The Rubin Museum of New York has a reputation for focusing on rare and spiritual yearnings through rituals and art from Nepal and Tibet; the fascinating worlds of the Himalayas both new and ancient. It is a jewel of a museum that New Yorkers and travelers passing through should visit.
Its current exhibit, “Clapping with Stones: Art and Acts of Resistance”, could not be more relevant to the here, now and the very concrete current challenges we face daily in the rollback of civil liberties. Artists have their ears, minds and hearts to the ground, cocked toward humanity, and are thus able to produce and share this incredibly powerful collection of installations on view through January 6, 2020.
The renewed culture wars have resurfaced globally (we have experienced them continually under Reagan, Bush, and now #45). Sara Raza, the former Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, Middle East and North Africa, who was invited by the Rubin in the fall of 2018 to organize this exhibition reminded us of the well-known expression: “When the U.S. sneezes, the whole world catches a cold.”
This group of artists, who hail from New York City to New Delhi, India; to Nairobi, Kenya; Daegu, South Korea; Isfahan, Iran; Pakistan; Berlin, Germany; Tunis, Tunisia; Dugny, France; Plainfield, New Jersey; and Andrew, Jamaica; may not officially speak for any one nation, but to the human thread that binds us to the need for poetic expression of what is happening to each of us privately, and personally.
The artists confront identity, history and heritage, and try to deliver ways of understanding the world when truth is censored, borders are closed, mobility is obstructed, and civil liberties are being upturned daily.
The 10 artists’ works challenge imperialism at its worst and at its destructive best. Using a wide range of media, they employ painting, photography, sculpture, video and textile. However, those are just the tools, what lies behind these installations is a breathless range of ideas, visions the artists share with us, and in some small way, offer the hope of awareness and intelligence as the channel that may see us through.
Installed on the 6th floor of the Rubin Museum, the exhibition unfolds around Kimsooja’s site-specific installation, “Lotus: Zone of Zero” (2019). This large-scale display hovers above the iconic circular architecture of the Museum as 272 magenta-colored lotus lanterns hover over the Rubin’s oculus in a configuration resembling a mandala. Ambient sounds meld Tibetan, Gregorian and Islamic chants to create a meditative environment within this exhibition that is jam- packed with revolution. Suspended from the Rubin Museum’s oculus, the work serves as the physical nucleus of “Clapping with Stones” and is central to the exhibition’s design.
Raza writes in the current issue of the Rubin Museum’s magazine, Spiral: “Visitors must walk around “Lotus: Zone of Zero” to access the other artworks on view, and the installation invites them to reflect on a moment of harmony and coexistence, where time and space are intentionally arrested. Kimsooja’s work can be viewed as a poetic call for peace and unity during a period of social and political turbulence.”
“‘Clapping with Stones: Art and Acts of Resistance’ follows the artists’ leads and articulates a wide variety of societal and political themes, unveiling power that exists in the unseen, hidden, and unrecorded. Through the work of these artists, the exhibition serves to explore power as both a collective and rejective force, and call to action,” says Raza.
The signature piece is Lida Abdul’s film, Clapping with Stones (2005), a video that examines the Taliban’s destruction of the 6th century Buddhas of Bamiyan in Central Afghanistan and contemplates the aftermath of this cultural disaster. She films a ritualistic performance of a group of men clapping with stones that signal both an act of mourning and also of resistance. Close by is the Ibrahim Quraishi’s installation “The Calling”, that examines the historical trauma and disaster through the documentation of an explosion of violins, objects with deep historical and cultural significance.
Raza reminded us of an earlier Italian artist whose fascination with Afghanistan may have started this conversation. Alighiero Boetti traveled to Afghanistan twice a year between 1971 and 1979, when the Soviet invasion prevented him from visiting anymore. During the 1970s he set up the One Hotel in Kabul with his friend and business partner, Gholam Dastaghir, as a kind of artistic commune.
