2.22 / Review

Roots in the Air, Branches Below

By Matthew Harrison Tedford July 31, 2011

Let’s start with the basics: non-Indian, Urbana, Illinois native Nina Paley’s 2008 animated film Sita Sings the Blues was the alpha and omega of my knowledge of contemporary Indian art. Posing a threat to this ignorance about the art of one-sixth of the world’s population is the San Jose Museum of Art’s Roots in the Air, Branches Below: Modern and Contemporary Art from India. My ignorance, however, served me well there. I was able to approach the exhibition free of preconceived notions of the genre, not even sure of whether a coherent genre existed or not.

To my pleasure, I found that the exhibition offers its audience no such “Indian aesthetic.” This is not to say that one who ignores the wall text and press materials will not know that she is viewing an Indian art exhibit. Many of the works employ recognizably Indian and Hindu symbology, but just as many do not. The gallery devoted to contemporary works displays a dizzying array of bright colors and could just as easily have been an exhibit on Pop Art. A standout piece is Valay Shende’s 2007 untitled sculpture. The statue is of a man who is completely covered in faux-leopard skin and wielding a copper rifle while standing upon a copper lotus-flower pedestal. Though the Indian influences are clear in this setting, in another, I would not be surprised to find the name Jeff Koons attached to it. Potentially representing either an Indian revolutionary or a member of a British hunting expedition, this work reflects India’s torrid colonial history. But the process of revealing this history occurs through an unraveling of the context, not through a reliance on a style that, as with any style, has the potential to over determine the form of the works.

Alexis Kersey’s Lucky, Lucky, Lucky (2008) bears resemblance to a typical ecclesiastical painting of baby Jesus, his mother, and his friend John. The matriarch of this painting, however, wears an Indian sari, and one of the two boys is in fact a girl, who is cutting her own arm with a knife. Save the woman’s dress, there is nothing to suggest that these subjects are Indian, Jewish, or the bizarre Europeanization of Jews common throughout art history. Visually, they exist in Limbo, as is emphasized by a skin condition that afflicts all three bodies and leaves them variously white and tan. It was only upon returning home that I, curious about Kersey’s seemingly un-Hindi name, found that the artist was born and raised and currently lives in India, but is the daughter of Britons. Like Shende’s sculpture, this painting demonstrates the dual British-Hindi nature of the country, but also of the artist.

Valay Shende. Untitled, 2007; fiberglass, frabic, and copper; 66 x 32 x 32 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the collection of Dipti and Rakesh Mathur. Photo: Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai.

Pors and Rao. The Uncle Phone, 2004; plastic, metal, and electrical; 4 x 6 x 78 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the San Jose Museum of Art. Photo: Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

There are also works that show no obvious sign of engagement with uniquely Indian concerns. In fact, many of the works address universal issues of humanity. Aparna Rao and Soren Pors’ The Uncle Phone (2004) is a six-and-a-half-foot long, fully functioning rotary telephone. With the receiver on one end and the dial on the other, the sculpture-cum-phone illustrates the inherent complication that inhabits all human communication. The information entropy that is apparent in the children’s game telephone does not only arise from multiple interactions. As The Uncle Phone suggests, this data loss is just as much a product of an individual’s own interpretations and dictations. Nonetheless, when taken as a whole, the gallery projects a sense of the politics and history of the nation.

Jehangir Sabavala. Marine Encounter, 1962; oil on canvas; 28 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the San Jose Museum of Art. Photo: Sotheby's, Inc.

The gallery dedicated to modern art after India’s independence shows an equal amount of European influence, but it appears to be more artistic and continental and less overtly political and British. Though colonial subject matter is still present, it is less conspicuous. This is most clear in several of recently deceased Maqbool Fida Husain’s cubist and Picasso-esque paintings. The purple links from a Google search suggest that I once knew about Husain and his work, but still Sita was the only work of “Indian” art I could conjure in my mind. This could be a result of Husain’s refusal to conform to stereotypical notions of an Indian style. The influence of non-European art on Picasso and other modernists is well documented, and so, conversely, non-European artists should be able to articulate the influence Europe has had on them without being called knockoffs or copycats. While Picasso is afforded the opportunity to create works that could simultaneously be Spanish or French or Swiss, why not Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Jehangir Sabavala, or any of the other artists in this room? India has been a nexus of global trade for millennia, and it is colonial thinking to validate European appropriation of non-European culture while failing to appreciate the Indian nature of works that appropriate European culture.

The works in Roots in the Air, Branches Below present a multifarious understanding of the past century of Indian visual culture. It is easy to see one’s own culture in this exhibition, even if it is not Indian. And yet, it is impossible to deny the uniqueness of India. The exhibition is neither an attempt to provide a limiting and stereotypical view of India nor an effort to offer a universal view that erases history. Exhibitions that seek to represent an entire culture or nation are trick entities: they must strike a balance between stereotype and universalism. Roots in the Air, Branches Below is a model for a successful execution of these unfortunately necessary exhibitions. It would be great to view a more specific engagement with Indian art or to appreciate the context of an artist shown outside nationally themed exhibitions, but at times there is a need to create a basic level of public understanding that can augment those ideal scenarios. The San Jose Museum of Art does this admirably.



Roots in the Air, Branches Below: Modern and Contemporary Art from India is on view at the San Jose Museum of Art through September 4, 2011.

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