Archival Project, Performance, Work

WAR • ROOM • ECHO – Regarding the Pain of Other Cyborgs_Performance excerpt, Pispala, Tampere, Finland

This reading from the book took place at The Memorial of the Red Guards, who died during the Finnish Civil War in Pispala, Tampere. The inscription in the stone says, ‘On this Pispala ridge, the Red Guard in Tampere last stood with weopans in hand defending their cause in 1918’.

The project is ongoing and a copy of the book in its current state is donated to the Pispala Library on the occasion of the exhibition, ‘Where does poetry nest?’, on 6th September, 2016 in memory of the over 5000 year old Civil War that the world, it seems, has not seen enough of.

Ali Akbar Mehta

  Missä runous pesii? | Where does poetry nest?
                  08­28.09.2016
Poetry—an everlasting inquiry of art, drives language outside its
borders. Poetry sets into play every possible moment of
signification by placing the exercise of imagination at the center
of all contradictions. Poetry as an aesthetic praxis outlines our
possibilities to challenge the everyday, locating potential
transformation at the centre of our political enunciations. Poetry
contradicts and slips between the cracks of meaning, propagating
evidence that something else is there. In its intimacy, it draws
complex figures from our emotions, just to blur them into new and
old unreachable impossibles, to keep us moving, desiring.

If we listen to poetry carefully, we realise that it is something social. Its sociality is voiced as a constant transgression to the de politicised forms of enunciation; these poetic echoes keep on challenging every space of retreat. Poetry captures tautology and pushes it to the edges. Since there is no purity in poetry, it confronts general assumptions with a subtle whistle that triggers a dance of our subjectivities, nude and broken out in sweat. There is nothing too radical for poetry; even if something has already been said before, it can always be said differently.

Poetry is looking back at us from the other end laughing,
flirting, fugitive.

Poetry grounds utopia not as something reachable, but as a practice for keeping the unreachable present. Inhabiting between sentences, it bears testimony that other histories have always been present, through gluing their words together. Within it, art becomes our interlocutor for these other histories, always rebelling, always demanding justice and dignity, driven by the air which feeds change. Another history which finds in every wall not a border, but a place for public denouncement and mobilisation.

Where does poetry nest? It is not a question asking for an answer,
but a question mark waiting to be followed.
D.M.
[*] The Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros recalled this question during his
time in Lecumberri prison: “Where does poetry nest? I can’t say how long ago this
question emerged within me. But it reemerged when I listened to Macario Huízar. And
the first time I followed it through to interrogation was in prison among a group
of dopers.”
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Archival Projects, By others, Essays, Uncategorized, Writing

Odes and Inquisitions: Sino-Indian Connections in Recent Indian Art

The Joseph Batista Gardens is one of the pleasantest places in Mumbai. Sitting atop a hillock, the garden park literally lifts you out of the noise from which even the surrounding neighborhood of Mazagaon, sedate by Mumbai standards, cannot escape.

To the north and west one gains a distinct view of the many mildew-stained high-rises that contribute to one of the highest population densities in the world. To the south, one sees rows upon rows of warehouses and train sheds. And to the east, a clear view of the city’s historical raison d’etre: Mumbai harbor, populated now with freight and naval ships, once open a time with frigates and opium clippers. It is not a picturesque view, for towering in the middle is a massive, yellow gantry crane inscribed with the words “Mazagaon Dock Limited, Shipbuilders to the Nation.” As advertised, this is India’s top shipyard, creating warships and submarines for the Indian Navy, offshore platforms for the oil industry, and tankers and cargo carriers for commercial shipping.

