Beyond the barbed wire

A solo show by Reena Saini Kallat on border conflict and potential resolution draws on symbols like national birds and animals


A hybrid of Mexico’s northern crested caracara and the US’ bald eagle.
A hybrid of Mexico’s northern crested caracara and the US’ bald eagle.

From a distance, some of the works in artist Reena Saini Kallat’s new show, Hyphenated Lives, look like anatomical drawings of fantastical creatures: a hybrid of an Irish red deer and a lion, the UK’s national animal; a Serbian grey wolf and a Croatian pine marten; and an Indian peacock and a Bangladeshi doyel or Oriental Magpie-Robin. Barbed wire runs through each of the pieces; sometimes as a seam where the animals have been stitched together and sometimes as a perch on which they balance.

The choice of animals is far from accidental. Each one is a symbol—the national animal or bird, or a species that is native to a country.

“As an artist, you are always poetically reimagining the world,” says Kallat.

In Hyphenated Lives, which will open at Gallery Chemould this weekend, Kallat tries to reimagine the world through the lens of potential reconciliation, using mediums like gouache, charcoal, ink and electric wire on paper. The birds, animals and plants in this show are from countries that have a history of border conflict—India-Pakistan, Ireland-UK, Israel-Palestine, Mexico-US, Serbia-Croatia.

By merging them into hybrids—like the Cob-ger, which has the upper body of Pakistan’s national reptile, the mugger crocodile, and the tail of a king cobra snake found on the subcontinent—Kallat conveys her hope for a peaceful coexistence.

“It’s a reflective exhibition. I am not making any claims, but perhaps presenting it as a proposition for the future,” she says.

Kallat explains that the “hyphens” in this show are intended to be like glue to bring the countries closer, and to point out that there can be multiple points of view on a subject. She cites two examples to make the point: India’s “detention” in May of a pigeon suspected to be part of a Pakistani spying mission, and the shooting down of a China-made drone by Pakistani forces on suspicion that it was spying for India, in July. These, she believes, illustrate that we all come with baggage, and highlight the need to make room for the others’ point of view.

Though Kallat takes a global view of border conflict in the exhibition, many of the artworks—such as Half Oxygen, Anatomy Of Distance and Siamese Trees, which were also part of the India Art Fair in the Capital in January—are about Partition and relations between India and Pakistan.

In Half Oxygen, for example, the countries are represented by their national trees—the banyan for India, and the deodar for Pakistan. The trees are “embroidered” on to a large ring with electrical wire—a recurring medium and motif in Kallat’s art, the electrical cables capture the duality of wires as a mode of communication enabling free flow of ideas and cables that can morph into barbed wire, cutting off connections. Each tree in the artwork is created inside a human lung, to show how we as a species are affecting all the relationships around us as we try to control natural resources and appropriate animals, birds and plants.

“National symbols unite people from a certain place. Ironically, they also create areas of contestation (as people align themselves with one symbol over another),” says Kallat.

Hyphenated Lives will be on show from 12 September-10 October, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Gallery Chemould, Third floor, Queens Mansion, G Talwatkar Marg, Fort. For details, visit www.gallerychemould.com

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