, the challenges of organizing a survey exhibition, and the socio-political narrative behind his Satyr sculpture.

Osman Can Yerebakan: Could you discuss how Seed for History and Form—Tebhaga came about?

Sumesh Sharma: Seed of History and Form is an exhibition that explores contexts for a vocabulary, this is a vocabulary of aesthetics, we inquire into an origin that is not linear but rather lateral, circular and parallel; not of histories following each other but considerations in art history that comment on the movements of self-determination, anti-colonial renaissances of language,  theatre,  art and pedagogy. We often treat these question in the format of a survey exhibition. This is a failed format as it imagines, for example, India was the only country grappling with colonization and had a multifaceted movement of self-determination that engulfed cultural life.  This is untrue, in fact many countries preceded India in achieving independence though varied struggles.  A decade after India’s independence, France had begun to discuss its withdrawal from Africa. Leopold Sedar Senghor arose to be a leader of a utopia called the Negritude and he was opposed by Cheikh Anta Diop. Senegal became independent in 1959, and it was soon a member of the non-aligned movement. Senghor became its ideologue, but the movement did not deal with the ideological questioning of a position that civilization was received from Europe, its centrism of modernism arose from the so the called west.

“As long the question of development is pertinent,  modernism is an existent aspiration,” said Iftikhar Dadi.  I quote the artist/art historian here, to expand from this reality to go back to Cheikh Anta Diop,  who began to look at the origins of philosophy and spirituality in the history of Africa.  For example, he described India as Ethiopia Oriental, and Gautama Buddha of being an African savant who preached in India.  Seed of History and Form therefore, I must say, tries to renegotiate India’s debt to Africa in the origin of form and aesthetic. There is no empirical data to speculate on, but Asilah, a fishing village in Morocco in 1979 became the centre of a print workshop where Bob Blackburn brought together Krishna Reddy,  Michael Kelly Williams and Mohammed Omar Khalil. They were continuing associations that they held as teacher and students from New York,  but in this Berber city, the idea of Black identity through the workshop emerged challenging notions of patronage and artist networks that exist in many successes in a world where these associations are much more urgent.

Tebhaga is a one third of a movement in the Bengal state of India where tillers asked for their right to their produce from the landlords, diminishing the landlords claim to the rent, and this movement was spearheaded by artists. The movements followed the the Bengal Famine that occurred just as India transitioned into independence. Krishna Reddy travelled to North Bengal and Bihar to help the sick and dispose the bodies of the thousands dead,  somewhere he learnt his anatomy there and became a sculptor, that was then etched into the memorable Paris demonstrators in 1968, a multi-viscosity print that deliberated on the events of May ’68 in France.

OCY: The source of the aluminum you use conveys strong commentary on labor and inequality. What does material mean to you as an artist considering the current unfair production methods used for commerce?

SS: I made this satyr using aluminum from old cars that find themselves in Senegal after they are used for a few years past their lives in Europe. They are used to make marmites and vessels to cook. The process is dangerous because of the use of mercury which leads to cancers. The satyr is an 18th century terra-cotta model found in Geneva but of Italian origin. I bought it for 3 Swiss Francs in the flea market. It comments on the value of change in materiality and geography, much what happens in Francafrique export of culture in return of exploitation. The two founders are from a Senegalese community that is considered outcast, and in India we consider blacksmiths outcastes and untouchables too.

Artists often make use of traditional formats of foundries and bronze casting. In fact India and Africa have the oldest traditions of lost wax casting, but often one encounters that famous artists from the subcontinent choose founders in Italy rather than the ones that may need the their contribution of better wages and better conditions of work. But I have come across cases where young graduates from art schools suffer from lung diseases and tumors after working in fiber glass units where resin sculptures are made, sculptures that are deemed conceptual found objects by faulting application of the tenets of conceptual art and then shown in biennales and museum collections.  The artist factory can be easily embedded into the box of formulas that then define conceptual art. These have been theorized by art historians who fail to understand the process of making art. They make comical choices that reflect fads and trends.

Conceptual art and its working practices need to be expanded and understood and this can happen if we go away with the arrogance and the compelling cudgel of referencing a famous artist or philosopher.  Artists should enter existent formats of industrial production and give the artisan the right to authorship along with the artist rather than give such a undue advantage to authorship. I think the current attitude is completely feudal and exploitative and only reveals a can of class , caste and race biases.

