Football, to me, represents the marginalized—a neglected sport in India, its players unknown and unrecognized, and largely without patronage from the state. On the flip side, the sport best represents the movement of civilians on earth—the obvious physical movement of limbs, and also movement in the sense of civil protest or resistance because it is patronized by the marginalized in this part of the world.
Football and football players have been metaphors in my art since 2007. That year, during Bush’s war on Iraq, the Iraqi football team became the Asian champions. The news immediately caught my attention. They were a team that stayed outside Iraq and played for the country—they were Iraq’s exiled heroes. It got me thinking about stereotypes of the Arab and Muslim world and I decided to track their movements.
Tackling Iraq: (clockwise from above) Last Pass in wood; Oil Massage in wood; War Hero in acrylic, inspired by Ahmad Shah Masoud; and Komu at his studio in Borivali, Mumbai (Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint).
In my new works—two series of sculpture pieces titled Camel Clichés and Oil Massage, and a series of photographs and paintings called Occupation Stories —the football metaphor goes a step further and encompasses deeper issues of identity, death and memory. These works, done in the last six or seven months in Mumbai, are for a show on contemporary Indian art at the Gemeente Museum, the Hague.
My first tryst with the Iraqi team was in late 2007. It was a tournament in Dubai, and they were one of the teams. In their qualifying matches against China and Australia, the stadium was full of Iraqi boys cheering for their team. They represented an Iraq that we are not aware of. I was like a press photographer, following and capturing them on the field and in their dressing rooms.
It wasn’t difficult to break in. When I said I was Indian, they became very friendly. I was particularly close to Younis Mahmoud, the captain.
For the new show, I dug out some of the black and white close-ups I had taken of Younis and superimposed a map of America on different parts of his face for a group of photographs that makes one artwork when viewed together. I am still in touch with Younis and some of the other players, mostly on the phone, and many ideas formed through our discussions in the last year have crystallized in the works for this show.
The sculptures, mostly wood and metal, are made of seemingly disparate, independent entities, but viewed together, reflect the macro reality of most of the Arab world. Camel Cliche II, for example has a large (about nine and a half feet) sinewy footballer’s body disjointed in the middle. Between the torso and the legs, I place a metal barrel and on top of that is a wooden camel. The work projects some of the problems that ail West Asia today—America’s greed for its oil, the marginalization of its talent and the stereotyped images the world has of that part of the world. Oil Massage, another sculpture, addresses similar issues.
The works in which I tackle something entirely new are War Hero , a painting, and Last Pass , a wood sculpture. In the last couple of months, especially after terror hit home in Mumbai, I have been preoccupied with the idea of transition of the dead to the other world—the phase beyond death which is nurtured by memory and supernatural beliefs. The painting in question is that of Ahmad Shah Masoud, the Afghan national hero who was instrumental in driving the Soviet army out of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. A staunch opponent of the Taliban, Masoud was murdered two days prior to the World Trade Center attacks. I am doing different kinds of portraits of Masoud.
Last Pass is more surreal, and haunting. The biggest work in the show, most of it is a wooden coffin balanced on an athletic body (a footballer’s body). The present is carrying the burden of the dead, and the future is nowhere in sight.
Riyas Komu is a Mumbai-based artist whose new works are going to be displayed at the show India: New Giants at Gemeente Museum, the Hague, Netherlands, from 28 March-21 June.
As told to Sanjukta Sharma
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