The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
The Phantom Lady writes about the work and dilemmas of her close friend Rummana Husain (1952-1999) and the unusual show In Order to Join at the Museum Abteiberg in Germany inspired by her work, which brings together an array of international women artists born between 1947 and 1957 – Helen Chadwick, Chohreh Feyzdjou, Angela Grauerholz, Sheela Gowda, Jamelie Hassan, Mona Hatoum, Rummana Hussain, Shelagh Keeley, Astrid Klein, Ana Mendieta, Pushpamala N., Adrian Piper, Lala Rukh and Rosemarie Trockel –
RUMMANA HUSAIN / THE POLITICAL IN THE HISTORICAL
In Order to Join - The Political in a Historical Moment, a major historical show of international women artists of a generation who came to importance in the 1980s, curated by Swapnaa Tamhane and Susanne Titz and now showing at the Museum Abteiberg in Germany, is formed around the work of Rummana Husain, one of the pioneers of conceptual art in India. Rummana, a close friend, was born in 1952 and died tragically of cancer at the age of 47 in 1999, when she had just begun doing her most significant work.
The show came out of the persistent work done on Rummana by Canadian curator Swapnaa Tamhane in curatorial collaboration with the Director of the Museum Abteiberg, Susanne Titz. Swapnaa has a two year curatorial residency at the museum, which has an important collection of contemporary art starting with the work of Joseph Beuys who taught at the nearby art academy at Dusseldorf, where his legend is present everywhere. (We had lunch at the Ohme Jupp, a restaurant in Dusseldorf which Beuys famously patronized serving German homemade food). When I asked Swapnaa on the reasons she decided to focus on Rummana’s work, she said she had started researching on Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram and Rummana, but found Rummana quite different and decided to work further on her. Possibly Rummana was the first Indian artist to work with identity politics, which I found disturbing at the time. I remember a sense of betrayal since I felt that we were both alike, that we both belonged to a free- floating bohemian secular world, and that she was somehow retreating from that position by foregrounding her identity as a Muslim. (This was especially so as just before this, she had been intensely against Muslim orthodoxy and had taken a strong position against the Indian government ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses). This conversation was soon after the post- Ayodhya Mumbai riots in 1993, when Rummana had felt threatened and besieged by the anti- Muslim violence which shook Mumbai and changed its nature forever from the foremost cosmopolitan city to one marked by narrow sectarian parochialism. She replied that since I belonged to the majority Hindu community I didn’t know what it felt like, the depth of her fear. I think it was also a shock that because of the recent events she had been thrown out from a secure progressive centre to the nation’s margins.
I met Rummana in the mid –eighties in her earlier avatar as a painter when she was working in the Garhi Studios in Delhi. She had studied design in England. Coming back to India and marrying early, she had gone to live with her husband in Kolkata where she began painting. When her husband, a high ranking corporate manager was transferred to Jamshedpur, a small town in Bihar, she had refused to move there as she would be in the position of a corporate wife isolated from the art scene, and decided to work in Delhi. (Many of us from that generation had long distance relationships from our partners!) Her move caused friction with her family and particularly her daughter who was put in boarding school, and it took many years for them to have a close bond. The family in general treated her as an eccentric. In Garhi, she shared a studio with the sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee, and painters Manjit Bawa and Arpana Kaur. She was influenced in her painting by Manjit Bawa and had a close friendship with Mrinalini Mukherjee who scolded her like an elder sister about her bad painting (yet she was a most sincere and hard working painter). I had recently got married when we met, and my husband and I became close friends with her. She could be a bit of a drama queen, high spirited and outrageous, and had a great sense of humour.
Rummana came from a prominent and liberal Muslim family from Lucknow. Her father, a general, was Chief of Army Staff of the Indian army at the time of Indian Independence and a staunch nationalist. He had written a book about Independence in which he had lambasted his relatives who decided to migrate to Pakistan as anti-national and caused a furore in their circles. Her mother was active in politics and had been a Congress party minister. Both came from a milieu of progressive left thinking, being connected to cultural figures from the Progressive Cultural Movement that formed the avant-garde in India between the 1930s and the 1960s. She herself read widely and had a large circle of interesting and distinguished friends who she did not talk much about, but I remember she introduced me to Minnette De Silva, the internationally recognized Sri Lankan architect who is considered the pioneer of the modern architectural style known as “Tropical Modernism”, influencing figures like Geoffrey Bawa.
