Featured in
Issue 231

In ‘Pop South Asia’ Kitsch Reigns Supreme

At Sharjah Art Foundation, a landmark group exhibition explores art inspired by popular culture in South Asia

BY Rahel Aima in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across The World | 21 SEP 22

Featuring more than 100 works inspired by popular culture, ‘Pop South Asia’ contains all the visual touchstones that you might anticipate: Bollywood and Islamic sloganeering; streetside chai stalls and Hindu deities strong-armed into product-sponsorship deals that collapse the distance between devotion and commerce. Florid lorry art makes its expected appearance too, in a series of painted wooden – and, in one case, embossed iron – skateboards from Jeanno Gaussi (e.g., Dreams on Wheels, Kabul [2013]).

Jeanno Gaussi, Dreams On Wheels, Kabul, 2013, wood, acrylic paint, dimensions variable, painted by Ustad Abdullah. Courtesy: the artist

But sometimes – in the swell of populism that now perturbs the rest of the world – cricketers and chaiwalas (teasellers) become adulated politicians. In South Asia, this trend has been fomenting since Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister of India in 2014. Today, we aren’t swollen so much as grossly distended; populism promised to clean up the bloat but, instead, only served to amplify much religio-nationalism. Sanghis lynching Muslims for eating beef; endemic sexual violence; a generation of girls that can’t attend secondary school: all of these things have become South Asian popular culture, too. Populism is the ideology, but popular culture is its vehicle, and it feels irresponsible to consider the latter without the former.

Thukral & Tagra, Dominus Aeris - Middle Class Dreams II, 2010, oil on canvas; 2.9 × 2.2 m. Courtesy: the artists and Nature Morte, New Delhi

Divided into seven subthemes, including ‘Local Capitalism and Print Culture’ and ‘Cinema and Media Culture’, ‘Pop South Asia’ is particularly strong in the first gallery. It includes a pair of striking Atul Dodiya paintings, one of which, Gangavataran after Raja Ravi Varma (1998), reproduces an iconic mythological work by Ravi Varma but replaces its titular goddess with Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912). The 1890 original by Ravi Varma an enormously influential 19th-century painter who fused Hindu iconography with European academic style hangs alongside in the form of a 1937 ad for Swiss chemicals importer CIBA. Most of the works on view date from the 1960s onwards, but historical pieces like these, or a number of 20th-century Buddhist Sinhalese lithographs depicting the early days of Gautama Buddha, effectively telegraph the brutality that this religiosity would later inculcate in the form of Hindu and Buddhist extremism in India and Sri Lanka respectively.

Hangama Amiri, Bazaar, 2020, cotton, chiffon, muslin, silk, suede, digitally woven textile, camouflage fabric, sari textile, inkjet prints on paper and canvas, paper, plastic, acrylic paint, marker, polyester, table cloth, faux leather and found fabric; 4.3 × 7.92 m. Courtesy: the artist and T293 Gallery, Rome

Nearby, Maqbool Fida Husain’s 1980s series ‘Culture of the Streets’ features photographs dominated by weathered filmi hoardings and wheatpastes. They illustrate palimpsestic pastiche as a compositional technique that echoes throughout the show, often to invoke street life, as in Bazaar (2020), Hangama Amiri’s delightful textile installation of a Kabuli market, or Bhupen Khakhar’s Pan Shop No. 1 (1965).

Partition is not a wound but a fissure here, beautifully intimated in Bharti Kher’s Intermediaries 1, 3, 4 and 6 (all 2017) – chimeric, shimeji mushroom-like sculptures that suggest both the dream of syncretic pluralism and its failures. Two monochromatic oils from Shishir Bhattacharjee, including Could Have Been the Story of a Hero 5 (1987), are among my favourites in the show, satirizing the 1980s Bangladeshi military junta to arresting, almost airbrushed effect. And Anant Joshi’s Happy New Year (2013), an installation of kooky dystopian dioramas, which merges CRT monitors and domestic altars to exciting effect.

Bharti Kher, Throb, 2012, bindis on board; 2.4 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and HCL Tech, Noida

As the first major survey of its kind, this show is long overdue. South Asians comprise the majority population of the UAE, but this is the first thematic show addressing the region to be held at Sharjah Art Foundation. And, while there has been growing interest in global pop art, work from South Asia – a region this show encompasses fully, with smaller countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal well represented – has remained under-addressed. ‘Pop South Asia, as rewarding for the rigour of its research as its textural sumptuousness, was well worth the wait.

‘Pop South Asia: Artistic Explorations in the Popular’ is on view at Sharjah Art Foundation until 11 December.

Saba Khan, Gymkhana Ladies Swimming, 2021, resin Diamonds on ‘Diamond Painting Kit’; 91.4 × 124.46 cm. Courtesy of the artist

Rahel Aima is a writer. Her work has been published in ArtforumArtnewsArtReviewThe AtlanticBookforum, friezeMousse and Vogue Arabia, amongst others.