Bad neighbours India and Pakistan to share Venice Biennale exhibit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 10:48pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 February, 2015, 5:35pm


Where politicians and diplomats have failed, artists hope to succeed. Pakistan and India are to be united at the 56th Venice Biennale this year when a contemporary artist from each nation will share an exhibition area, in an initiative aimed at bringing the feuding neighbours closer together.

The show, My East is Your West, is funded by a private Indian philanthropic organisation.

The respective governments, which have been exchanging intermittent artillery fire and verbal barbs, are not involved.

"We just thought, let's stop complaining about what others should be doing, let's just do our best and say that from a common past and a divided present, we would like a peaceful future," says Feroze Gujral, co-founder of the Gujral Foundation.

The two artists are stars of the burgeoning contemporary art scenes in their own countries.

Mumbai-based Shilpa Gupta has exhibited at the Tate Modern, the Serpentine Gallery and the Guggenheim. Rashid Rana, who lives and works in Lahore, is considered one of the most important current Pakistani artists.

"This is something coming from the art world. We have just had [Barack] Obama in Delhi watching a huge parade of weapons and talking about nuclear power. So it's wonderful to have this unofficial dream of peace," Gupta says.

India and Pakistan were divided in 1947 when Britain was forced to give up its South Asian empire. The two nuclear powers have fought three major wars since and have skirmished, militarily and diplomatically, continually. A nascent peace process has been frozen since 2008 after Pakistan-based militants attacked India's commercial capital, Mumbai.

At least 14 million people were displaced in the partition of the two countries 68 years ago as Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs headed to India. Up to a million were killed in mob violence. "Partition hasn't really been addressed at all in either nation," says Gupta, whose previous work has investigated ideas of nationhood and frontiers.

Gujral says this shared history was one reason for her decision to organise the joint show in Venice. Her father-in-law, Satish Gujral, one of India's most important artists of recent decades, was born in Jhelum, in modern Pakistan, and fled to India in 1947. "His losses were irreplaceable … so this is a special project. There is never any healing but there can be a celebration, a cultural conversation, that can cross borders," she says.

India exhibited at the Venice Biennale for the first time in 2011. Pakistan last did in 1956.

That artists and patrons should pick up where officials have failed is less surprising than it may seem to outsiders. Despite poverty, political instability and sometimes violence, artists from South Asia are making a name for themselves, attracting interest from international buyers, curators and museum directors.

The recent India Art Fair, now in its seventh year, attracted artists and dealers from across the world, all keen to get a slice of the still booming Indian market. British and European artists have proved popular among India's newly wealthy art collectors, although bureaucratic restrictions mean some gallery owners prefer to bring works to show rather than sell.

This year's event, with 85 galleries, was more focused on local artists and those in smaller towns beyond India's sprawling cities.

Rana, who will share the Venice Biennale exhibition area with Gupta, says the upcoming exhibition is more about the South Asian region as a whole rather than just the complex relationship between India and Pakistan. "I am interested in messing with time and location … As artists we can defy these borders," Rana says.

The venture has been greeted with some scepticism. Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary of India, says cultural initiatives could help "form a pool of public opinion that could help improve relations between states, but little more". He adds: "It has some value, but in terms of true impact on policy it is less than marginal."

Guardian News & Media