The site of Mumbai’s former Chinatown, centered on Nawab Tank Road, lies in the crane’s shadow. The dockside location reminds one that the basis of the overseas Chinese community in India, like in most places across Asia, was the centrality of China in international maritime trade in the early modern and colonial eras. Until the eighteenth century, Mazagaon was hardly more than a Portuguese fort surrounded by fishing villages. Both pleasantly verdant and conveniently adjacent to one of the best natural harbors in Bombay, the place was bound to change when Zoroastrian Parsi merchants and the East India Company made Bombay the new commercial center of Western India. By the mid nineteenth century, Mazagaon had become a fashionable suburb for Europeans and Parsi merchants, populated with many churches, private villas, and even a couple of luxury hotels.  The shipyard dates back to the early nineteenth century. That is where the Chinese worked, reportedly mainly as nut and bolt fitters. What remains of that community, like the much larger one in Kolkata, is composed primarily of Cantonese, Hakka, and Hupei – which is to say, ethnic groups from the Pearl River Delta area and the main inland areas impacted by the opium trade that was developed by the Portuguese and the British in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

While Kolkata’s Chinatown holds on, Mumbai’s has been almost lost to oblivion. It registers so weakly in the city’s memory that even most lifelong Mumbaikars have never heard of it. Even at its height, Bombay’s Chinatown paled in comparison with that in Kolkata, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the country’s Chinese-Indian population.  One has to dig for mention of Chinese residents in histories of colonial Bombay. When they do appear, they are merely one name in the colorful and multilingual crowd of traders and immigrants from across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East that made Bombay famous as the most cosmopolitan place in the Orient. “Chinese with pig-tails; Japanese in the latest European attire; Malays in English jackets and loose turbans; Bukharans in tall sheep skin caps and woollen gabardines,” closes Commissioner of Police S. M. Edwardes in his account of the ingredients of Bombay’s melting pot streets in the first decade of the twentieth century. Also in “certain clubs in the city where a man may purchase nightly oblivion for the modest sum of two or three annas” – which is to say, in the opium dens –“the proprietor of the club may be a Musalman; his patrons may be Hindus, Christians or Chinese.” Intoxication, Edwardes observes, overcomes “distinctions of race, creed and sovereignty”  – not unlike, say, money and commerce did in the street. But when the sun went down (or, if you were an addict, when the sun came up), Bombay’s various ethnic groups returned to homes in communities that were more often than not segregated from one another.

None of this I would have known or bothered to look into had it not been for Ali Akbar Mehta’s Site : Stage: Structure (2013-14), a show at the Clark House Initiative, a quasi-non-commercial space in south Mumbai. A converted antiques shop of odd dimensions, tucked away spaces, and personal odds and ends, the Clark House tends to make everything installed in its space look like a cabinet of curiosities. Mehta’s Site : Stage : Structure – an impressionistic and sentimental survey of the neighborhood through a mix of video documentary, photographs, and personal knickknacks – appeared to be that by design.

The focus of the installation was on the personal memories of the artist’s own grandparents and grandaunts and granduncles, all Bohra Muslims (another famed merchant community) who have been living in the neighborhood since the early twentieth century. They talk through video interviews about their daily lives, and about their family business of manufacturing fishing hooks, physical samples of which hang on the wall. There were also reflections of a less personal sort, and these were aimed at capturing the historical traces of Mazagaon’s slowly disappearing cosmopolitanism. Three fat photobooks focused on aspects of the neighborhood’s buildings and people. There were also photographs, taken by Mehta and hand-colored by a painter of movie hoardings hired by the artist, of the few surviving churches, crucifixes, and bungalows that once crowded this originally Portuguese settlement. In the same series was also an image of the giant crane at Mazagaon Dock, as well as one of the nondescript pink façade (beige in reality) of a three-story building that houses, on its second floor, the only distinctive remnant of the area’s Chinatown: the Daoist Kwan Tai Shek temple, dedicated to Guan Yu, the famous general of the Three Kingdoms period. It was reportedly built by Cantonese sailors in 1919. A Buddhist temple to the bodhisattva Guanyin was established on the building’s ground floor in recent years.

In another room at Clark House, Mehta had assembled images and objects related to the Kwan Tai Shek temple. On a shelf in the corner were a handful of ritual items, including cups and an incense burner, and figurines from Journey to the West. Pinned upon the wall behind them was a grid of sheets of silver-painted joss paper, burned to send wealth to deceased ancestors. A cabinet in another corner of the room contained various Chinese vessels. Some of the displayed objects were culled from the temple and its caretaker’s home. Others were fashioned by the artist in a makeshift manner (simple canisters splashed with red paint, for example) similar to that used at the temple itself to create facsimiles of items not available in Mumbai

The centerpiece of the installation was a twelve-minute video. It featured artfully shot details of things like the temple’s bright red ceiling, burning incense, and armored Daoist gods. Some information about the temple’s history and its rituals are given in the voiceover, provided by the temple’s jaunty caretaker in a comically round accent. “No way, not while I’m alive,” he says, responding to an unheard question of whether the temple will be dissolved and the land sold. Yet his defiance, and the fact that on most days the temple stays locked and unused, raises the specter that perhaps this generation of Chinese-Indians will be the last to stand up for tradition.

