By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Assistant to the Editor
The aesthetic and the political dovetail seamlessly at the Smart Museum’s temporary exhibit, “Sahmat: Art and Activisim in India since 1989.”
The show, on display since Feb. 14 and through June 9 at the Smart, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., houses the artwork and recorded performances of those affiliated with the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust — known by its acronym, SAHMAT — a Dehli-based creative collective comprising intellectuals, artists and activists.
The group’s first U.S. retrospective is curated by photographer Ram Rahman, a SAHMAT co-founder and Jessica Moss, the museum’s associate curator of contemporary art.
Both SAHMAT and its exhibit begin with the 1989 death of communist poet and playwright Safdar Hashmi. Visitors to the show are immediately confronted, upon entering, with a photograph by Rahman of Hashmi’s casket, draped in a hammer-and-sickle flag, while engulfed by a mourning crowd.
Rahman estimates that, following Hashmi’s death, 150 people including himself were “just sort of fleshing out ideas of how [we] respond to this awful event which has happened, how [we] make something positive out of it.”
Since its founding, SAHMAT has addressed issues of tolerance and co-existence in a contemporary India at times marred by sectarian strife and struggle.
“Our whole attempt actually has been to contextualize art practice within the social and the political,” Rahman says.
Though the work on display at the Smart Museum exhibit features art by what Rahman estimates are 200 artists along with performance works by another 30, the co-curator says the group holds symposia and has its own publications, “which are all tied in, actually, to [its] art projects.”
One prominently displayed project is the group’s 1995 “Postcards for Ghandi.” Six hundred postcards by six artists — one hundred by each — were exhibited at six shows and sold for 1000 rupies each. An additional 100,000 copies of the postcards were sold to the public.
The project, according to Rahman, was inspired by Ghandi’s “own use of the postcard,” through which many of his correspondences took place.
One postcard on display features a photograph shot by Rahman of a man carrying a large placard of Gandhi’s head, while another shows a diptych with an in-focus image of a Gandhi statue dated 1942 to the left of a blurry one dated 1995.
“Different artists responded very differently to basically express their own feelings of what was the relevance of Gandhi or what was the importance of his kind of moral idealism in the political sphere,” Rahman said.
Another piece, “Home/Nation,” was done in the wake of the bombing of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, in Northern India, a landmark event in the country’s history of Muslim-Hindu tensions.
Following the bombing, which also resulted in riots, Rummana Hussain went into hiding and subsequently found out she had cancer. She also learned later that her maid had AIDS.
The piece addresses gender and religion, visually representing Islam, women and, Rahman says, “the struggle for survival.” It features a horizontally placed succession of photos depicting fruit, Islamic architecture and mouths — which allude to the maid’s sores, according to Rahman.
The piece is “very much about of the assault on the feminine and the assault on the mosque, which she saw as the assertion of an aggressive masculinity,” Rahman said.
Visitors who visit the entire exhibit are eventually led to a room where SAHMAT performances are projected against a wall, meant to recreate the tents that are put up at the Safdar Hashmi memorial event held every Jan. 1, according to co-curator Jessica Moss.
Moss said she “wanted to do something that acknowledges the importance of the performance arts to SAHMAT.”
Ultimately, SAHMAT’s work at the Smart Museum shows the group engages a wide range of creatives in what is a highly diverse country.
The “core group of the collective is quite small, but the thing is that our network is very large, and whenever we do projects, everyone comes together,” Rahman says. “And so the reach of the collective is quite big.”