Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  The heady art of Rummana Hussain

What would 14 artists, born between 1947 and 1957 in India, Pakistan, Europe and Canada, have in common? What if all 14 were women? A new art exhibition in Mumbai, In Order To Join: The Political In A Historic Moment, is based on the premise that some connections exist.

Why should women qualify as a category for curatorial or journalistic purposes? In any curatorial practice, as in life, men aren’t ever a category. Defying sound logic and sensitivity, and often owing to laziness, women as well as marginalized races and communities tend to get clumped into brackets.

This show, however, was a wonderful surprise. Much of my scepticism about the title and the idea behind it vanished, although I would still refer to it as a show of artists born between 1947 and 1957.

There is much that these women share conceptually. The primary stimuli for all of them are the political moments and social catastrophes around them—these shaped their feminist impulses. I don’t want to summarize the show further; go watch it, at Max Mueller Bhavan gallery and down the road from there, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), where it is a series of cleverly laid-out site-specific installations. The cheekiest piece is a black and white video, Hygiene, Swach, by N. Pushpamala, the most entertaining artist iconoclast of contemporary Indian art.

Here I want to revisit an artist whose last work, A Space For Healing (1999), is being showcased in India for the first time as part of this exhibition. Rummana Hussain may not be a familiar name for a new breed of art lovers and buyers. Most of her work has not been archived or preserved. Born and raised in Bengaluru, and a pioneering artist who practised for the most part of her life in Mumbai, Hussain died of cancer in 1999.

Hussain’s Living On The Margins, performed in 1995 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) garden in front of an audience, was one of the first contemporary performative works in India. Using two rows of red bricks, with electric-blue Robin dye powder between them, Hussain evoked the holy blue of Krishna, and the mundane womanly chore of dyeing clothes with Robin to make them whiter. It was an image that stayed with Swapnaa Tamhane, the show’s co-curator. Hussain took her performances to the US, while she underwent treatment for cancer, and towards the end of her life, stripped the material scale of her art to a point in which only her body and everyday objects remained—simultaneously making her politics more pronounced.

A Space For Healing is a room. Crimson hues wash over hospital stretchers adorned with thin brocade, arranged in columns on the floor. They contain medical tubes in varnished dull gold. A male voice hums in the background, in what seems like an incantation of medical procedures. On the walls, spears, knives and sickles are arranged in such a way that they resemble Urdu letters and seem to form literal compositions, but are actually functions of design.

This work was a culmination of Hussain’s active engagement with politics through her art, which began after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. She has said in interviews that the communal riots that erupted thereafter in Mumbai and many other parts of the country, made her intensely aware of her Muslim identity. Since then, her works became performative, puncturing and questioning notions of identity and Muslim-ness. Today’s artists, like Shilpa Gupta and Riyas Komu and others, have consciously or unconsciously inherited Hussain’s political kiln and continue to make Indian contemporary art vibrantly political.

Rummana Hussain reminds me again that leisure or entertainment is not the only reason art should exist.

Political Animals is a fortnightly column on the intersection of culture and politics.

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