Reacting to the recent political climate within India, Rummana Hussain abandoned painting allegorical canvases that relied on myth and fable - both traditional and modern - for a more challenging conceptual approach to art. The immediate trigger was the demolition of the historic Babri Mosque in the township of Ayodha by a rampaging squad of fundamentalists in 1993, an event that was manipulated by the majority power bloc in order to gain unmitigated political benefit at the expense of the nation's conscience.
As someone with a sense of her own epic cultural history, Rummana, along with so many others, felt traumatically violated and alienated. This was a loss of innocence and a betrayal that was at once historical, national, and deeply personal. That it was akin to an orchestrated media event, anticipated and witnessed by the country on television, destroyed the possibilities of distancing and disbelief forever; everyone was implicated and somehow tainted.
Rummana's last exhibition, 'Fragments - Multiples,' came out of this experience. Two years after the event, some of the wounds had healed and she revisited Ayodha with her camera, reworking the pieces of her culture and experience in strategies of restoration collectively titled 'Home/Nation.' An interplay of written text, objects and photographic images - both black and white and colour - offer paradoxical disjunctions to conventional ways of viewing art. The diverse materials used are intended to break the homogeneity of a single dominant medium. Conceived as an installation, the work's formal structure creates separate through essentially related scenes, without imposing a chronology or sequence. The intention throughout is to spur the viewer to think about interpretation and meaning.
As a woman activist, Rummana investigates more than just one level of political experience. Likening it to the 'internal and external world' of her living - she lives and works at home but is actively associated with SAHMAT, an organisation that works towards endorsing secularism and unity in the country through a cultural manifesto - she compares the marginalisation of women with that of minority communities. The intentional subversion of a particular culture, community, and gender to a patriarchal and political hegemonic agenda is at the core of her contemporary protest. More and more she feels like an activist operating between home and nation as she tries to locate her identity at the crossroads.
A historic and discursive context informs this artist's photographic and text-based artwork. In her series of four views of a forgotten minaret in Ayodha, the ability of photography to convey serious, sometimes paradoxical 'messages,' particularly when accompanied by the printed word, becomes evident. The still-intact minaret is part of a derelict mosque which is flanked by the temples and homes banked along the Saryu River at the Ram ki Pairi Ghats. A repeated photocopied image of the minaret is bordered with a text in Urdu describing the Ganga-Jumni culture of coexistence between the Hindu and Muslim way of life. Some of the temples were built by the Muslim rulers of Oudh, and some of the portals of old Mogul buildings reveal a flourish of Hindu architectural motifs and detailing. In one instance even the faded fresco of a lyrical Krishna Leela can be seen - signifier of the potential synthesis that once existed in Oudh's culture now driven by chauvinistic logic.
In one of her photographic composites, the artist displays a colour photograph of a Sufi saint's tomb, a burial site shared by row upon row of graves of a now forgotten congregation. On the floor below, a number of charred, burnt out oil lamps are placed on a whitewashed rectangle that echoes the configuration of the Islamic grave above; the allusive forms and evocative materials enhance the sense of some silent, elegiac ritual taking place. On either side of the photograph hang laminated boards with multiple, gridded black and white pictures, each with a pair of hands cutting vegetables, rolling chapatis, scrubbing vessels. The idea of the monotonous repetitiveness of Sufi chants and kitchen chores is established. So are the visual effects of rhythmic, abstract patterning and architectonic plasticity, even as the accompanying text relates the story of Indu, Rummana's cook who died recently suspected AIDS. Indifference, fear, social stigma, denunciation and exhortation become tacit through these notations of a life and a death, as an uneasy awareness of capricious mortality tests the limits of art.
Rummana's photographic creations, which at first seem to live somewhere between romantic shots of elegantly crumbling Mogul edifices that are still integral parts of living cities, and her socio feminist concerns featuring lower middle-class Indian women eking out their quotidian existence, nudge us to reconsider the woman- monument, internal-external, home-nation nexus. Some of these vignettes are interspersed with black and white pictures of a halved papaya and of mouths stretched in a rictus of terror. In most cases she has located a commonly shared symbolism and an easily recognised imagery. The women in the doorways, the papaya halves and the open mouths are all images that provide a point of entry; they invite us into their spaces and guide us into a reading of power, sexuality, impotence, estrangement and rupture. The strength of these pictures lies in the impact of their juxtapositions: for example, the contrast between the grateful, generous arc of an Islamic archway, and our knowledge of what actually happened there and can continue to happen.