When she moved to Mumbai with her husband in the late 1980s she felt liberated from the intensely gossipy and competitive art scene in Delhi. But Mumbai was also lonely with no community studios or artist gatherings and one had a solitary life as an artist. I was just moving out of Mumbai to Mysore to teach at the time but we met often when I came back to visit. Mumbai was then the centre of the art scene and art discourse and the Mohile Parikh Centre for Visual Art had a series of important international seminars through the 1990s, discussing the changes in the art scene – “painting vs. installation art”, “modern vs post-modern art”, “national and global” “, “post-colonialism” etc. where major figures were invited to speak. We were both active participants in the debates, challenging the traditional status quo, and arguments could turn raucous and aggressive. We met Adrian Piper there and Rummana, later had a correspondence with her. The mid - 1980s in India was the beginnings of the ‘art market’ and a time of increasing communal tensions with the rise of religious fundamentalism and civil war situations in many states. Rajeev Gandhi as prime minister had started the liberalization of the Indian economy to let in foreign companies and it was a time of “India Festivals” internationally, which presented India mainly as a folkloric country while simultaneously using the cultural festivals to sign arms contracts with major powers. Some of us who were painters and sculptors were rethinking our work. The old organic ways of working seemed inappropriate to deal with increasing fractures in Indian society and we were looking for new forms and materials.
A crucial event, a trauma which changed everything was the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 by Hindu fundamentalist forces. Some of my scholar friends refute this and say that the 1947 Partition was equally traumatic, but Indian art was more affected by what happened in Ayodhya, for whatever reasons. The destruction of the Babri Masjid marked the sharp end of the idea of a secular and socialist India and the rise of the right wing, leading to a growing violence and anxiety in Indian society. Sahmat, or the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, created by artists and intellectuals in Delhi weeks after the murder of the left theatre activist Safdar Hashmi in 1989, became an important force and platform for secular people to congregate. We were both involved in organizing their Artists Against Communalism festival in 1992 in Bombay. Sahmat, which is a gathering of some of the most important cultural and intellectual figures in India, became the progressive community that Rummana was looking for. Involvement in Sahmat and some of their ideas influenced her work profoundly and she started calling herself an ‘activist -artist’. Canadian artist Jamelieh Hassan was talking about meeting Rummana for the first time in Mumbai, how she insisted that her husband and she move from their hotel and stay with her as her guests, and their intense time together watching films. Rummana, I think, had found in Jamelieh just the role model she was looking for at the time: a feminist political artist- activist from a Muslim background.
One of the utopian ideas held by many progressive intellectuals in India and promoted by Sahmat is the idea of “syncretism”, or the invoking of a joint Hindu and Muslim cultural past, particularly manifested in the teachings of the Sufi and Bhakti saints. There is also the history of the “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb” ( Ganga- Jamuna culture) propounded by the Nawabs of Avadh which brought together the best of the Persian and Mughal cultures and the Benarasi Hindu forms in music, dance and literature, whose centre was in Lucknow and Faizabad-Ayodhya from where Rummana’s family came. Going further back in history, one could invoke Mughal Emperor Akbar’s new religion called Din e Ilahi ( Religion of God) created in 1458, intended to merge the best elements of his empire to reconcile differences, primarily drawn from Islamic and Hindu beliefs but also from Christianity, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism. These ideas of a Utopian past have offered Muslims in India a way to overcome the bitterness and deep trauma of fundamentalist attacks, connect to a common history of social harmony and justice and project a Utopian future. Taking from these ideas of syncretism, feminist ideas of the “personal is political” and images of common people’s labour and existence, Rummana created a language of images and symbols to create installations, video and live performance. The conceptual language she evolved was not minimalist but had a sensual materiality which involved deconstructing many traditional Hindu and Muslim symbols, with the women’s body (or her own body) as a container of this violence and trauma, using the aesthetics of the ruin and fragment. Her exhibition Home / Nation in the Chemould Gallery, Mumbai in 1996 was a pivotal, path breaking show. To quote Ram Rahman:
“Rummana Hussain’s Home/Nation evolved directly from her Sahmat activism. Rummana and her family had to flee their flat and remove their nameplate in an elite area of Mumbai during the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. A violent national tragedy finding its way into her personal spacedeeply shocked the artist. The communal riots in Mumbai suddenly thrust her “Muslimness” in her face in a way she had never imagined. A short while earlier, the discovery that the sores in her maid’s mouth were probably a manifestation of a thrush infection caused by HIV, and that she had hidden it in desperation from her employer, also caused great anguish for Rummana (the maid died soon after from
AIDS). It was around the same time that Rummana was diagnosed with breast cancer, to which she succumbed in 1999. This combination of events collapsed personal and national conflicts into a searing struggle in her person, which led Rummana to abandon her earlier expressionist figurative painting to search for other formal means as an artistic language. Home/Nation with its photographs of women’s open mouths, the maid rolling chapattis (Indian flatbread) in the kitchen, architectural doorways and arches, objects in bottles defining a so-called Muslim cultural identity from her roots in Lucknow, all defined the maturing language of assemblage that transformed Rummana’s work. The architectural elements came directly from her installation of Sahmat’s Hum Sab Ayodhya in Mumbai and subsequent travel to Ayodhya for Muktnaad. This work exemplifies the complete transformation of an art practice due to the events of that decade, something that occurred among many artists in India at the time.”
