3 July 2009

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair: Art Review

Archana Hande’s critique of beauty myths and packaged urban spaces captivates Trisha Gupta. (Please click on the link below for images)

Archana Hande’s All is Fair in Magic White at Nature Morte Annex, New Delhi, from February 26th to March 21st, was a quirky, tongue-in-cheek interweaving of several seemingly unconnected issues – urbanization, history and its erasure on the one hand and class, race and notions of beauty on the other.

A large part of the exhibition comprised framed pictures made by block-printing on fabric, although there were some painted scrolls attached to wooden dowels and an animation video which drew on the pictures and scrolls for its characters and scenario. What worked well was Hande’s choice of pictorial style. The self-created block-print motifs, repeated and combined in different ways, enhanced the vivid fable-like quality of the works.

But despite its winsome storytelling and videogame heroines, All is Fair provided no happy endings. The narrative of the whole show hinged on three superwomen-like figures – industrialists’ wives from South Bombay (the accompanying text told us) – who decide Dharavi is “THE cause to pursue”. They skim over the city’s surface, arriving at a Dharavi all mapped and ready to receive their interventions, its various industries highlighted as if in a school project: embroidery, leather work, pottery. They encounter a businessman called Ali, who refuses their offers of assistance, and poses this riddle instead: “When I was poor my daughter was born black, and when I became rich, my second daughter was born fair. Why so? Is there a relationship between class and race?” In response, the superwomen design a fairness product called Magic White.

Hande satirised the contemporary moment, making unexpected connections between our ‘clean city’ dreams and obsession with fairness. The ‘whitening’ agent linked these post-colonial fantasies in what was a closely observed theatre of the absurd. In the video, as Ali recounts his “bestselling autobiography”, he stands legs akimbo, the shadows of his past selves massed behind him like henchmen. His two daughters appear on a seesaw – fair stacked against dark. Jewel-like skyscrapers rise into a turquoise sky, their new-fangled globalised luxuriousness unmistakably echoing the Mughal minarets next door.

From CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) to SMS voting, all was grist to Hande’s mill. And yet her vision stretched beyond merely critiquing the contemporary. In one triptych, the first picture showed a flock of birds flying over an ancient swamp, across which strode a single Harappan seal bull. In the second picture, the sky contained a solitary bird, and the ground was covered with ‘houses’, their roof-like shapes belied by that blue we know to be plastic sheeting. In the third, the bird was gone. An aeroplane flew over a terrain dotted with multi-storeyed tower blocks, their geometric regularity interrupted only by more geometric trees. Hande’s truth-telling, thankfully, did not preclude humour, and in the case of the works here, a strange, unsettling beauty as well.

Published in Art India: The Art News Magazine of India (Vol XVI, Issue 1, Quarter 1, 2009)

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