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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Manchester celebrates multicultural history with an exhibition from South Asian artists

Timed to run during the city’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of the foundation of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the once under-represented culture and history of this mixed community has finally been addressed

Raqs Media Collective’s ‘Unstill Life with Cerussite and Peppered Moth'. Courtesy Raqs Media Collective
Raqs Media Collective’s ‘Unstill Life with Cerussite and Peppered Moth'. Courtesy Raqs Media Collective

In the late 1950s and 60s, huge numbers of people from south Asian were recruited to work in the textile mills and factories of Greater Manchester. The two communities have been entwined ever since, with around 10 per cent of the city’s population today hailing from the Asian subcontinent.

Reflecting the city’s multicultural history, Manchester’s cultural institutions are hosting exhibitions of the work of South Asian artists.

Timed to run during the city’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of the foundation of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the once under-represented culture and history of this mixed community has finally been addressed. The exhibitions, running at venues including The Whitworth, the Manchester Museum and the Manchester Art Gallery, also form part of the New North and South’s three-year programme of co-commissions and exhibitions across 10 arts organisations from the north of England and South Asia.

This project brings leading Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and UK artists together. A series of commissions, exhibitions and performances will be held in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, as well as in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Dhaka, Bangladesh, Lahore, Pakistan, and Kochi, south-west India.

The exhibitions in Manchester recently opened to the public, and visitors have until the end of February 2018 to see the majority of them.

The Whitworth is presenting the first major UK exhibition by the technologically innovative Raqs Media Collective and the work of South Asian Modernists, 1953-1963. Reena Saini Kallat has a solo show at Manchester Museum, while the Manchester Art Gallery hosts solo exhibitions from Neha Choksi, Waqas Khan, Mehreen Murtaza, Hetain Patel and Risham Syed. Refreshingly, the curators at the Manchester Art Gallery make it plain the exhibitions are to be seen as individual showcases, too.

Walking around the Raqs Media Collective’s first major UK solo exhibition, Twilight Language, is a walk through time – both literally and thematically.

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Unstill Life (With Cerussite and Peppered Moth) is an ambitious multimedia piece inspired by a crystal of the mineral cerussite, which is a minor ore of lead. A flickering projection of the peppered moth – pale insects which darkened to camouflage themselves among factory soot before returning to their original hue when industrial cities were cleaned up – is paired with an innovative part-3D printed sculpture.

“[Cerussite] activated us and told us different stories of how geology, biology, social histories, histories of accidents and all the things Manchester has seen in 200 years in a very active way… People should take away that there are all sorts of time and forces that are working around us and we are working on them. It can be playful, threatening, dangerous. That’s what’s life is – being active, making, thinking. I hope people get a sense of that in a playful way,” says Jeebesh Bagchi, of the two-year project.

In 1992, Bagchi became a co-founder of Raqs Media Collective along with Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. Working from New Delhi, the collective operates in new media and digital art, as well as documentary filmmaking and photography.

Almost with a glint in its eye, the collective’s Communard Biscuits is curious to say the very least.

A thoroughly unappetising meeting point of art-and history, Communard Biscuits is the end result of a scan of a square hard tack biscuit on display at a Manchester Museum and from the Paris Commune of 1871. The scan was 3D printed in dough many times and the grey, dusty-looking biscuits are piled up and displayed. The biscuits are edible in the strictest sense of the word, but visitors would be better off taking a cookie if they are worried about getting peckish.

The Manchester Art Gallery is screening a new Hetain Patel film and showing a second in the UK for the first time. Don’t Look at the Finger – on its global debut – shows a wedding-come-fight between a couple. Exploring themes of identity, ethnicity, gender, non-verbal communication, intimacy, power and adaption, it’s dynamic, striking and carried off with Patel’s now trademark humorous charm.

“I hope it’s memorable for the reason that it trips you up in an entertaining way. I like being tripped up by seeing someone or a culture, but it turns out to be something else. I hope it adds a slippiness to how people see people,” Patel says.

Hetain Patel’s ‘Don’t Look at the Finger’. Courtesy Hetain Patel
Hetain Patel’s ‘Don’t Look at the Finger’. Courtesy Hetain Patel

The Jump brings together Patel’s fascination with superhero films and his family’s migration to the UK. Featuring 17 of his family members,the film is shot in his grandmother’s living room, in the home where his family has lived since moving to the UK. The audience can watch from two views: the dramatic slow motion shot of Patel wearing a sophisticated homemade Spiderman costume as he leaps off a worn armchair onto the carpet, or the wide-angle, brightly lit view of his multi-generational family watching Patel while looking nonplussed. Both films are beautifully shot, tightly directed and keep you on your toes throughout.

Just next door to Patel’s work is Mehreen Murtza’s How Will You Conduct Yourself in the Company of Trees. The project blurs fact and fiction – and divides opinion. Left open to interpretation, the indoor garden allows you to not only see but hear plants. Small computers clipped onto plant leaves read their electomagnetic energy and convert those readings into sounds.

At the top of the building is Waqas Khan’s first solo exhibition in a museum or public institution. Inspired by biological organic growth and the lives and literatures of Sufi poets, he uses small dashes and minuscule dots to create mesmerising works.

A solo exhibition from Reena Saini Kallat is presented by the Manchester Museum. Using animal and plant imagery, she explores political, cultural and religious divisions and how they work in a geographical context. She uses drawings, photographs, sculpture and video to create provoking discussion pieces. Her updated series, Hyphenated Lives, features images of animals stitched together to create fictional hybrid animals. Kallat’s work manages to avoid cliches and, as you wander around the space, it is hard not to reflect on how much of the global news agenda has been dominated by political and geographical divisions.

The exhibitions at the Manchester Art Gallery, The Whitworth and The Manchester Museum are on now