Fearless: contemporary South Asian art

Filling the space that makes up the Upper Asian gallery alongside the spacious foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) is ‘Fearless: contemporary South Asian art’, a multimedia exhibition of women artists from India and Pakistan. It is the first exhibition of its kind at the Gallery, as noted by Curator of Asian art, Natalie Seiz. Citing statistics of underrepresentation for women artists as compared to their male counterparts in South Asia, Seiz has brought together artists Shilpa Gupta, Reena Saini Kallat, Nalini Malani, Shahzia Sikander, Dayanita Singh and Adeela Suleman from across shifting borders and traditions to curate a sobering show that captures South Asian culture in dialogue with its cultural history.

Nalini Malani , Mother India: Transactions in the Construction of Pain, 2005, 5 channel video play, colour, sound, 05:00 min, dimensions variable. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales Contempo Group 2011 © Nalini Malani. Photoraph: AGNSW

The entrance into the exhibit is marked by a new iteration of Delhi-born artist Reena Saini Kallat’s Woven Chronicle (2018); sprawling across several metres of stark white gallery wall, a network of colourful rubber coated wiring is hand-knitted and strung in barbs together with electronic circuitry to form the disconcerting shape of an upside-down world map. Kallat references Australian-born Stuart McArthur’s ‘Universal Corrective Map of the World’ which flips the familiar north-up Mercator map projection on its head, putting Australia on top of the world. South-up maps have been used in cartographical history as tools of political protest against northern dominance, a geo-cultural phenomenon that abounds in India, Kallat’s place of origin. ‘All maps are distortions of sorts,’ Kallat states, ‘not just how we shape maps, but how maps shape our understanding of the world.’ The image of the world inverted sets an ominous tone for unassuming gallery goers venturing into ‘Fearless’.

Reena Saini Kallat, Woven Chronicle, 2018, installation view, circuit boards, speakers, electrical wires and fittings, sound component, dimensions variable. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Roger Pietri Fund and Asian Benefactors’ Fund 2018 © Reena Saini Kallat. Photograph: AGNSW, Mim Stirling

Around the corner, behind the visual cacophony of Woven Chronicle is Untitled (There is no border here) (2005-06) by Mumbai artist Shilpa Gupta. Its visual poetry expresses the anguish of displaced peoples divided by colonisers in historical reference to the Partition of India: in 1947, formerly British India was divided by religious demographic, resulting in the separate dominions of India and Pakistan. Gupta’s wall installation dreams of an undivided South Asia, united in kinship. Across from Gupta’s textual flag is Lahore-born artist Shahzia Sikander’s work The illustrated page, combining postmodernism with traditional Pakistani miniature painting.

Shilpa Gupta, Untitled (There is no border here), 2005-06, wall drawing with self-adhesive tape. Courtesy the artist

‘Fearless’ represents a decolonised South Asia – a reimagined world where colonial occupation never occurred as artists from beyond drawn borders are exhibited together within the same space. More importantly, it has provided this group of women artists with a platform to speak from: ‘It is not enough for feminist ideas to exist theoretically for society’s intelligentsia,’ says Seiz. ‘If its underlying principles do not actively inhabit everyday life, the limitations for women will continue.’

More than this, the Gallery has introduced South Asian culture and history to contemporary Western discourse. ‘Fearless’ acts as a force of recalibration as stylistic trends and differences between artists become apparent throughout the show, demystifying contemporary South Asia through a didactic method of curating.


Saira Krishan is an emerging arts writer based in Sydney.

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Until 13 January, 2019