LONDON – Anglo-Indian artist Sutapa Biswas has always found herself playing a confrontational role in the British art world, forcing conversations about the empire and its legacies that the establishment preferred to dodge.
But it looks like that may change. This year Biswas, 59, is the subject of two major British exhibitions, in parallel: at BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art, in Gateshead, England, and The kettle yard, in Cambridge. The BALTIC show, which runs until March 20, 2022, focuses primarily on Biswas’ work with the moving image; The Kettle’s Yard exhibit, which opens on October 16 and runs through January 30, will span the entire arc of his career.
Emma Dean, the curator of the BALTIC exhibition, said that both exhibitions suggest that if Biswas’ work has not gained the kind of visibility it deserves, it may be because “she is posing very difficult questions “.
âThe legacy of the British Empire weighs very heavily,â Dean added. âHis work forces us to confront the colonial past.
Biswas first gained public attention in 1985, when British artist Lubaina Himid organized a landmark exhibition of works by black women in a long hallway at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London, titled “The Thin Black Line “.
Although Biswas was only 23 and a recent college graduate, her multimedia play âHousewives With Steak-Knivesâ was one of the most notable on the show; it represents a brown-skinned woman – the Hindu goddess Kali doubles as an ordinary mother – wielding a machete in one of her four hands, the severed head of an old white man in another. She raises a third hand, palm outward, in a gesture of peace, and with the fourth, she grasps a poppy and a small flag bearing an image of “Judith Beheading Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi.
The room hung on the wall at an angle so that it leaned over the viewer in a way that could be interpreted as threatening. At least one visitor spat on it.
He landed, Biswas recalls in a recent video interview from his London home, right between the eyes. “Whoever spat on it was either a really good shot,” she added, “or they had been practicing.”
Growing awareness of structural racism and exclusion means that, 30 years after “The Thin Black Line”, its artists are finally gaining ground. Himid won the Turner Prize in 2017 and is close to having a major retrospective at Tate Modern. Sonia Boyce, artist of the series, will represent Great Britain at the Venice Biennale 2022. And now it’s Biswas’s turn to be recognized.
Born in India in 1962, Biswas came to Britain at the age of four. It was a double exile for his family, who had already been displaced during the partition of India in 1947, forced to leave their home in what was first British India and then East Pakistan. and now Bangladesh. They moved to the West Bengal region of India.
Biswas’ work, she said, addresses these complicated moves.
âWe often assume that after independence everything is fine. And in India, it really wasn’t, âshe said. “India was pretty much impoverished because it had been stripped more or less of all its assets.”
His father, an outspoken Marxist university professor, was frequently under house arrest, and there were rumors of a planned assassination, Biswas said; he fled to London, and his wife and five children soon followed.
Biswas grew up in the heavily South Asian suburb of Southall, not far from Heathrow Airport. As an undergraduate student at the University of Leeds in the north of England, she was the only person of color to take the art history course.
Art historian Griselda Pollock, who taught her in Leeds and appeared in “Kali, ” a first experimental video made by Biswas later wrote that his student had “forced us all to recognize the Eurocentric limits of the discourses in which we practice”.
Biswas asked his teachers to âdecolonize their curriculumâ by ârewriting the traditional canonâ to include the work of artists of color – and gave them a week to do so. âI felt that if I could recontextualize the stories of art, a week was enough to start,â she said. âAh, youth! “
In the years since âHousewives with Steak-Knives,â Biswas pivoted to more nuanced reflections on exile, the body, and the family. It was during a trip to India in 1987, her first since childhood, that photography became more important in her practice, she said.
The photographs she took there of relatives and the places she visited became such precious documents, she said, that she took them with her on her return to England, “like if it was my passport “. She used the images for a series called âSynapseâ (1992), projecting them onto his bare chest, before rephotographing them, âas if to retrieve themâ.
A 1994 installation at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, an institution that exhibits a range of artifacts from the former British colonies, featured slides of a children’s rhyme projected onto the sails of a ship: “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man. The last word, “thief,” was missing; “but looking around the museum in anticipation of the next word of the rhyme,” she said, “drew the viewer’s attention to all the loot surrounding my work and the viewer.”
His 2004 film, “Birdsong,” shows a young boy (Biswas’ own son) perched on a couch in the shabby, opulent living room of an English country house; in front of him calmly sits a large chestnut horse, saddled, tied and ready for the lord of the mansion.
The image borrows from the palette of the 18th century British painter George Stubbs, the âcolors of the empireâ as Biswas called them: the yellow and white stripes of the sofa, the faded oxblood red of the âorientalâ carpet, against the calm sea -moss green walls. The scene takes place simultaneously on two screens, one slightly behind the other.
The problems started again in 2009, when “Housewives With Steak-Knives” was exhibited at the Neuberger Museum of Art in upstate New York, and two right-wing Hindu nationalist groups called for the painting to be removed. âThey were offended that I didn’t care a bit about religion and Hinduism,â Biswas recalls. “She’s a housewife, and their argument was that it was very offensive to Hindus.”
Her response, she said, was to remind them that this was a fictionalization of Kali: âIt’s just a work of art!
Andrew Nairne, the director of Kettle’s Yard, said that what sets Biswas’ work apart was âthe imaginative poetic space that she absolutely integrates into the work. It is not brilliant work, but ultimately didactic. It’s complicated, âhe said, adding that Biswas’s art worksâ through the intuitive, the poetic, the personal â.
âAll of these aspects allow the viewer to bring their own imagination and sense of themselves,â he said, including his feelings about politics and history.
A look back, thirty years after “The Thin Black Line”, ” Himid said in an interview that she admired Biswas’ honesty. âGoing through everything she does is that real, strong sense of saying what it’s like and setting the record straight. She just isn’t afraid.
Biswas’ latest work, a film titled “Lumen, “ is the centerpiece of the Gateshead and Cambridge exhibitions. In it, a narrator (Natasha Patel), clad in a black sari, addresses the camera with controlled anger and Shakespearean grandeur, to tell the semi-fictional story of the journey of the mother and the great -mother of Biswas far from their birthplace.
The actress’ monologue features scenes from documentary footage shot in India from the 1920s to the 1950s, which were recently discovered in archives in Bristol, England. It shows English people frolicking, playing croquet, boating, tasting gin and tonic, pacing as if they own the place.
Biswas said there were “very uncomfortable moments” in the film, for example, a scene in which the white mistress of a large house talks to her Indian servants as they water roses in the garden. As she walks away, she flirts a bit with whoever is holding the camera – “either her lover, or her father, or someone else who is also white,” Biswas said.
He asks the viewer to think about who the camera builds sympathy for in a scene like this: with the woman, or with the exploited Indians who work for her? âWhen I see this scene, I don’t identify with the woman; I identify with the servants, âBiswas said. She added that she hopes that at that point the viewer, who may be white, will also feel a sense of disavowal – “it’s not me” – followed by the recognition that it might very well have been. .
âYou cannot part with the story,â Biswas added.
Part of managing that, Biswas said, was maintaining a knack for the absurd and the quirky, something his job has always done: that horse in the living room; the last word missing in “Tinker Tailor”.
âSix million people have been killed because of the partition,â Biswas said. âMy parents witnessed it and, you know, and when you go through it, it’s dark. But you also need to have a dark sense of humor to get through the day. “
âYou know, I’m a lot of fun,â she laughed. “But for people who don’t know me, I’m probably a little intimidating.”