Granted, the Chinese settlement was only one part of Site : Stage : Structure. But as the installation overall could have benefited from a clearer mapping of the neighborhood’s shifting demographics, so the Kwan Tai Shek component might have foregrounded why Bombay’s Chinatown has been reduced to fragments. In 1962, during the Sino-Indian War, many Chinese-Indians, not unlike Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, were either deported if they didn’t have Indian citizenship or sent to internment camps in Rajasthan and Gujarat if they did. Returning to their homes after the war ended, many found their property and businesses damaged or confiscated. In the spring of 1963, the PRC sent ships to India to repatriate those who wished to relocate to China. Others moved on their own to Western countries, many to Canada.  The exodus continues to the present, with growing business opportunities throughout Asia, including China of course. Many of those who are educated abroad choose to stay on in those countries.

Though the internment camps and resulting outmigration are noted in a few scholarly texts, no historian has undertaken a full study. This episode was made known to a wider public a few years ago through Rafeeq Elias’s The Legend of Fat Mama (2012), a documentary for the BBC about Kolkata’s shrinking Chinatown. The story Elias tells of persecution, marginalization, and disappointed emigration applies also to Mumbai, judging from the extensive wall text at Mehta’s Clark House installation. “According to Tulun Chen, Mumbai-based chairman of the Maharashtra Chinese Association,” reports Mehta from one of his many interviews with the community, “there are just around 3,500 Chinese in Mumbai, down from an estimated 15,000 in the mid-1960s.” Those who remain are now third and fourth generation. If they have not disappeared into Indian society, they run hairdressers and Chinese restaurants, including some of the most famous in the city.

Sketch-like though it might be, Mehta’s project is the most focused attempt to document the history and fate of Chinese-Indians in Mumbai. Information about the community is otherwise available only in the form of spotty online travel and entertainment blogs. Some of the artists and curators associated with the Clark House conduct related forms of urban history and ethnographic research, though I have never seen anything at the gallery on the scale of Site : Stage : Structure. Such projects not only enrich Mumbai’s art scene by offering something other than aesthetic wall-hangings and floor pieces, or theory-laden group shows. They also contribute to the city’s self-knowledge as a place with a conflicted and tangled cosmopolitan past. In an era in which rightwing groups continue to insist on Mumbai narrowly as a Hindu Marathi city, counter-historical practices like Site : Stage : Structure serve much more than ethnographic curiosity.

 

Ryan Holmberg

2014

*

 

Ryan Holmberg is an art and comics historian. After receiving his PhD in Japanese Art Historyfrom Yale University in 2007, he taught at the University of Chicago, City University of New York, and the University of Southern California. He is a frequent contributor to Art in America, Artforum, Yishu, and The Comics Journal, and is editor of two lines of translated manga from PictureBox, Inc. in New York: Ten Cent Manga, which focuses on the impact of American comics and mass entertainment on Japanese manga, and Masters of Alternative Manga. As a Sainsbury Fellow, Ryan is undertaking research that would eventually lead to the publication of his book project Garo and the Birth of Alternative Manga.

Ryan happened to walk in one fine day into Clark House, when he was researching a piece on Sino-Indian Connections in Recent Indian Art, which was published in the January/February 2015 volume of YISHU.

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Archival Project, Work

Kruunuvuori: The Perfect Ghosts of Helsinki

In in the midst of an old forest, next to a pond that could be anywhere in wilderness is the area of Kruunuvuori, which in the etymology of Suomi means ‘The Crown Mountain’ – which is about three kilometres from Market Square in the very centre of Helsinki as the crow flies – has ghostlike old villas hidden amidst ancient forest left at the mercy of nature, with only the slow inevitable passing of time as its companion. Dilapidated and forgotten for decades, these villas still struggle against elements and time.