We see an array of transparent office files and glass jars containing an assortment of memorabilia, odds and ends, and found material from bazaars; a lock of hair, a needle and thread, trashy costume jewellery, a plastic comb, fifteen-year-old photographs of the artist and her baby daughter, dried flower petals and old buttons, all backed with printed textual matter pertaining to atrocities, rape, subversion - stock items scanned from daily newspapers. Collections that not only reiterate the internal-external conjunction but suggest isolated objects, entrapment, submerged memories, subverted function. What one is left with is the power of evocation and poetics.
At one end of the gallery, large, wooden, plain-looking building blocks - their elementary, geometrical shapes matter of factly expressive - with words stencilled on each side, are piled up in the middle of the floor. The words Construct, Lucknow, Embroidery, Cook, Ayodhya, Pottery, Weaving, Faizabad, and so on, quietly point to the implicit connections between domestic activity, work occupations for women, urban domicile and socioeconomic realities. Casually arranged and understated, the blocks nevertheless maintain a formal sense of structural completeness as the viewer walks around them to experience their full import.
In these works text has been incorporated into visual art: actual language in the form of statement or narrative infiltrates the image as photography's ability to convey serious and paradoxical messages pushes the artist's focus into a broader referential frame.
Rows of washing lines hung with starched, crinkled cotton curtain the gallery entrance, powdering the viewers softly with indigo dust as they brush past. The swathes of fabric clamped with embroidery frames are dyed in day-glo Robin blue a cheap laundry agent that provides an illusory whitening effect - recalling limp bodies, the wooden circlets hinting at breast and stomach contours. They also recall the chador-like body concealing dupatta worn on top of garments by women in Lucknow, Hussain's home town. These dupattas are routinely dyed, starched and hand-pleated by women, some of whom earn their living embroidering traditional chikan patterns for the garment and fashion industry. The connotations, simple and direct, coalesce in the accompanying solitary photograph of a woman swathed in Robin Blue colours and spinning yarn on the charkha, a sister occupation to the tireless legion of chikan embroiderers. A video film of her performance piece, Living on the Margins, held earlier in the open-air quadrangle of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai (NCPA), can be seen on a monitor adjoining the woman-monument photographs. With her performance, the artist transcends the purely visual space of art as she circumambulates barefooted and trance-like around the grassy square, scattering and stepping on indigo and geru, leaving behind footprints as if they were trails of visible incantations.
Solo, austere, almost ritualistic, her performance is anchored to the image of a woman's life through colour, motif, material, object, and touch. This inner world, with its feminine energy, has its parallel in the outer world, with its more masculine components, which remain implicit. There are no costumes, stage lights, scripts or audio effects to "augment" her performance. Just the steady hum of pressure cookers and a vacuum cleaner, and the gale strength winds blowing through the open-air location, scattering things helter-skelter and extinguishing the oil lamps. And as we see her subtly transforming open space into personal space, going through her measures paces, continuing her basic human activities and occasionally opening her mouth in a silent scream, what comes across is an articulation of her belief in direct, uncompromising feminine experience, unencumbered by the clutter of psychological or cultural mediation.
Hussain's materials, simple and everyday, such as indigo and geru, provide the quickening of an unusual chromatic brilliance even as they convey a metaphoric valance: incorruptible by-products of nature, they are light and fine, and can be scattered to the winds, becoming indistinguishable from their surroundings.
A metaphoric valence - with semantic overtones this time - is also achieved with the vestigial signs of a preceding exhibition at the gallery, which the artist decided to incorporate into her own show. Time and memory advance and recede as the indistinct, sepia handwriting of Amrita Sher Gill's photocopied letters pasted on the gallery walls by Vivan Sundaram for his Sher Gill Archives installation glimmer dimly through Hussain's translucent overpainting. Unexpected associations become crucial to the woman-monument photographs displayed against this surface-space, adding to their visual and emotional intensity as layered structure of the background wall surface establishes the ideal artistic community, sharing and participation, and of work becoming space and space becoming work in a reference to one of postmodernism's more direct appropriation strategies.
Through the several aspects of 'Home/Nation.' Hussain has cleverly changed the way not only of expressing herself but of seeing. In doing so, she reopens issues of ancient memory and narrative as well as of recent dark and disturbing ones. It is necessary to remember these events and to keep them vivid in memory in order to be able to assess where we are today and to an extent why we are where we are.