The Art of Collective Activism

One of Sahmat's hand-painted auto-rickshaws. Photo courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

One of Sahmat’s hand-painted auto-rickshaws. Photo courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

I could feel a great divide at the opening of “The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989.” The foyer of the Smart Museum was filled with a motley audience of well-dressed couples, many of them Indian; a few families; and students with backpacks.

Waiters holding trays of hors d’ouevres navigated through the maze of people holding wine glasses and expressively using their hands to tell stories. At one point, music began to play, and the crowd parted for a performance by a group of students in traditional Indian dress.

But then, as soon as I stepped through the glass doors and into the gallery section of the museum, all was quiet. The same couples and students that had just been joyously clapping to the beat as Indian dancers twirled now stood solemnly in contemplation.

This division attests to the spirit that the artists of the Sahmat Collective embody. The pieces displayed a delicate balance of celebration and disapproving sadness in reflecting on Indian history.

The Sahmat Collective came into being when Safar Hashmi, a writer and political activist in Delhi, was shot and killed during a street performance in 1989. Hashmi was famous for his street performances, which he used as a peaceful medium for voicing his discontent with the fundamentalism he believed to be corrupting the Indian government. His death sparked a coalition of writers, painters, scholars, poets, photographers, and designers to rise together and create Sahmat, carrying out Hashmi’s wish for freedom of creative expression.

The exhibit itself is designed as an interactive timeline of Sahmat’s history, beginning with the collective’s founding and finishing with its current status in the international art community. Told through twelve different case studies, this story is facilitated by large blocks of text and corresponding dates displayed on the walls throughout the gallery. But it is the art that does most of the talking.

Jessica Moss, the associate curator of contemporary art at the museum, explained that in order to fully experience the exhibit, it is important to consider Sahmat’s roots.

“One of things that I was really interested in about the show and about Sahmat was the way the art was contextualized in the political climate in which the art was made and reacting against,” Moss says. “So I think an interesting thing to think about when you are walking through the exhibit is the broader context in which the work was made.”

Atul Dodiya, "B for Bapu." Photo courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

Atul Dodiya, “B for Bapu.” Photo courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

Many of Sahmat’s earlier projects were interactive in their formation, calling on the local community to be both artist and audience. In one piece, small squares of canvas are quilted together. The canvases had been disturbed around the community for individuals to decorate and return. The contributions range from peaceful watercolors of fishing boats, violent depictions of fantastic monsters, and lines of Hindi in black charcoal. The beauty of this piece comes from its paradoxical nature of both diversity and coherence.

In the same room, a red and yellow rickshaw sits in a corner, the one place in the gallery where I see people jokingly interact with each other, as they sit in the little car and snap pictures on their iPhones. The description on the wall explains that the rickshaw is just one of many constituting a project in which Sahmat artists tagged the backs of rickshaws throughout Delhi with peaceful slogans.

Farther into the exhibit, the pieces are no longer representations of projects Sahmat has done in the past, but are more contemporary art pieces created by artists for display.

In one installation, domestic objects such as Q-tips, bangles, and nails are sealed off in jars, calling to mind a sense of fearful isolation and abandonment. Another piece, serving as a “symbol of the daily grind,” is a metal-barred shutter that is pulled down over shops at closing time and separates me from a black-and-white photograph of Gandhi. Before reading the plaque, however, I thought it was a prison cell.

One particularly striking piece is perhaps the simplest in form in the exhibit. In the corner, a long strand of handmade pearls hangs from the ceiling and falls into a pile on the floor, the artist’s creation of her own “river of tears.” Looking at this piece, I realized that the artists of Sahmat were not using pain, but honesty, to extract beauty.

Before I had walked through the exhibit, I skimmed through the picture books, written by Hashmi himself, that were on display in the foyer. They were simple and straightforward with narrative-like proverbs and bright illustrations that appeared to be done by a child. But they seemed to say that peace is so simple that even a child can understand it.

Perhaps the Sahmat philosophy can be summarized by the last page of the picture book entitled “The Red Flower”:

“It is easy to sit and cry when things go wrong somewhere, but if someone has the sense and cares to make a try things will come right again. And all shall be happy and gay. All shall be happy and gay. All shall be happy and gay. All shall be happy and gay.”

Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through June 9. Tuesday-Wednesday, 10am-5pm; Thursday, 10am-8pm; Friday-Sunday, 10am-5pm. Free. (773)702-0200. smartmuseum.uchicago.edu