An Intriguing Group Show Explores the Ethnic Identities of India’s Diaspora Artists

Oct 31, 2016 11:18PM

According to a recent report by the United Nations, 15.6 million people who were born in India now live elsewhere, making it the world’s largest diaspora. Some of those people happen to be artists. Now, at DAG Modern in New York, a group show grapples with ethnicity, nostalgia, and the identity of the Indian-born diaspora artist.

Memory and Identity” features 14 Indian artists who left their native country to live and work abroad. Each emigrated sometime after 1947, the year India won independence after 200 years of British rule. Their destinations were cosmopolitan: Paris, London, New York, Oslo, Copenhagen. Some found near-immediate success. The avant-garde painter F.N. Souza (1924–2002), often called the “Indian Picasso,” left for London in 1949 and become one of the first post-independence Indian artists to earn international recognition. Modernist painter S.H. Raza (1922–2016) also made a distinct impression on the European art scene: He left for Paris in 1950 and within six years had won a sought-after critics’ award, the Prix de la critique.

Other artists in the exhibition may not be quite as well known, though they similarly sought a life abroad and developed a practice in a foreign place. But how did those shifting environments shape the artists’ creative output? And more specifically, as curator Kishore Singh asks, “Does the artist’s ethnic identity mean art too has an ethnic identity?”

Perhaps that depends on the definition of ethnic identity. While overt nationalism is absent from the featured works, hints of “Indianness” run through the exhibition. Raza, for instance, spent years working on an image that has been linked to the tradition of tantra, and Souza’s erotic pen-and-ink drawings have some semblance to the Kama Sutra. Meanwhile, Sakti Burman’s many-armed and multi-headed figures evoke classical depictions of Hindu deities.

Western art critics have a tendency—fairly or otherwise—to interpret these works through a foreigner’s lens and, thus, to frequently classify Eastern works as “exotic.” Still, it’s hard to deny that some degree of ethnic identity is indeed present in these works. But how would these same paintings, drawings, and sculptures be read by Indian critics? And to what extent are these works a product of their native and adopted cultures? For the diaspora artist, are memory and identity a burden, or an advantage, a creative tool—or all three?

The intriguing show raises all these questions, and more, as it explores what it means to be native, to belong, and the ways the past leaves an indelible mark on any artist, regardless of nationality.

—Bridget Gleeson

Memory and Identity” is on view at DAG Modern, New York, Sept. 14–Dec. 9, 2016.

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