By Aarti Virani
Courtesy of the Indo-American Arts Council.
“Make Them Married” (2010), ink illustration by Sonia Chaudhary.
Eight years ago, Aroon Shivdasani, executive director of the New York-based Indo-American Arts Council, helmed the organization’s very first contemporary art event: an enterprising, two-day affair that focused solely on paintings. Housed in a smattering of city galleries, it was complete with meticulously crafted “passports,” which doubled as admissions tickets.
“It brought to people’s attention that there are artists of Indian origin in the tri-state area,” said Ms. Shivdasani. Comprised of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the tri-state area is considered a region with one of the largest concentrations of South Asians in the United States. The current collection, entitled, “Erasing Borders: Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art of the Diaspora,” now also includes sculpture, video and installation art. It will be on show at Manhattan’s Aicon Gallery from Aug. 16 to Sept. 3..
All 43 featured artists, including renowned abstract expressionist painter Natvar Bhavsar, are connected to South Asia. Ms. Shivdasani said that the selection process was made a lot more inclusive last year. “Rather than limiting it to people of Indian origin—because you know, that’s so nebulous—we opened it up to the entire subcontinent,” Ms. Shivdasani said.
“When we first had our exhibition, years ago, artists sent work thinking we wanted them to deliberately trace their roots. But now, increasingly, you see that people are people – especially since so many of us have spent years in our adopted lands. Their art may be something that harks from their heritage, but it may also be a part of their life today.”
For 27-year old Sara Suleman a Temple University graduate student who was born and raised in Pakistan, the exhibition’s expansion is a chance to showcase her video art, centered on concepts like displacement and transition. One of her two featured pieces, “Converge”(2010), was largely inspired by a recent trip to Karachi, where she encountered a flock of birds that would appear at dusk almost every day. “It was this cathartic moment,” said Ms. Suleman, via phone from her university lab, where she was putting the final touches on her thesis film.
“The birds represented that in between time, when day turns into evening,” said Ms. Suleman. “As a foreigner [in the US], I’m very interested in that in between space. I always feel like I’m in two places, or not quite in either place.” Ms. Suleman was persuaded to submit her work to the exhibition after seeing it in Philadelphia last year. She was also drawn to the show’s overall concept. “[The exhibition] reflects that the world is getting smaller,” she said. “But it simultaneously acknowledges these borders exist, whether they are literal or emotional, and I really like that idea.”
Other young participants, like Sonia Chaudhary, 25, see this exhibition as an opportunity to push past these borders. Growing up in a tight-knit Muslim community in suburban Connecticut, Ms. Chaudhary regularly struggled with two seemingly opposing community dynamics. “There were the teachings I encountered, going to the masjid with my mom every Sunday, and then the American school system, where I was told I should really question where I’m coming from to find out who I am,” she said in a recent phone interview.
Her ink illustration piece, “Make Them Married” (2010), an unlikely combination of machine stitching and watercolor, includes text from the Quran and intricately depicts the common struggle between love and cultural differences. “I’m trying to keep my pieces small and intimate so that viewers can create a private relationship with this work,” explained Ms. Chaudhary. “I enjoy juxtaposing the ideas of being a modern Muslim with the rules and regulations of Islam,” she continued. “It’s a sensitive subject and people do get emotional and want to steer away, but that’s the direction I want to go in.”
Aarti Virani is a New York- based arts, culture and entertainment writer. You can follow her on Twitter @aartivirani.