An anti-memorial project bears witness to the unspoken stories of partition
Chicago-based Indian artist Pritika Chowdhry’s latest project, “Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories,” hints at the painful and silenced narratives that have been left out of the score’s dominant discourses.
Even after 75 years of one of the world’s worst human tragedies, memories of the score still cause nights of dreaded anxiety in people, it still causes a sense of longing in the hearts of those who have left their ancestral homes, lost their family members and an inheritance that belonged to them.
To understand the tragedy and pay homage to the millions who were part of it, Chicago-based Indian artist Pritika Chowdhry has created an “anti-memorial” exhibition, the tenth in The Partition Anti-Memorial Project since she started with Queering Mother India in 2007.
In the Partition Anti-Memorial project, his anti-memorials are quietly provocative, temporary, and incorporate visceral materials and soundscapes. Chowdhry emphasizes that his goal is not to “speak for women” and his experiential art installations invite viewers to witness, providing a space for mourning, remembrance and repair.
His latest project, “Unbearable Memories, Unspeakable Histories,” at the South Asia Institute in Chicago, alludes to the painful and silenced narratives that have been left out of the score’s dominant discourses.
Chowdhry spoke to Firstpost via email, discussing his current exhibition, the inspiration behind the Partition Memorial Project, and his journey since 2007 as an artist and individual.
Excerpts from the interview:
Creating art consistently on a single theme for over 15 years cannot be without a lasting impact on the creator, that too on one of the most emotionally and physically violent events of the 20th century. Who was the Pritika who started the anti-memorial project in 2007, what motivated her in the first place, and where has this journey taken you as an artist and an individual?
Big question! What brought me to the score was September 11, 2001 and the Gujarat riots in 2002. That’s when I started asking my mother questions about the score.
I started actively researching the history of the Hindu-Muslim communal riots in India, which of course led me very quickly to the 1947 score. By the time I did my first art project on the score in 2007 titled Queering Mother IndiaI had a much better understanding of my own family history from Partition. Over the years I have learned how embedded the score is in the daily politics and lived experience of the Indian subcontinent.
I did What the body remembers in 2008, and silent waters in 2009, which dealt with the gendered experience of the Score. Shortly after, I did Remember the crooked line which views maps and cartography as 20th century partition technologies, and includes other countries that have been partitioned. My projects under the Partition Anti-Memorial Project have now explored themes such as monuments in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the English language as a tool of colonization, the 1971 war and its many ramifications, the Jallianwala massacre Bagh and the year 1919 in world history and a deep dive into the creation of the Radcliffe line.
Thus, as an artist, my artistic practice has broadened not only my understanding of the score, but also of world history and current affairs. I have particularly emphasized the transnational links between geopolitical events in different countries, in my artistic projects.
As an individual, my artistic practice has had a profound effect on me. By researching and making art to commemorate such violent events, I have learned to channel my personal outrage into gestures of reparation, which is how I think about my art projects.
Also read: Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to those who lost their lives during the partition
Browsing through images from your latest project, you are working with several different mediums at the same time. Is there any meaning or relevance to what you choose as medium and material for a specific artwork?
Yes, I am very careful about the materials I choose for a particular project. The Partition Anti-Memorial project includes ten different projects and each of them is made of a different material.
For example, in Broken column, I use latex and silicone to make casts of small sections of important monuments in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I chose latex and silicone for their skin qualities. The casts in this project are translucent when backlit and have a fragile tactility that conveys to the viewer that these panels are like the skin of the monument. The latex captures every detail of the wall, ornament, door or text, every grain of dirt, every last stain of tobacco. It’s like taking a handprint of the monument in a very bodily way.
As another example, in Memory leaks, I used authentic copper dharapatras and havankunds which are used in Hindu temples to pour milk and water over the deities and to make the sacred fire. And then I engraved the name and year of a communal riot on each dharapatra and placed scraps of partially burnt Urdu newspapers and books in the havankunds.
It is this concept of material referentiality in the visual arts that essentially means that each material incorporated into a work of art brings its own history, symbolism and cultural specificity into the work of art, so it must be conceptually aligned on the purpose of the artwork.
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Could you tell me a bit about some of the artworks, the thinking behind them and how they came about?
Sure, let me tell you a bit about Silent Waters: The Countless anti-memorial.
silent waters is an art installation of 101 larger than life ceramic feet glazed black inside and out. The legs are filled with salt water which adds an element of durability to the installation. Water often drips from the ceramic feet onto the floor of the gallery, and the water also evaporates during exposure, leaving behind a crystalline residue of salt inside and out feet.
The feet represent the caravans of people crossing the new border in 1947. This installation is an anti-memorial that recognizes and commemorates the largest migration in world history – the population exchange of the partition of India in 1947 .
The underlying idea is that water has a ritual and ceremonial role in the funeral rites of Hindu, Muslim, Bengali and Sikh communities. Therefore, in this installation, I nod towards the presence and role of water with a minimalist sound installation that includes the sounds of rain, running feet and a body falling into the water, and the soundscape plays on a loop.
Over the past 15 years and 10 projects, what is your best memory? Also, what is your creation closest to your heart?
Each project completely owned me when I made it, and it would be really hard to choose a favorite! As for the best memory, I guess the trip to Dhaka and Lahore for the Broken column project to make casts of the monuments there. It was an amazing experience because they feel like Delhi and Kolkata, and it’s kind of surreal that these cities are so similar to Indian cities. I will always cherish the friendships and camaraderie of artists and ordinary people I met in Lahore and Dhaka. They were so kind, hospitable, curious, tolerant and, ultimately, familiar! It only strengthened my faith that the people of South Asia are one people in spirit, even though they are artificially divided by borders.
The subject of your works remains one of the most tragic chapters in the lives of many people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. How is it generally received by visitors to your exhibitions, what sort of emotions do your exhibitions arouse in people?
Politics in our three countries is quite polarized and communalized by politicians who have their own agendas. And the partition is such an important event, with such a complex history and so much bloodshed, that most people are simply disengaged or overwhelmed by it. It is difficult for the human heart to understand such violence, and I understand.
So what I try to do in my exhibitions is to educate, engage and generate empathy in visitors. Many of my works also invite the public to participate, as in Memory leaks, I invite viewers to simply pour water through a dharapatra or two. In Remember the crooked line, I invite viewers to sit down and play a game of chess or parchisi. And many do! And even if they don’t, I talk to them and find that the conversation itself opens a door to a new understanding of the traumatic event of the score, and also how we can repair and heal that trauma over time. time.
Do you plan to bring any of your projects to India? What are your plans for the future?
I would like! I was able to show a small part of the Partition Anti-Memorial project in Delhi and Lahore a few years ago. But I hope to bring the whole project to India soon. Shipping sculptural installations poses logistical challenges, but I hope to partner with like-minded institutions and exhibit the ten anti-memorials in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
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