The Kruunuvuori villas – one of Helsinki’s oddest and simultanously the most treasured and the most publicly well known secrets, may probably not exist for much long longer – (many believe that the year 2015 is the last year of the presumably indefinite building ban that it was placed under, and so the demolition of almost all of the villas could very well take place in the Summer of 2016). Of all the villas surviving their various states of ruins, only a few seem to be structurally sound enough to be conserved as Heritage Sites, although that they will be done so, is doubtful.

It’s hard to experience the Kruunuvuori villas without thinking of Charles Dickinson’s Miss Havisham’s abandoned mansion. After being left at the alter, the estranged character lets time be the sole master of her house and mind:

 

It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a long table with a table-cloth spread on it, as if the feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable. 

– Great Expectations

 

It used to be a village full of villas built in 19th century, when Laajasalo and all of eastern Helsinki were just fields and forests. The stunning coastline and lush forest made it a paradise. In 1905 Jacob Cygnaeus, (the son of the founder of Finland’s previous grammar school system Uno Cygnaeus), bought the area, and in 1914 it was sold to a German commercial councellor Albert Goldbeck-Löwe. Albert Goldbeck-Löwe acquired the area and developed it into a resort for the upper classes and the wealthy Germans who lived in Helsinki, but over time it became available to the middle class masses as well. The period from 1920 to 1950 are considered the peak golden years of the Kruunuvuori villas, with a steam boat service run for the residents connecting to the main land city of Helsinki.

After Germany lost the Second World War, ­as part of the armistice between Germany and the Soviet Union, The Governing Body of foreign properties moved the Germany-owned Kruunuvuori to the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Finland and it became a holiday resort for its members. After that it was used by the Soviet Union and Finnish communists.

In 1955 the founder of Palkki Oy, Aarne J. Aarnio bought the area and in the late 1960’s architectural company Toivo Korhonen envisioned a city plan ofor 2800 citizens with 78900 floor squares of residential development. The signature of the deed of sale was the proverbial fatal blow to the status of premium and delux villa communities. Aarnio’s interest in construction was the development of a residential area – not the maintainance of a villa area.

Drawn up in 1968, the building plan included up to 12-story tower houses. However, the city did not want to agree to such a thing, because the area was too remote, the planned infrastructure was too massive and the task of construction would have been no small thing. And so, zoning laws hindered the construction plans – Aarnio tried to get the area zonimg and building permits from the governemnt proposing the building plan in 1977 – and again in 1982 with a reduced floor area. And once again 1998 – to no avail, the city governemnt was by now developing the southern part of the Laajasalo Peninsula – the Oil Port area for future use.

Of course, the villas still belonged to their former owners and while the community remained vibrant and active for a while, a feeling of uncertainty began to creep in and maintenance of buildings was soon being neglected. The negative successive building permit made Aarnio loose interest in the project – and the area was ordered to a building ban ­­. Silently, the decadence faded, and decay began to seize the mountain. In an ironical twist of fate resulting from thisstalemate, more than 90% of the region is owned by the CEO, who cannot do anything with it due to non-compliance of the governement, and the City Planning project concerning the Oil port in southern Laajasalo is already underway

The vast majority of villas are dilapidated, collapsed or burned. Last arson was 04/06/2015, when the red cottage – Lilla Kronberg turned into heaps of coal. In 2011, Helsinki was doing a study of two or three of the villa on the protection, but since then nothing has been heard. One of the possibly to-be-protected villa has been destroyed as a result of arson. The museovirastokin mapping found that two of the Kruunuvuoren villas are still active and urgent measures may still be salvageable, although the refurbishment would probably be too expensive an option.

The Crown Mountain is a mysterious place, ideally seen and experienced in person. Amongst the woods and fog stands this beautifully sad monument, a decaying memory of the old glory days of the aristocracy and high bourgeoisie that still resists the ravages of wind, snow and builders without scruples.

