A sari sensation ...but no explanation

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Telling Tales is the title of an unusual touring exhibition which is promoting the work of five contemporary women artists from India. While a few British-based artists from the Subcontinent enjoy a high profile in the UK, we seldom get the chance to see art that has originated in India itself, far less the work of five women.

For this reason alone I was attracted to the exhibition, not to speak of its potential as a resource for curriculum work around history and geography topics and non-European art.

Telling Tales is an apt title. Each artist seems to have something she really wants to say and has chosen her medium accordingly, be it paint, photography, textiles or installation. If you had to give the display a label, you could call it "international conceptualism", but I welcomed the fact that the individual works are very specifically rooted in the culture of India. The major installation is an evocative reconstruction of history by Rummana Hussain. Brushing through banners, you enter a tomb which tells the story of a Warrior Princess who led an army against the British in 1857. She was defeated and driven out of Lucknow, but the bed of rice and the cast papaya on the floor are intended to be seen as symbols of her resistance.

Colonial themes can also be seen in a more personal form in the work of Ayisha Abraham. By manipulating photographic images she produces bizarre, idiosyncratic portraits like that of a little Indian girl clinging to a blonde, blue-eyed doll.

Anita Dube's work draws on her own childhood - "the anatomy lessons of my father mix with the vulnerable embroidered tablecloths of my mother". In Dube's post-modern hands these ingredients are transformed into a series of small-scale, exquisitely-made sculptures, produced by covering artificial bones in crimson velvet and dripping jewels.

Also working in textiles, Sheela Gowda shows two large wall pieces. The more powerful piece is made of blood-red rope, and coils across the wall in serpentine fashion until it finally culminates in a flash of needles. This I took to be a barbed feminist comment. Lastly, Pushmalan N. has photographed herself in Bombay in true Bollywood style, presenting the story of a vamp and her alter ego.

The exhibition as a whole has a strong visual impact, but at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, where I saw it, the meanings were not sufficiently explained in the accompanying texts.

One wall in the Warrior Princess's tomb, for instance, is covered in hanging roses and worn metal tools. They seem to suggest funeral rites, but their significance is not explained. Then there is Sheela Gowda's second wall sculpture apparently based on an old tale of revenge. Frustratingly, the story was not revealed, which meant the meaning remained a mystery, and the impact of the piece was the poorer for it.

At Bath whole day workshops for KS2 and KS3 pupils took storytelling as their theme. Year 10 pupils took an extended three-day workshop covering the feminist and anti-colonial issues and creating their own installation.

JANE NORRIE

Touring details: Newlyn Art Gallery , February 13-March 15: Nottingham Castle Museum March 27-May 24: Firstsite, Colchester, all September

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