“In those early amorphous years of life, when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and everything was Forever,” cites the Indian author Arundhati Roy in her seminal novel The God of Small Things. While memories—things we remember, try to hold onto, or choose to forget—may be the most personal and unspoiled parts of our consciousness, the archival past that we pursue through remnants of bygone times can echo with us in unparalleled ways.
Archival Alchemy, the 20th anniversary exhibition of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC) at Abrons Arts Center, investigates the notion of archival history through thirteen contemporary artists. Closing today, the show’s works weave threads of social, political, and personal interpretations on par with the SAWCC’s original mission to raise marginalized voices during the burgeoning discussions around identity politics in the 1990s.
Curator Saisha Grayson brings together a wide range of mixed-media artists based in and out of New York. She orchestrates a visual narrative that swiftly undertakes the exhibition’s intricate and timely approach to racial politics in our current fraught political climate, eschewing romanticization or mystification of the exhibition’s subject matter. Personal and collective traces of histories that the artists heard, witnessed, read, or watched prompt vibrant and engaging bodies of work, through which fluidity of time and ephemerality of memories resist and endure.
“Art is often thought about as a realm for exploring or exercising fantasies. And while catering to such fancies might seem a superficial aspiration, the psychological operations of fantasy and projection greatly impact how individuals and societies experience and interact with the world around them.” Grayson expresses in her catalog essay. “Artists, far more than politicians, are willing to account for the ways in which personal desires and fears are always at work, driving and redefining one’s relation to reality.”
Amy Khoshbin’s The Scheherazade Project is a multimedia installation originally performed by the artist at National Sawdust in Brooklyn in 2016. Exhibited here as an excerpt on an LED screen, the project reinterprets the myth of Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights through a digital aesthetic. Rather than depict the Persian feminist icon, the artist portrays the action from Scheherazade’s perspective, rendering the TV screen her eye and turning her into the gaze scrutinizing the murderous king Shahryar. On a mission to decapitate each woman he sleeps with to take revenge on his unfaithful wife, the patriarchal figure, helplessly leaping with rage throughout the video, faces Scheherazade’s resistance, elevating the video’s humorous and vibrant ambiance.
A Spatial Study of Ye Harvest from the Eleven-Page Letter, Golnar Adili’s installation of Japanese paper, corrugated paper and beeswax on wooden dowels, dissects a love letter penned by her late father while he was in exile. Extracting the Persian letter ye from the eleven-page text, Adili turns the letter’s elegant curve into a voluptuously abstract form and builds a meditative sculpture in which the letter embodies the agonies and longings of the diaspora experience, as well as a past that the artist is equally familiar and distant.
Karachi-based artist Marium Agha’s tempestuous tapestry sculpture A Courtier in Love-A Two Dimensional Portrait deconstructs a found tapestry, one of the tokens of Western-centric Orientalism. Torn apart into its yarns and ropes, the poetically mangled tapestry no longer reflects the romantic landscape once woven into its surface, but instead, it conveys a subtly determined political commentary. With its draping corners and shattered aura, Agha’s unadorned relic, like many of the works in the exhibition, manifests a vocal and unabashed resistance.