To the outside world, the rapport between India and Pakistan is characterised by the political tensions that have simmered, and at times boiled over, since partition in 1947. Yet contemporary art is an arena in which the two nations enjoy a more fruitful relationship. Non-profit programmes such as Khoj in Delhi and Vasl in Karachi, for example, regularly invite artists from both countries to work on shared platforms.
The decision to unite for an exhibition at the Venice Biennale, though, ranks as perhaps the most high-profile initiative yet. Housed in the 17th-century Palazzo Benzon on the Grand Canal and curated by Natasha Ginwala, the show’s participants are Shilpa Gupta, who is based in Mumbai, and Rashid Rana from Lahore. Two of the leading artists of their generation, their work has been shown in institutions and galleries from London to Singapore.
The catalyst for the pavilion is the businesswoman and philanthropist Feroze Gujral. Born into an illustrious Muslim family in Hyderabad, Gujral is herself a hybrid: her father is half- Indian and half-Arab; her mother half-Indian and half-British. As well as having been one of India’s most famous fashion models, Gujral has sustained arts projects in the region for many years. Recipients of support from her eponymous foundation include the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and the south Asian contingent of artists featured at least year’s Berlin Biennale.
When I ask her how the idea for the joint show came about, Gujral recalls: “I was at the Venice Biennale a couple of years ago, sheltering from the rain in one of the pavilions. I was thinking: ‘Where is the Indian pavilion? Where is the Pakistan pavilion?’ ” Indeed, that year neither country was represented. (Pakistan has not appeared there in an official capacity since 1956; India had a space for the first time in 2011 but was absent in 2013.) As she mused, she realised that the person standing next to her was Rashid Rana. The pair fell into conversation, and the seed of the show, entitled My East is your West, was sown.
Gupta was an obvious choice of partner. “Her work is poignant, fragile and very direct. His [Rana’s] is expansive, strong and rather large,” observes Gujral. The two artists already knew each other well. Rana is a familiar face on the Indian art scene, and he is currently represented by the Chemould Gallery in Mumbai as well as Lisson Gallery in London. Although Gupta’s work has had less exposure in Pakistan, where the commercial gallery scene is less developed, she has worked with Rana before on the cross-border project “Aar Paar”, in which artists from Mumbai and Karachi installed public works in each other’s territories.
Born in 1976, Gupta recalls Mumbai’s sectarian riots of 1992 as a formative experience. “I started to think about how you categorise people through places and memory,” she tells me. Her work often draws on her experience of visiting the borders of her country with those of Bangladesh and Kashmir, part of which is controlled by India and part by Pakistan.
In Venice, she presents a performance by an actor tracing an anonymous shape on carbon paper. It rests on a pile of cloth, the width of a sari and one thousandth of the length of the 3,400km security barrier, the longest in the world, that India is currently building along its perimeter with its neighbour Bangladesh. “It’s about the relationship between geographies,” she explains. “The tracing could be of anything: a body, a country or a map.” In other words, the state can fence in a border but the human imagination is limitless.
Rana’s works on show include the immersive nine-channel video work, “My Sight Stands in the Way of your Memory”, which marries Caravaggio’s gory masterpiece, “Judith Beheading Holofernes”, with pixelated news reportage, CCTV footage and clips from action films. He hopes it will act as a metaphor for his perception that boundaries are more permeable than we think. “Pakistan, for example, is a country where first and third world coexist. I can get a better internet connection in Lahore than Venice.
“From the outside, Pakistan is often considered in terms of, say, the status of women, but actually it’s somewhere that’s both rich and poor,both technologically advanced and very backwards. The arts school where I teach [the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore] is in many ways the same as any liberal arts school in the world.”
Both artists see their collaboration as a precious opportunity. On the chance to “come together on a platform like Venice, which likes to [regard] pavilions as a nation state,” Gupta says, “I can’t tell you, it’s exceptional.” Rana, though, is more circumspect. “I hope this . . . doesn’t become the only lens through which the show is seen,” he says. For him, the pavilion is “from the subcontinent as a region . . . rather than an Indo-Pak collaboration.” The latter, he says, while apparently “a challenge to the arch-rival stereotype at first glance, actually reinforces the idea of India and Pakistan as polar binaries”.
Gujral sees the pavilion as a reflection of the fact that the two cultures are more alike than they are different. “We are from the same subcontinent. We are similar people. We look the same. We have similar dislikes and likes. You don’t find Pakistani and Indian people in the street who hate each other. That’s a political agenda.”
So far neither artist has received anything but support for their decision to collaborate. “In the world of art, there is a certain kind of openness,” says Gupta. “A project like this is celebrated as a friendly gesture.”
Rana believes that, indirectly at least, art can make a difference to political situations. “Art has a trickle-down effect. It is like a virus which makes its way into the system.”
Gupta, meanwhile, puts it more poetically: “Artists can imagine freely and [therefore] make leaps across stale bureaucratic corridors.”
She describes the initiative as an example of the “soft power of culture” and hopes it may offer “a useful strategy” for other nations in similar situations. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see an entire biennale devoted to collaborations between countries who are disputing their borders?