2010 begins in earnest at the Saatchi Gallery with the opening of The Empire Strikes Back - Indian Art Today. Kate Weir's impressed.
For someone whose knowledge of Indian politics is hinged on some skimmed over parts of A Suitable Boy and a viewing of Ghandi, I was worried that the Saatchi Gallery’s exhibition of contemporary Indian art, The Empire Strikes Back, might be over my head. As it turns out, the show is an all-encompassing, enlightening trip through the sweeping climes of the fascinating sub-continent.
With over 40 artists represented – from Mumbai through Lahore and ex-pat Indian artists working in the US and South Korea – the show gives a platform to the witnesses of a country in constant flux and occasional turmoil.
These artists possess more of MIA’s mealy-mouthed neon swagger than the demure filigree and portraiture characteristic of London’s existing Indian art 'scene'. As a result, the work chosen is by turns shocking, eye-opening and exquisite.
The exhibition as a whole captures not only the post-colonial psyche of an ancient yet fledgling nation, but the chaotic thrum of slum-fringed cities. There's kinetic sculptures of burnt mattresses slumping up and down like blackened lungs (Tallur LN), battered old Xerox machines tirelessly copying only their rudimentary and pointless functions (Sakshi Gupta) and salvation-army style sculptures of slum kids (Jitish Kallat’s monumental Eruda).
The food for thought here is like India’s much-vaunted cuisine: subtle, complex and at times, spicy enough to knock your socks off. Sexuality and religion, for example, are fused to scintillating and uncanny effect in Chitra Ganesh’s comic book drawings and ‘twisted’ self-portraits. Volatile topics like disputed territories, war and national identity feature prominently in many of the works; including Huma Mulji’s’s hilarious sculptures involving taxidermy camels stuffed into suitcases (Arabian Delight), a Ghandi speech compiled of bone-shaped alphabets (Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice 2) and Jaishri Abichandani’s swarovski-encrusted whips spelling the Arabic phrase “Allah O Akbar”. It's a gaudy middle finger to the clumsy cultural integration ‘encouraged’ by the Iraq War and the way in which justice can so often get lost in translation.
From the cosmopolitan gaudiness of the capital to the plight of poor country labourers, every facet of this sprawling culture is explored through all manner of different methods: pictures of hanging pots, whale hearts slathered in bindis, and neon striplights spelling out some of the ninety nine names of God.
But it's whilst reading the two sides of Jitish Kallat’s tragic lenticular exploration of India’s staggering wealth divide (Death of Distance) that I realise the crux of the show. Given that this is a country which, for better or worse, has a history intertwined with our own, we know startlingly little about the opinions and mindsets within the world’s largest democracy. The Empire Strikes Back looks set to change that. It’s modern art, but not as we know it: imagery in a strictly localised dialect, which offers a heart-warmingly honest and erudite depiction of an India for the 21st Century.
Empire Strikes back - Indian Art Today' is at the Saatchi Gallery until 7th May 2010.Image credit: Jitish Kallat, Public Notice 2, 2007, 4,479 fibreglass sculptures, dimensions variable.