Boetti’s career had begun in the early 1960s, in Turin, and his conceptual artworks had been identified with the Arte Povera movement. But he had drifted away from the movement’s “guerilla war,” and was disillusioned by the Italian “Years of Lead” — bombings, kidnappings, and shootings, perpetrated by neo-fascists and leftists alike.
Afghanistan was a world away, a pacific, unspoiled place of great natural beauty. “I considered traveling from a purely personal, hedonistic point of view,” Boetti once said. “I was fascinated by the desert… the bareness, the civilization of the desert.”
Boetti died in 1994, but it was his Mappa–a series of embroidered maps of the world that evoked the medieval tradition of the mappa mundi– that literally put Afghanistan on the proverbial map.
Artist Shahpour Pouyan who was born in Iran, explores nationalism and belonging through an architecturally inspired sculptural installation drawn from his DIY DNA test. “My Place Is the Placeless” (2016–2019; the title is from a Rumi poem) features 15 stoneware glazed ceramic domes, some of which contain ash, that represent the indigenous architecture of the places of his ethnic origins.
Raza explained, “To research this piece, the artist took a DNA test in 2014 that revealed his ties to Scandinavia, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East.” Pouyan received updates from the test in 2019 that revealed discrepancies with the initial results, including a lack of ancestral ties to the Middle East.
In contrast, Naiza Khan explores the legacy of colonialism, history, and the role of women in the Indian subcontinent as a starting point to consider beauty, violence, and power, through galvanized steel sculptures named “The Robe” and “Armour Lingerie”, that is lined with the flush of scarlet suede leather, decorated with feathers and steel spikes on the outside, expressing an association of beauty and power.
Nearby, her watercolor of Rani Jhansi, an anti-colonial female resistance fighter who fought the British during the War for Independence in 1857, spells out her convictions regarding imperialism and women through her depiction of one of the most popular heroines of the subcontinent.
Nari Ward’s installation, “Breathing Room” (2019) focuses on the transatlantic slave trade and highlights the lingering issues of race, identity, power, and migration inside the United States. Ward sourced secondhand furniture from the turn of the twentieth century to create a period room of freestanding furniture and used American history books.
The books and the clock are adorned with a West African cosmogram he created by drilling holes and adding conjoined circles formed by copper nails. The artist calls them breathing holes, referencing an escape tactic adopted by 19th century enslaved African Americans in Savannah, Georgia. They hid under the floorboards of the First African Baptist Church, which were punctured with similar patterned holes to allow them air to breathe. Hovering above the installation is a surveillance mirror that functions as a symbol of “double consciousness,” a term W. E. B. Du Bois introduced in his seminal book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
Other works in the exhibition draw from figures from the past and present. Pallavi Paul’s 75-foot scroll documents the death of a former World War II Indian spy for the British government whose body was never found, questioning her death and the freedom of information. Kader Attia’s video gives voice to the plight of migrant activists in Europe, highlighting the urgent issue of migration from Global South to the West, socio-economics, and disparity.
The theme of resistance is also echoed in Hank Willis Thomas’ stainless steel sculpture that features two hands clashing in a moment of violence and refusal. Similarly, he explores latency and its thorny relationship to history with the retro-reflective UV print “The March” (2017), a title is inspired by one of the famous Civil Rights marches in 1965 led by Martin Luther King Jr.
What would Boetti say about today’s fluctuations within politics and nations? His “Mappa” constituted an ironic, irreverent take on national self-definition that is echoed by the 10 artists whose work appears in the Rubin’s exhibit.
It is as if Boetti’s art outlived him and the One Hotel, yet he initiated a dialogue in pursuit of power and a consciousness during a period of social and political turbulence that connects us all; a necessary dialogue that continues to link us all.
Clapping with Stones: Art and Acts of Resistance at the Rubin Museum: August 16, 2019–January 6, 2020.
Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011