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Indian activism on display at Smart

Wed, Apr 10, 2013

Prasanta Mukherjee pushing his art, Aftermath, at Art on the Move in 2001.

In 1989, street actor, playwright and political activist Safdar Hashmi was murdered by “political thugs” during one of his performances. But his fight for freedom of expression against political violence in India didn’t come to a halt; it sparked an artistic revolution.

Depicting over 20 years of cross-genre Indian art, the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum presents the Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989. This traveling exhibit details 12 case studies of the Sahmat art collaboration over the past 20 years since the organization’s creation following Hashmi’s death. (“Sahmat” means “agreement” in Hindi, in line with Hashmi’s belief in freedom of expression.)

One case study, the 2001 Art on the Move, brought art to the streets of India through portable exhibits driven by artists on bikes, pushcarts and rickshaws. These artists “erected a range of iconic, architectural, circus-like, and ritual forms, and then demonstrated their viability by riding, pushing, and pulling them onto the road,” according to Museum wall texts.

The exhibit features the works of dozens of cross-genre artists. Some are celebrated. Some drive rickshaws for a living. But each are driven to continue the legacy of Hashmi through a variety of media including poetry, theater, music and visual arts (photography, graphite, pensil and pen drawings, ink prints, paint and sculpture to name a few).

“These projects are defined in part by their consistent stance against the threat of religious fundamentalism and sectarianism known in South Asia as communalism in public life,” wrote C.J. Lind, the museum’s associate director of communications in an email. “The right to creative expression in opposition to those who used religious sentiment as a political weapon, as demonstrated in particular by the section on M.F. Husain, is another major issue for Sahmat.”

“For the American viewer it may help to see these works in the context of the ‘culture war’ as they are playing out in India,” said Ram Rahman, photographer and co-curator of the exhibit in a press release. “Sahmat’s projects also reflect the camaraderie and community spirit of the Indian art scene, where artists of different generations and philosophical outlooks still have a close-knit sense of community and purpose.”

The Sahmat Collective is a free exhibit, as is the rest of the Smart Museum, and will be available through June 9. Time: Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Open ’til 8 p.m. on Thursdays. Closed Mondays and holidays.

Visit www.smartmuseum.uchicago.edu for more information and for details on special related events.

By Ethan Ross,
StreetWise Editorial Intern


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