Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 17 November 2019

The London exhibition looking at Palestine, Kashmir and the issue of perception

We speak to Indian artist Praneet Soi who is looking at art from a different perspective in new show

Stills from Praneet Soi’s video essay ‘Yalla Yasmeen!’. Courtesy Praneet Soi
Stills from Praneet Soi’s video essay ‘Yalla Yasmeen!’. Courtesy Praneet Soi

Palestine. Dwell on the name for a moment. This one name is a semantic minefield, and this issue of perception is at the heart of an exhibition in London’s Mosaic Rooms, titled Anamorphosis: Notes from Palestine, Winter in the Kashmir Valley. It is the first solo UK show by Indian artist Praneet Soi.

Anamorphosis is a visual trick in painting that goes back to medieval times in which an object appears unrecognisable until the viewer sees it from a certain angle, after which it becomes clear what the object is. One of the most famous examples is the blotch / skull in the foreground of Hans Holbein’s painting, The Ambassadors (1533).

In Soi’s exhibition, anamorphosis becomes a metaphorical conceit, alluding to a landscape and people distorted by conflicting political and cultural narratives. As the exhibition’s title indicates, this is not only in Palestine, but also Kashmir, where Soi has family and artistic connections.

Everyone has an agenda, a particular point of view. So many distortions. So I chose to gravitate towards pictures, folklore, the craftsmen and artists. I can find my truth in that narrative, not an external one.

Praneet Soi

The exhibition’s Palestinian focus is on ordinary people – a shopkeeper, a factory producing fair-trade olive oil, farmers and children. It focuses on their stories and their connection to the land, bringing their narratives to life through video, sketches and diary entries.

In the gallery’s Room 1, a video essay titled Yalla Yasmeen! plays. This is a visual precis of Soi’s travels through the West Bank, Golan Heights and cities in Israel, such as Akka. Throughout the video, notebook entries and / or sketches are layered over some of the camera content to create a visual, polyphonic format. In a visit to Jenin refugee camp, Soi recalls the Israeli attack there in 2002 that left dozens of Palestinians dead and thousands homeless as Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships levelled the camp in 10 days. A sketch of one woman comforting another who is crying, which Soi seems to have copied from media reports at the time, is placed alongside a video showing reconstructed homes.

Soi says that he chose the title Anamorphosis to represent a self-conscious act of dispelling the cacophony of narratives and the bombardment of “loaded” media depictions in his mind, which he says rendered themselves “defunct”. Soi starts with a blank slate from which to focus on his own experiences of the people and landscapes he encounters, which then manifest themselves in the process of creating art.

Despite family connections with the city of Srinagar through his grandfather, Soi says that ever since his first visit to the Kashmir Valley in 2010, he is regarded as Indian and an outsider. Throughout repeated visits to the region, he says he “came to realise that everyone has an agenda, a particular point of view. So many distortions. So I chose to gravitate towards pictures, folklore, the craftsmen and artists. I can find my truth in that narrative, not an external one”.

View of Kashmir works. Photograph by Andy Stagg, courtesy of The Mosaic Rooms.
Praneet Soi’s work on Kashmir stemmed from his connection with papier-mache artist Fayaz Jan. The Mosaic Rooms

He has worked in the atelier of the “master craftsman” papier-mache artist, Fayaz Jan, whom he first met five years ago. The artwork in the Kashmir section of this exhibition stems from this connection and interconnection.

The link between Palestine and Kashmir is deep and relevant, even if the art from each section of the exhibition is divided by artistic forms and space (they are on different floors in the Mosaic Rooms). The recent fate of both territories are largely the result of British imperialism: in 1947, India gained its independence from the UK, while a year later Britain ended its mandate of Palestine, leading to the formation of Israel on the majority of Palestinian land and the Nakba in the months that followed.

As the exhibition notes suggest, Kashmir has long felt an affinity with Palestine, and actions by Indian officials in August, as Soi was preparing his artwork on Palestine for this exhibition, made coupling the two locations imperative. “At the beginning of August … the Indian state of Kashmir had its autonomous relationship with India revoked. It was split into two parts along religious lines and its statehood was terminated.”

The artwork from Kashmir is made with papier-mache and painstakingly hand-painted with local motifs. Soi says this technique, so established with Kashmiri artisans, is a form that has its roots in Iran and was brought to the region centuries ago by Sufi saints and preachers.

Falling Figure, Praneet Soi, (2017). Hand painted acrylic on papier-mache tiles. Image courtesy of the artist, photograph by Ilya Rabinovich
Praneet Soi painted on papier-mache tiles to create ‘Falling Figure’. Ilya Rabinovich

Soi’s Kashmiri tiles occupy Room 3 of the Mosaic Rooms and are exquisite fusions that combine centuries-old techniques and motifs with local geography, such as Nigeen Lake, as well as people and wildlife such as kingfishers and other indigenous birds. What is Kashmir? It is this blend of the artist’s experiences of interacting with the people, flora, fauna and landscape of the region, each executed through Soi in exquisite detail and beauty by the artisans involved in the project.

The main exhibition space for the Palestine-based artwork – Room 2 – is set out thoughtfully to reflect senses of unity and inclusivity, as well as division and disorientation – feelings Soi says he experienced repeatedly until the moment he passed through security to check in at the airport in Tel Aviv.

The exhibition space comprises quickly executed sketches of people and landscapes, portraits executed in silverpoint (a medieval technique that gives the work a temporal quality as the silver oxidises), neatly written observations from pages of his notebooks and, among other things, a beautiful image of Battir, a Palestinian village and Unesco World Heritage Site near Bethlehem.

This is the only piece of work in Soi’s exhibition that comes close to the literal meaning of anamorphosis in art and was created using Photoshop to manipulate the circular nature of the image, and several pictures and drawings of the “normal” perspective to capture the reality. To see it in its “correct” perspective, however, Soi says the viewer will have to “come with a cylindrical mirror”.

A recurring motif throughout the two parts of the exhibition is that both Palestine and Kashmir are inevitably part of an evolving history. At one point in Yalla Yasmeen!, Soi says he is overlooking an area in the West Bank that, in 330 BC, Alexander the Great had conquered. He says that in 325 BC, Alexander had moved on to conquering the Punjab region, where Soi was raised.

He also comments on being able to breathe in the history of the landscape amid olive trees that one local says are hundreds of years old, while a local farmer tells Soi that the trees were planted by the Romans two millennia ago.

The purpose of Soi’s work is to allow viewers to visit Palestine and experience it for themselves, free of the clamorous backdrop of mainstream media, cultural and historical references that hijack your perceptions. The same goes for Kashmir.

Go to the exhibition. Go to Palestine. Go to Kashmir. To adapt the words of British poet William Blake, go “cleanse the doors of perception”.

Anamorphosis: Notes from Palestine, Winter in the Kashmir Valley runs at The Mosaic Rooms in London until Saturday, December 7

Updated: October 16, 2019 06:33 PM

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