India Meets Pakistan at Venice Biennale to Confront History

Installation views, My East is Your West, 2015, Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy Sutton PR

Installation views, My East is Your West, 2015, an exhibition that unites the historically conflicting nations of India and Pakistan at the Venice Biennale. Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy Sutton PR


Exhibition at Venice Biennale investigates the conflict between India and Pakistan, two mortal enemies with common cultural cartography


Installation view, My East is Your West, 2015, an exhibition engendered by the history of India and Pakistan. Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy Sutton PR

VENICE, ITALY— It is a well-known fact that the relationship between India and Pakistan is a tensed one. For years, both countries have been at loggerheads on the issues of terrorism, nuclear power, and territorial infractions. This is one reason it is so refreshing to see the two countries collaborating on an art project.

At the 56th International Art Exhibition –Venice Biennale is a landmark exhibition that unites, for the first time at the Biennale, the historically conflicting nations of India and Pakistan. Since it opened, the exhibition has been part of the major discussion at the Venice Biennale on how art brings enemies together. Titled My East is Your West, the exhibition brings together two artists from both countries: Shilpa Gupta (Mumbai) and Rashid Rana (Lahore). Gupta lives and works in Mumbai, India, where she studied sculpture at the Sir J. J. School of Fine Arts from 1992 to 1997, while Rana, born in Lahore, lives and works Pakistan. He trained as a painter at the National College of Arts in Lahore (Pakistan) and the Massachusetts College of Fine Arts in Boston.

Gupta and Rana present a new series of works at the Palazzo Benzon situated in the center of Venice on the Grand Canal. Since neither India nor Pakistan has a permanent national pavilion in Venice, this exhibition is a unique opportunity for South Asia artists to insert themselves into a dialogue through the arts, while representing the Indian subcontinent as one region.

My East is Your West was engendered by the desire to disentangle and create a clear perspective of the complex climate of historical relations between South Asia’s nation-states which have become major sources of conflict in recent times. The main objective of the exhibition is to show that the region has a shared cultural cartography that can be explored for peace.

Informed by a light installation by Shilpa Gupta, the works in the My East is Your West explore different media to present the shared experiences of South Asia’s countries. Shilpa Gupta’s new series of works attempts to address some of the issues of security, nuclear power and border control.

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They are the result of over four years of ongoing research in the India-Bangladesh borderlands and the world’s longest security barrier  between two nation-states currently in construction. Exploring installation, video, photography, drawings, text-based pieces and performance Gupta draws attention to the fact that, in spite of all the conflicts, what is of utmost importance is peace and good relationship especially since both nations have a common cultural cartography.

Like Gupta, Rashid Rana furthers the discourse on shared experience with her work. In an immersive setting across five rooms, she investigates the conception of presence, temporality and location as collective experience, across digital printmaking, video and installation. A live stream video work, produced in collaboration with the Lahore Biennale Foundation helped communicate her concept of shared experience even better. In the video installation, viewers are transported from Venice to Lahore and vice versa.

Although unique in their artistic approach, both artists expressed common thoughts about   how history has continued to inform the conflict between the two countries. The history which transcends antiquity, colonial era modernity and cosmopolitan shows how the past continues to shape the present and can influence future relationship between the two nations entangled in conflict. While conscious of the conflict provoked by history, Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana did not lose sight of the entangled realities of the Indian subcontinent. To actualize their thoughts, they developed a material aesthetic that surveys the potential of a common region, separate from the state and its model.

My East is Your West was commissioned by The Gujral Foundation, a  non-profit trust dedicated to supporting contemporary cultural engagements in the areas of art, design and culture in the Indian subcontinent. Founded in 2008 by Mohit and Feroze Gujral, son and daughter-in-law of renowned Indian Modernist artist, Satish Gujral, the Foundation has worked with international institutions and museums to bring attention to works of artists in the Indian subcontinent. In 2012, for instance, the Foundation   arranged the loan of ‘Aspinwall’, the primary location of the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2012 and 2014.  It also supported South Asian artists at the 8thBerlin Biennale. These are just a few of what The Gujral Foundation has been doing to insert Asian art in global art discourse. As more South Asian artists continue to make incursion into Western metropolises, The Gujral Foundation has continued to foster a range of projects steadily expanding its reach with the world of contemporary art.

In addition to My East is Your West, Gupta and Rana alongside Naeem Mohaiemen, who is also exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, participated in an artist talk at the Palazzo Benzon. The conversation which was titled Imagined Cartographies, allowed an insight into practice and contemporary art in South Asia. The talk was moderated by Curatorial Advisors for the project, Natasha Ginwala and Martina Mazzotta.

My East is Your West shows how art can effectively be used to bridge historical gaps that have continued to inform issues in contemporary times. The objective of the two artists is not just to reveal the fallacies and fault lines inherent in those histories, but also provide a way for people to see that beyond all the differences that have been propagated over time by colonialists and those who have explored history for their own political advantage, India and Pakistan have shared cartography that can be better explored for peaceful relationship. Like the artists, peace can always be achieved through deeper understanding of shared experience.

Installation view of My East is Your West, 2015, featuring works by Shilpa Gupta (Mumbai) and Rashid Rana who brought together the history of India and Pakistan. Photo: Mark Blower. Image courtesy Sutton PR

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