An artist who weaves memories of the Partition in her work
Ideas of boundaries, migration and identity often evoke emotions that can be complex to express. Any displacement, which is involuntary, caused by socio-political events such as the Partition, adds a distinctly painful layer to these emotions. Artist Arpita Akhanda explores these myriad feelings in her practice, through which she focuses on the “decolonization” of memories. She uses personal archives, inherited from her grandparents, and weaves a new image that merges the past and the present. Currently artist in residence at Arbeitsgruppe Gästeatelier Krone, Switzerland, Akhanda tries to find new possibilities while meeting in an unfamiliar city. Edited excerpts from the interview:
How does the country’s colonial history form the very basis of your artistic practice?
I was born into a family of artists who emigrated from Bangladesh during the Partition. My grandfather was a freedom fighter, artist, photographer and poet, while my grandmother was a housewife, who magically transformed discarded fabrics and paper into works of art. So colonial history is not just a chapter in my book, but the very fabric of my life. I was very close to my grandparents, which is why I grew up listening to the stories of the Noakhali riot and the memories of the score. Colonial history is not something I simply choose to work with, rather it is an ingrained and automated response to my existence.
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I see my practice as an extension as much as a response to my relationship to this story. My work relies heavily on my grandfather’s personal records and my grandmother’s skill in sewing and weaving. I combine them to turn a memory into a new narrative while still keeping the layer of stories imbued within. Memories and archives come in the form of poems, stories, photographs, objects and even textiles. They are the ones who helped shape my understanding of a dissected nation, where I now live.
You say you strive to decolonize memories (of your family and others). How does an erasure or modification help?
I try to see decolonization as a journey. I’m not saying I want to do it to change or erase the past, I want to do the exact opposite. I constantly reassess because I realize that a conscious engagement with the past raises questions. And I’m interested in the issues that are still relevant in our present day. If you ask why, then maybe I would say stay grounded, have a sense of belonging.
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The division was the basis for the country’s independence, which has left relations hurt. This is the reason why I think we must decolonize. The idea came, once again, from my grandfather, who I was told, on August 15, 1947, refused to accept this division. He threw his khadi clothes he wore to fight for the country in the Ganga river. He wrote a poem titled Khed, expressing regret at being part of a separate land. It became my inspiration for a performance piece on August 15, 2015. In 2018, I stood in the very spot where my grandfather took one last photograph of his village in 1946. People there remember still from my ancestors. They greeted us and I brought back a handful of soil as a souvenir of my roots. These experiences made me realize that the history we learn and the lived history are not the same thing. It needs to be re-evaluated and incorporated into new narratives.
How do you overlap different media: paper weaving, performance, installations, drawings and video pieces?
I don’t limit myself to exploring mediums. I always favor context and research, then generate methodologies that often require experimenting with different media. The weaving of paper was born from my need to bring multiple stories into a singular work, without losing the unique identity of each element. The body, for me, is a memory collector, presented in the form of text, photography or performance. My works and video installations are in a way the extension of performative explorations. I engage in drawing as a process either to initiate a dialogue between my body and the site before the performance, or as a memory of what remains post-performance.
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How does your work on paper weave “the chain of memories with the weft of politically charged statements to create a fabric that questions identity and existence”?
Weaving is a traditional craft. I like to explore its different techniques and stories. I adopted the weaving process to bring two layers together through the warp and weft, creating a third entity. In my works, one of the layers is always derived from memories and the past, while the other layer represents the present, the situation that the past gave birth to. And the two layers, containing the past and the present, intertwine to build a new narrative, which is pixelated, shattered, hidden, dissected and blurry. This adds the metaphorical reference to the very relationship of our identity and our existence.
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How important is it to using original stock cards and real images of people?
I see personal as political. And therefore, the use of images of real people comes from the idea of sharing a personal story that gets diluted when placed alongside the larger story. I respond to and enrich the archives of my family, which I have inherited in the form of photographs, diaries and travelogues. So, in my works, people are real, they are the protagonists, it’s their story, it’s my story. But again, weaving various layers of history with these images, I intend to place it alongside the country’s past and turn it into a tale of many other families who have followed the same path. My works become, in a way, characters to tell the story, but as real as they are alive and breathing. The use of the reproduction of original archival maps also stems from the provision of historical evidence and references to the work.
Rahul Kumar is a cultural writer based in Gurugram