The democratic illusion3 min read . Updated: 13 Mar 2014, 08:47 PM IST
An exhibition asks who gets to participate in democracy and who is shut out
Lado Sarai in south Delhi is an odd amalgam of the fusty and the fresh, the shiny and the rusting and rudimentary, the working classes and those who can lavish large sums on small works of art.
Even among the many art galleries, it’s a mixed bag—those that offer bourgeois living room staples (religious statuary and bad paintings), and those that offer shards from a bewildering future.
So, it’s appropriate that Art And Aesthetic, one of Lado Sarai’s ubiquitous small galleries, can be found up a flight of stairs opposite a showroom that sells wooden flooring and laminate. Along with Art Konsult, a bright, expansive gallery nearby, Art And Aesthetic is hosting an international show titled Democracy: Possibilities And Impossibilities, featuring 20 artists from The Netherlands, Austria, Iran, Iraq and India, among other countries. No doubt more than one of the artists lays claim to more than one of the countries. It’s the new world order, or summit as the Dutch artist Jonas Staal might put it.
Staal, one of the artists included in the show, began his New World Summit in 2012 as a platform to bring together those excluded by democracy as practised in the world. Representatives from several so-called blacklisted organizations, those some governments might call terrorists, were invited to the first summit in Berlin, Germany. Terrorism—how it is defined and who gets to define it— is a preoccupation of the exhibition, curated by the Kolkata-based Amit Mukhopadhyay.
In a short essay to accompany the exhibition, Mukhopadhyay writes, quoting the literary theorist Fredric Jameson, of the “new global people, who are flowing ‘across, around and over territorial boundaries’" so that “it becomes increasingly difficult today to grasp the people by its traditional character". Globalization and migration, then, complicate what it means to be a citizen, what it means to participate in democracy.
Terror, too, is a globalized phenomenon. The men responsible for the 7 July 2005 suicide bombings in London, for instance, were British citizens, born to immigrant parents but disenfranchised from Britain, their homeland, in a way their parents were not. And what to make of global jihad? Of men born in Saudi Arabia fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir? Or of men born in Britain fighting in Syria?
And, as we talk of terrorists and terror, what about state terror? In Sanchayan Ghosh’s installation you can hear snatches of separate conversations between students from Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East, trying to explain to classmates and professors the realities of their lives. Perhaps, as they stumble for words and understanding, they’re trying to explain their lives to themselves. One young Kashmiri girl says she “feels exploited by both the army and the militants". Others talk uneasily about the media’s role, or about the irony of having to rely for solutions on people for whom terror is an industry, for whom the terror industry provides a job.
Democracy as we know it, all the work (too much to discuss in this small space) in the show suggests, is still exclusive; people find themselves scratching around at the margins looking for representation, looking for an opportunity to speak. How, for instance, asks the Palestinian artist Shadi Alzaqzouq, can young Muslims be reconciled to both their religious and cultural heritage and their self-identification with a subculture like punk? His mohawked and hijabed woman is an arresting, if literal, image. How do you belong, the painting asks, when you don’t belong? It’s a question Palestinians are forced to ask themselves daily.
The art on show at Art Konsult and Art And Aesthetic is perhaps of uneven quality but the questions it raises are important. In India, a country hinged together on shared difference, inclusion and exclusion is a continual struggle, one perhaps we are still too wary to face head on.
Democracy: Possibilities And Impossibilities is on till 21 March, 11am-7pm (Sunday by appointment), at Art Konsult, F-209, Old MB Road, Lado Sarai (65683083); and Art And Aesthetic, F-213/A, First floor, Old MB Road, Lado Sarai, Delhi (41587277).