A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to catch the last day of an extraordinary exhibition in Mumbai. Titled India in the World, the exhibition is a collaborative project between the CSMVS Museum in Mumbai and the British Museum in London. The Mumbai museum’s director, Sabyashachi Mukherjee sets out an ambitious purpose for the exhibition in his foreword: “It gives an opportunity to people from diverse countries and cultures to become partners in the world narrative and motivates them to reclaim and reposition their own unique, regional, national and global identities in the changing cultural landscape of the world.”
The section of the exhibition devoted to Faith, for example, offers the juxtaposition of a stone Ganesha figure from Java, dated AD100-1200, with the polychromed wooden figure of Christ from Goa in India between AD1560-1620. The gracefully plump figure of the elephant god, rapt in divine meditation and adorned with jewels could not be in greater contrast to the attenuated figure of the Man of Sorrows, every rib visible in his emaciated torso, the quality of the carved wood translating the thin drapery of his loincloth. As a means to explore what we worship, how we worship, how we visualise spirituality, this is powerful stuff.
The East End of London has for centuries welcomed successive waves of people from across the globe, fleeing conflict, famine and persecution. The area is famously polyglot; the entrepreneurial efforts of new arrivals setting up restaurants to showcase their national cuisine have helped to establish one nationality after another as part of the community.
Food brings people together like perhaps no other element of our lives. Fourthland, an artists’ collective comprising Louise Sayarer and Eva Knutsdotter, have been working with the residents of the Wenlock Barn Estate in Hackney since 2008. Their project has included establishing micro-allotments, an orchard, and a salad-growing scheme. They have also introduced traditional crafts like wool spinning, bread making, carpentry and music making. With these activities they have brought together residents of the estate whose heritage is in Bangladesh, Kurdistan, Serbia, Turkey, Uganda and the West Indies, as well as across Europe. Their purpose is to ‘create new kinships and folklore’, drawing on their hand skills as well as other culturally specific knowledge to create a unique composite.
The exhibition at PEER comprises a first room filled with an assemblage of quasi-mystical objects made by the artists. In the second space, a 16mm film made in collaboration with Rosalind Fowler features the group of residents engaged in ritual performances of their own devising. The aesthetic of both parts of the exhibition is that of ethnography. The grainy 16mm film, which is predominantly black and white, makes it hard to pinpoint the action in historical time. It is only when you glimpse the UPVC windows of a neighbouring building that you are fixed in the 2010s. There is a proliferation of circles: circular cooking pans and enameled basins, loaves of bread; circular apertures through which solemn children look and a boy with a hula-hoop. The artists record the performers in a series of actions and tableaux with dignity and beauty. They are consummate image-makers. Each individual is distinct, their actions patently imbued with personal significance and memories. The soundtrack was composed using domestic objects from the home of one of the participants – at times an ambient, aural texture, at others it coalesces into urgent rhythms.
Fourthland are interested in collective creation, the invention of an imaginary land with its own myths and traditions. They describe an interest in process-based psychology, a branch of the discipline that extends dream analysis to include work with people’s body symptoms and bodily experiences in a way that is more familiar in African cultures, for example. Fourthland’s long running cross-cultural project on the Wenlock Barn Estate has a utopian slant with a very 21st century character. Major cultural manifestations such as the exhibition India in the World, Okwei Enwezor’s epic endeavor at the Munich Haus der Kunst Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965, or most recently the new BBC series Civilisations that launched last night, present a radical challenge to the old, Eurocentric canons and make us think globally at last.
Working on a hyper-local level, Fourthland and Fowler’s project explores what living with a global perspective feels like: how it alters our personal imaginary, our habits, our modes of living together; bringing together different symbolic and ritual registers in a way that suggests the possibility of a real advance in the way society operates.
PEER, 97-99 Hoxton Street, London N1 6QL. Wednesday – Saturday 12.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 14 April 2018. www.peeruk.org