The exhibition In Order to Join is titled after Rummana’s work of the same name made during a residency at Art in General gallery in New York in 1998. In the video, she walks from the skyscrapers of Manhattan through the Queensboro Bridge to the crowded South Asian market at Queens – ‘joining’ the West to the East, the centre to the margins. The exhibition can be seen as a unique event where several western art stars show in a context inspired by a less-known Indian artist. As a historical show, there were works from the 1970s onward along with contemporary works, many of them based on the notion of the archive, besides being ‘from’ the archives. The sometimes bloody and visceral, sometimes funny, cool, playful, confrontational or satirically biting dark works flowed through the museum making unexpected connections between artists, “to look at works and practices that engage with a political framework …. while questioning their own position within these structures”.
At the opening of the exhibition, where Jamelie Hassan, Angela Brauwholz , Shelagh Keeley, ( from Canada) Astrid Klein ( from Germany), Sheela Gowda and myself were present, there were some interesting discussions around being a woman artist. It appears Adrian Piper has a policy of not being part of shows focusing on women, race or colour, but the curators had managed to get photographs of her early performances. (As I write, I see she has withdrawn her work from a ‘Black performance art’ show in New York). Astrid Klein talked amusingly of her student days in Dusseldorf where she found in the Academy an intensely sycophantic atmosphere dominated by the persona of Joseph Beuys and said she made a conscious move to shift to another school in Cologne. She said she would never call herself a woman artist and this was the first time she was in a wholly woman artists show. This was also the case for most of the Western artists, who never showed in a ‘woman’s’ show earlier. In an earlier generation in India, artists like Nasreen Mohammedi had rejected the description, seeing it as an effort to stigmatize them. In fact when Arpita Singh initiated the series of water colour shows with Nalini Malani, Nilima Sheikh and Madhavi Parikh in the 1990s, critic Geeta Kapur had refused to write the catalogue essay for the ‘all-woman’ shows.
However the western art scene (where art institutions have had a longer history and stronger traditions than in India) has been more intensely patriarchal, more of a white men’s club. In India, being an artist is in itself considered a rather feminine activity. It is also true that in post-colonial countries women have been active participants in politics and reform movements, helping to build the nation, and there are powerful women leaders in many fields. The founder of modern art in India is considered to be Amrita Sher-Gil for instance, who practiced in the 1930s and has influenced a generation of male artists. It is an interesting fact that while an icon of feminism like Simone de Beauvoir could get the vote in France only as late as 1947, women in India got universal franchise at the same time in 1950 with the new constitution. Post 1980s, particularly, an array of consciously feminist and articulate women artists in India made directly political work using new forms and new media and changed the whole art scene in India.
Perhaps we have to differentiate between a ‘woman artist’, which is a passive definition of gender, from a ‘feminist artist’ which is an active political position, not really defined by gender. By taking the political position you connect to the various broader debates and history of feminist thought, women’s movements and egalitarian ideas, which is a progressive platform from which we can all ‘fly’ without fear.
The Phantom Lady