The possibility of alienation in a city that claims cosmopolitanism as a constant, cannot be attributed to the loss of cultural space specifically due to revisits to the city’s history, but bizarrely it has and specifically in particular covering up of history that attempts to erase many diverse histories. The Project aims to shed light and make people aware of the forgotten public and personal histories related to the Kruunuvuori Villas. it fights nostalgia by documenting it, recreating it through videos, conversations, staging ethnographic reconstructions and most importantly through a dissemination of information that is misconstrued and twisted to hide facts in plain sight.

Ali Akbar Mehta

2015

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By others, Essays, Uncategorized, Writing

The Possibility of Alienation

 

The possibility of alienation in a city that claims cosmopolitanism as a constant, cannot be attributed to the loss of cultural space specifically due to revisits to the city’s history, but bizarrely it has and specifically in particular name change that occurred many years go now erases those many diverse histories.  Ali Akbar Mehta studied at the JJ School of Art that stood at the beginning of the road that leads into the city’s eastern districts.  As one drives onto a flyover that shares the same name with Ali’s school and was built to circumvent the congestion and surely the people who gather at Bombay’s famous Bhendi Bazaar, one witnesses many ‘Stars of David’ that adorn the muralesque facades of the neo-gothic and art deco buildings that exist on the stretch.  Here ‘Mumbaikars’ stare into the homes from the cars of a community whom they might not easily find in the endogamous housing societies of Bombay.

The buildings that line the roads of Bhendi Bazaar were built by Jewish merchants who were Sephardic immigrants from Baghdad and were initially inhabited by indigenous Bene Israelis from the Konkan hinterland, soon Muslim tenants replaced the migrating Baghdadis and the area soon was host to many different merchant communities which include the Dawoodi Bohras, Jains, Ismaili Khojas and Memons.  In the days of a siege that slaughters thousands in Palestine, Jewish charity runs a school mostly attended by Muslim children while the synagogue is colloquially called the mosque.  Not far from here is Mazgaon that translates from Marathi as ‘My village’. The varied urbanscape today actually arose from leafy plantation houses that once house the East Indians of Bombay and Parsis who were escaping the malarial crowd of the city.  The East Indians were descended mainly from indigenous fishing communities that were converted to Catholicism by the missionaries’ activities of Portuguese missionaries and inquisitions against the locale populace.   A certain bourgeoise arose from families that claimed Mulatto or Portuguese descent, one such family was the De Souza – De Lima family that was granted Mazgaon as an agricultural estate.  The Island of Bombay contained many East Indian villages and Matharpakadi is one that remains though constantly nudged by realtors essentially a village.

Mazgaon was a geography of military intrigue and was fought over for by the Abyssinians sealords of the Mughals, Marathas and the Parsis.  These wars changed the use of land in the area as it was distributed.  The Parsis specifically the Wadia family began a ship building yards, the Bohri Muslims began to service the trade as grocers, petty exporters and in recent years the primary actors in the marine hardware and boat construction business.  The Chinese dockworkers, dentists and tanners set up a China town with a Taoist temple and a cemetery not far away.  The Chinatown was dismantled after the Indo-China war along with its Mahjong clubs and its residents packed of to internment camps in the arid heat of Rajasthan.

Ali Akbar Mehta maps Matharpacady, the remnants of Chinatown, his Bohri grandparent’s apartment and the Wadi Bunder where ships are brought to be torn apart on the dry dock. Here he fights nostalgia by documenting it, recreating it through videos, conversations and staging ethnographic reconstructions of people’s homes within Clark House.  The structure of the art space, which is of an early 20th century colonial apartment, lends itself with ease to these interventions.  Through these interventions Ali stages a dramatic critique on the ghettoisation of the city on communal lines into two communal flanks of east and west after riots of 1993.  Alienation manifests in drawings of superheroes who stretch across the city’s skyline, these are drawn on gateway paper illuminated using the reflection of light and mirror. They are placed aside scenes of the Mazgaon recreated by a poster painter who refers through Ali’s photographs while rendering them using a palette of colour scene in the colonial Bombay School and often used to stage revisits to the city’s history by Bollywood.  Site, Structure and Stage thus reclaims a space by revisiting certain histories purposefully ignored in writing the city’s history by creating narratives around architecture, language, mercantile culture and personal histories around a site that demarcates a certain geography.

 

Sumesh Sharma

Curator, Clark House

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