As someone who grew up in Bangalore and came into an identity through Bengaluru, there is a deeply wrenching dichotomy one is forced to negotiate and live with. Janaki Nair’s wonderful book on Bengaluru, The Promise of the Metropolis, traces this to a spatial and linguistic division between the pete (native quarters) and the cantonment (British military station). This dichotomy splits and fragments further through gender, class, caste marking every aspect of one’s interaction with the city. Contemporary art practice, constructed through hegemonies of race, class, caste and language, has been engaged in positing a version of history. The recent exhibition ‘The Bangalore Hunt’ by the faculty of contemporary art at Srishti Institute of Art Design and Technology, Bengaluru is another such attempt at a reiteration of hegemonic constructions of the imagination of a city.
The exhibition which happened over a weekend in June, at Venkatappa Art Gallery in Bengaluru, responded to an archive of photographs of Stephen (Simon) Simmons, a British military man stationed in Bengaluru during the 1930s, about the Bangalore hunt. This exhibition is an important marker within the larger framework of the battle over Venkatappa Art Gallery. The Government of Karnataka, on the advice of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group (KTVG), identified this building as a potential tourist site needing development and entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Tasveer Foundation, a private entity, in July 2015 for a handover. For long, Venkatappa Art Gallery, has nurtured artists as they started out on their careers, supported regional artists as they came here to Bengaluru to exhibit, functioning like how a public gallery should. Artists from Karnataka have, since February 2016, gathered around under the name of VAG Forum, to protest this takeover and this exhibition is one amongst a series of events performed as protest.
Ayesha Abraham, an organizer of the exhibition and a member of VAG Forum, in her introductory text to the exhibition says, “Looking at these photographs again evokes the past and what has been lost”. The photographs, that populate the archive of Simmons, represent a history, the violence of which has been erased in ways that enable that violence to continue into the contemporary. The exhibition embeds itself in a history of an arts practice defining itself in its opposition to the unruly chaotic caste and language based democratic appropriations of street and visual space. It creates a desire, a nostalgia that ends up ironically supporting private capital’s appropriation of public space. It understands British rule as, benign and even longed for, a narrative that links itself up to the history of cantonment.
Smriti Mehra and Matt Lee’s work, in the exhibition, on the rescued beagles and their adoption process questioned the ways in which care is defined, as possible only through a set of rules that excludes by putting forth the rejection letter from CUPA for the adoption. The work ends up making the rejection problematic rather than the desire, which somehow is understandable? Amitabh Kumar’s work, 57th Bangalore, harks back to a myth that explains the founding of the city of Bengaluru. The myth speaks of Kempegowda, the founder of Bengaluru, as witnessing a hare chasing a hound and that becoming the omen for the choice of place for the founding of the city. The place, where Kempegowda spots the hare, is named as ‘gandu bhoomi’. English interprets the word ‘gandu’ as heroic when in actuality it means man/masculinity in Kannada. If the beginnings of a city are constructed around ideas of masculinity then what does reproducing such a myth through art do? It renders the art work’s masculinity safe and legitimate within the art space as compared to caste and language based mobilization that traces the claim to the city through its ‘son of the soil’ narrative which is seen as ‘uncouth’ and ‘parochial’. Aditi Banerjee’s work which addresses caste looking at the brides/grooms classified section is a trope that feels clichéd. A caste breakdown of the artists who exhibited or even the faculty itself at Srishti which points to a White, Brahmanical, non-Kannadiga structuring might have actually been a political and truly radical response to the archive. The works at the exhibition are a symptom of art’s caste, class and race blindness in their production rendering artists complicit.
Alison Byrnes, an organizer of the exhibition, in her introductory text to the exhibition states, “cultural occupation is perhaps more insidious, and thus more dangerous”. This is terribly ironic since Srishti has institutional collaborations set up with two of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group members, the very same group gunning for privatizing the gallery.
The narratives produced at the exhibition keep in spirit with the narratives being produced by VAG Forum’s leadership. The leadership’s directive around the forms of protest – no placards, no street protests is indicative of the way it sees democratic occupations of the street as chaotic, unruly, emotional, plebian. It performs the aesthetic as protest even though, hidden in the background, a whole host of other methods are being employed such as government lobbying. The leadership’s refusal to align with the employees’ union even though they are all set to lose their jobs with the takeover, frames art as a privileged space where workers are not welcome. Its refusal to organize the community into a union points to the fear inherent in the leadership about horizontal organizing. All these were proposals put forward, during meetings, which were struck down by the leadership without any vote. In their letter to the tourism minister, the VAG Forum leadership has asked for a three year programming control in an attempt to activate the space as a contemporary art gallery. This in art language means that the space will now be curated. As seen, through this very particular exhibition, curation is deeply embedded within class, race and caste structures. This exhibition, VAG Forum’s leadership and Tasveer Foundation sadly stand on similar ideological ground. The battle for Venkatappa Art Gallery was a battle already lost even before it began.
The author is a facilitator and independent researcher whose work engages with image, image production and circulation. Her interests revolve around representative practices, image and truth, witnessing and testimony and participatory methodologies. She is based in Bengaluru.