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Remembering Partition with New North South: Reena Saini Kallat

Manchester Museum’s new exhibition redefines borders and bonds as Arts Editor Cicely Ryder-Belson previews the show with artist Reena Saini Kallat


In anticipation of the official opening of the main exhibitions of the New North South programme — the drive to bring South Asian art to the North of England — we get to preview how Indian artist Reena Saini Kallat responds to the Manchester Museum’s collection of natural sciences, with the artist herself.

As Kallat introduced her newest solo exhibition, she spoke of how it centred on an inherent dialogue which exists between humans and nature. Her latest pieces, which span from drawings to sculpture, strive to create deliberate hybrid forms which animate existing objects with a new identity and history.

This concept is bound up with the complexities of partition and postcolonialism, two areas which are still felt prevalently in South Asia. Kallat, however, invites the audience to see how borders do not necessarily represent a restriction – but instead play an essential role in creating our complex existence.

Her playful new conception initially takes places in the first suite of the exhibition titled ‘Hyphenated Lives’, in which she creates a series of imagined species which become a new entity in themselves. In often using animals, birds and nature which are otherwise “foregrounded as national symbols and proclaimed by nations as their own” she combines them to unify the conflicted nations they have come to embody.

Kallat spoke remorsefully of how national symbols are meant to unite, yet so often they become a point of conflict in strife to take ownership of them. She resists against this politicisation of nature and instead creates almost fantastical beings from anatomical like drawings.

This idea originated when she came to Manchester Museum initially and saw the taxidermy of Maude the ‘Tigon’ they have on display. This animal had a tiger as a father and a lion as a mother and was housed in Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoo from 1936–1949. This sparked a conversation about how identity can be formed and reformed.

Of the latest exhibition, Kallat stated: “I felt the need to turn to species other than the human race to tell us how to cohabit the planet, where the existence of one depends on the other or the disappearance of one species affects the other adversely.” Here we can see how in the title of the body of work, ‘Hyphenated Lives’, the hyphen has come to stand for more than just a linguistic device — but instead represents a union.

This culminated in Manchester Museum’s commission for her to produce Cleft (2017) a utopian landscape where her newly created, hybrid animals roam the earth and sky and gaze inquisitively back towards the viewer.  Yet the piece is intersected with electric cable wire, which is a material which carries a dual identity which at once represents  how modern telecommunication has brought us together, whilst also representing how wires are used to denote “borders, barriers and suspicion.”

The material symbolism of the wire becomes a recurrent image in her work, as the second room of the exhibit has pieces such as Anatomy of Distance (2014) and Half Oxygen (2014) which have a much more sculptural presence. The electric cable as a transmitter is a contradiction which Kallat focuses on – at once a carrier and a barrier.

In Half Oxygen the piece is framed by a pair of lungs as the wires are threaded through them, to create two counterpart trees — one the banyan tree, India’s national tree, and the other the deodar, Pakistan’s national tree. Yet these two depictions stem from the same roots and are entangled in the same wires – embodying their shared history.

In Anatomy of Distance Kallat yet again responds to her national history, as the cables are woven across metal frames to imitate the Line of Control, a ceasefire line drawn in 1971 between India and Pakistan, which divides the region of Kashmir and its communities and families in two. Kashmir is still claimed by both countries and is patrolled by a large military presence. Kallat echoes this by having alarms and lights which are activated by surrounding movements, encouraging the audience to negotiate this duality which has been so inherent in her home country.

Kallat succeeds in articulating these tensions and creates an accomplished enquiry into identity and history. The exhibition extends also to the third floor of the museum, as she masterfully utilises a museum space, so concentrated around nature and being. Her intervention into bonds and barriers happens throughout the museum and can be read back into the existing artefacts and collections of the museum.

Reena Saini Kallat is exhibiting her solo show at the Manchester Museum from the 30th of September 2017 – 25th February 2018.