The museum searches for “exhibitions that have interesting relationships with [its permanent] collection," said Carolyn Allmendinger, Ackland’s Director of Academic Programs. “We have a substantial amount of South Asian art from much earlier centuries,” she explained. “But 'The Sahmat Collective’ gives our visitors a chance to appreciate some much more modern Indian art.”
The exhibition is highly socially and politically charged, chronicling a significant cultural, political and artistic movement spanning more than two decades. In fact, “The Sahmat Collective” is what Delhi-native and MIT professor Arindam Dutta deems “the largest-ever voluntary collective of artists coming together to share a single political platform.”
Of course, by its definition and historical foundation, art has always been an effective and dynamic avenue for personal expression. Yet modern-day museum-goers that mentally confine artwork to the apotheosis of creativity are in for a wake-up call.
Challenging that longtime ideology of art’s purpose is none other than a Delhi-based activist art group: Sahmat. The duality of its name alone attests to Sahmat’s deep cultural understanding of the dissonance between anti-secularism and neoliberalism in modern-day India. Short for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, Sahmat also means “in agreement” in Hindi. It is fitting that the artwork in “The Sahmat Collective” speaks as a unified voice, vigorously protesting political violence, religious fundamentalism and anti-democratic forces.
Clearly, this exhibition transcends the conventional stereotype of art. It is much more than a collection of assorted yearnings of heart, expressions of individualistic will or musings of introspection.
“Beyond being visually interesting objects to look at, the pieces in the exhibition really underscore how art has the power to engage, motivate and move people. It makes sense that this group, thinking about broader issues that impact its country, uses art to bring people together," said Emily Bowles, Ackland’s Director of Communications.
The distinctive historical basis of “The Sahmat Collective,” and of Sahmat in general, is the driving force behind its leadership in the worldwide activist art arena. The date in the exhibition’s name, 1989, marks the politically motivated street murder of Safdar Hashmi, an esteemed egalitarian, democracy-promoter and artist across genres. In the wake of his untimely death, Hashmi became an unforgettable symbol—if not a martyr—for the ideals of secularism and freedom of expression.
In this violent cultural crucible, an incendiary national reaction began; the anti-censorship and pro-tolerance Sahmat was a notable product. Allmendinger highlighted one particular piece in the exhibition, ‘Husain @ 95,’ as “a powerful example of that [reaction]. The idea is that Husain, one of India’s greatest modern artists, was subjected to so much criticism and harassment for the works of art he made that he decided to leave India. When the artist’s community wanted to honor him on his 95th birthday, he physically couldn’t be there… So ‘Husain @ 95’ shows his image as a cardboard cutout in only two dimensions.”
Paralleling the main theme of “The Sahmat Collective” is “Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space” at the Nasher Museum of Art. Through South Asian artwork, the Nasher exhibition analyzes literal and metaphysical borders.
“Some of the same artists are featured in both of the exhibitions, so there’s not only overlap in whose work is represented, but also in terms of conceptualizing the partition between India and Pakistan,” said Allmendinger. “In some of the Sahmat work, that religious difference and the associated cultural differences come up very explicitly.”
Two unique student-focused events celebrate these sister exhibitions. Students will have free entry to Crossing Blue Borders on November 7 and 14 at the Nasher and the Ackland, respectively. Allison Portnow, Ackland’s Public Programs Manager, “would like to have students from both universities attend both museums, crossing the borders between Duke and UNC.”
In tandem, Ackland’s “The Sahmat Collective” and Nasher’s “Lines of Control” serve a distinct and profound role in out-of-classroom education not only for students, but also for lifelong learners from every corner of the globe. Portnow, who is coordinating programs related to “The Sahmat Collective,” said, “It’s all about these collaborative ventures, which is nice because [my work] is in the spirit of the collection itself.”
Bowles elaborated that the Ackland’s overall mission intersects with “The Sahmat Collective.” She said, “As a university art museum, we have an obligation to bring art exhibitions that engage people in social and political issues around the world. Certainly, India is not the only country being divided by different ethnic and religious groups; Sahmat is just a case study. But this is an exhibition for people sharing messages about harmony and the common good, [even if only] within their own neighborhood.” She is a firm believer that “The Sahmat Collective” visually and emotionally answers the verbally elusive questions that activism combats daily in India and elsewhere.
“The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989” opens at the Ackland Art Museum on September 13 and runs until January 5. “Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space” opens at the Nasher on September 19 and runs until February 2. For more information and a calendar of events, visit this website.