OCY: Many artists deal with Post-Colonialism in their works. What is your approach to the subject within the contemporary dialogue in general?

SS: Are we in the post-Colonial? The state that most freed colonies inherited is the format put in place by the colonials. There are movements of self-determination across the world,  the Nagas, the Roghingyas, the Sahrawis, the Kurds, the Baloch and many other and still colonized by so called post-colonized people like us. The post-colonial Indian does not feel much for the the presently colonized West African,  in fact India is in the scramble for the neo-colonization of Africa, finding ways to exploit its economy.

Therefore, a man like Somnath Mukherjee, who has selflessly given to Senegal and received much more from the people of Dakar in the last three decades is not a celebrated figure in India. They would rather celebrate a shrew businessman.  My interview might come across as a scathing criticism of Europe,  but its is more a critique of a Centric view of aesthetics.  I am much more critical of Indians who indulge in the post-colonial and omit the silent apartheid that exists in India. The system of caste still discriminates against a silent majority of untouchables, tribals and lower castes, who do not see themselves in popular cinema better known as Bollywood, nor do they find themselves invited to panel discussion about themselves or become participants in biennales, or documents and museum survey shows. Firstly, there is the intermediary in the dialogue which could be the curator like me or the art historian that is trying to contextualize them or the fly by night visiting curator who cannot grapple with the layers of a society like India and then depends on the infrastructure of the elite, of people who speak English, and can quote like him philosophers on post-modernity. The result is a comic spectrum of misinformation. We haven’t even traversed the curb in the subaltern turn.

OCY: What is your interpretation of Satyr as a 21st century figure?

SS: I am the Satyr, but for me the Satyr is a man that may not display the misogynist stereotypes men force upon themselves. When self-help books ask men to explore the feminine side, I wonder somewhere, aren’t we women? If we were to dance in joy or wear multicolored clothes and jewelry  are we fruitcakes?  Can we release ourselves beyond the stereotypes that define sexuality? The liberation of men from the ideas of pride and ego are urgent; only then can we find a more liberal, tolerant and less violent society. This will not happen by vilifying the oriental Middle Eastern, South Asian or Black man. The recent elections in America has just proved otherwise; misogyny is a deep rooted attribute to a world we live in, one that is an endless sexual wasteland.

A temple in Bombay dedicated to Khandoba—a deity to an untouchable community the Mahars—where men dance and apply turmeric yellow powder to each other,  much to the chagrin of caste Hindus,  but these men are liberated from the desperate frustrated lives middle class men live in India, a life defined by morals designed by the departing colonial. The Satyr is very non-European, and thus Europe obsesses over him in Europe: in Paris at Les Archives all the murals are about the Satyr.  In fact in a survey show sometimes the tendency to self-exoticise by Indian artists may arise from the expectation of the viewer to witness the spectacle. I make it easier; I exoticise the Satyr, and the effect is immediate. You must remember I grew up in the south of France, which is so racially and culturally explosive: the Satyr is a self portrait.

OCY: Lately, we have witnessed the momentum conservatism has gained in the West. The most aggressive result is, for sure, the election of Trump. What do you think about the role of the artist in such landscape?

SS: Many artists are to blame for this conservatism.  This began in India in the last decade, Viktor Orban will soon celebrate a decade in power in Hungary.  We still seek patronage from rich people who at times are financing these regimes. We exploit our assistants and pay less and then sell at the gallery for much more. The resentment against an elite art system is growing, many young artists see no future or place for themselves in a system that has entrapped itself into a format of elite circles and cliques.  If we are not self reflective and do the same what conservatives are doing onto larger swathes of populations they rule, then what is the point of the protest? The left—a political gathering I belong to and most artists unfailing adhere to—is failing in representing the voice of disenchantment. I work at the Clark House Initiative in Bombay and I come from relative privilege, even though my family is in dire financial constraints,  but from the beginning of the Clark House which today is an artist union we knew we had to dismantle the pillars of entitlement. This is a difficult exercise and a personal task, and it begins from way within yourself. To end the nightmare we are presently living in think close and around and never give in.