The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India Since 1989
Ackland Art Museum
Through Jan. 5

Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space
Nasher Museum of Art
Through Feb. 2

Is Banksy still provocative? Having just concluded Better Out Than In, a monthlong campaign of street art and pranksterism in public spaces around New York, his concerns with class issues might have shrunk just to the art world. Notoriously, he sold original, but unsigned, canvases on the sidewalk for $60.

If Banksy hadn’t raised the profile of street art, provocative work like this might not be getting coverage—or space in American museums.

Picking up on the Triangle’s rise in activism, political and activist art are prominent at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum and Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art. The two shows, timed through a partnership between the museums, have been up for a few weeks. Together the exhibitions offer a deep pool of politically motivated artwork and present the opportunity to examine its concerns, objectives and methodologies. These are particularly great shows to see if you’ve ever held up a sign at a rally and wondered if you could be doing something more.

The Nasher’s Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space, co-curated by considers national and psychological borders and presents the revelations and abominations that come from that consideration. The show is co-curated by Hammad Nasar of London’s Green Cardamom art organization and Cornell University art history professor Iftikhar Dadi.

At the Ackland, The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India Since 1989 gives the history of a loose affiliation of artists that formed after activist, actor and playwright Safdar Hashmi was fatally attacked by extremists during a street theater performance in Delhi in 1989. The still-active group’s work combines education, performance and art to advance freedom of expression, espouse secular values and oppose religious fundamentalism, be it Hindu or Muslim.

Jessica Moss of Chicago’s Smart Museum and photographer and founding Sahmat member Ram Rahman co-curated the show.

Generally the Sahmat artists prefer street vernacular to the more theoretical expressions of Lines of Control. The Sahmat show is organized into a chronological history of the collective’s activity, whereas Lines of Control is thematic, focusing on the India-Pakistan border, which gives the show its name and forms the basis of the Sahmat exhibit.

Two artists have work in both exhibitions, which require a fair amount of reading of wall text to know the history and issues behind the works. But when the exhibitions are mentally combined into a survey of contemporary political and activist art, different categories emerge to throw light upon the social utility of the work.

Some work fits into an established art-historical or craft tradition that, interestingly, is underrepresented in both shows. In Lines of Control, Muhanned Cader’s two rigidly formal “flag” paintings of Sri Lankan and Scottish coastal landscapes succeed because of his composition, brushwork and training as a painter, as do Ahsan Jamal’s miniature portraits of military officers, a traditional practice taught at the National College of Arts in Lahore.

Only recently has the project-based Sahmat work come from formal artistic training. Some of the painted panels in a collaborative street display called “Images and Words,” which commemorated what would have been Hashmi’s 1991 birthday, show a practiced hand. This traveling work also included printed text panels, slogans and diagrams, and was meant as much to prompt viewers to participate in spontaneous art workshops on the sidewalk next to the work as it was to provoke thought. Later pieces from the collective look more like contemporary fine art.

Altered familiar or symbolic objects provide a second, well-represented category. When you encounter an object that you use, your impulse is to use it. One of the most striking works in Sahmat is Atul Dodiya’s “B for Bapu” (2011). It turns the metal shutter that’s pulled down over storefronts at night into a jail-like screen in front of a painting of Gandhi on a hunger strike.

In Lines of Control, “Sexy Semite” (2000­–2002), Emily Jacir’s program of hilarious fake Village Voice personal ads, is the most subversive altered work. Imagine scanning the personals and reading,”You stole the Land. May as well take the Women! Redhead Palestinian ready to be colonized by your army. You: Jewish, Hot, Strong. U take me home + I’ll let you win.”

Plenty of works, as well as the Sahmat show as a whole, fit into the category of documentation. Often seeking to point out historical or cultural wrongs, the Sahmat artists used publishing as a way of disseminating information to construct an argument. One of the collective’s first works was to publish Hashmi’s children’s books. They also wrote new, revisionist and populist history textbooks that Howard Zinn would have applauded.

“Hum Sab Ayodhya” (1994), another Sahmat documentary work, gathers architectural and art images, poems, drawings, maps and other materials concerning the 1992 destruction by Hindu nationalists of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India, when a rally became a riot. Subsequent rioting across India’s major cities claimed more than 2,000 lives. The Sahmat work was conceived as an exhibition kit—400 sets of which were produced—which debuted in 1993 as an exhibit and a reading room in 18 cities simultaneously.

Lines of Control has its documentation projects, too. Gauri Gill’s collaborative “What Remains” (2011) gathers photographs, interviews and children’s writing having to do with the progressive displacement of Afghani Sikh and Hindu communities from Kabul to Delhi since the Communist takeover of Afghanistan 1978. The materials are densely clustered across a wall. Emotionally flatter, Bani Abidi’s “Security Barriers A-L” (2008), a pristine series of digital drawings of barriers used throughout post-9/11 Karachi, still delivers the anxiety of border authority.

The final category represented in these two exhibitions is that of multimedia and performance works. Video work abounds in Lines of Control: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s “Mini Israel” (2006), a cinema verité video of an automated miniature theme park by the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv; Sophie Ernst’s two “Home” works, which project video of drawings made from a displaced person’s memory of an abandoned home onto architectural models of that home; Amar Kanwar’s remarkable film about a border outpost between India and Pakistan titled “A Season Outside” (1997); and Surekha’s chilling “Line of Control” (2003), which shows an ant frantically trying to find its way out of an enclosure drawn in ballpoint pen on a sheet of paper.

Sahmat, being a lower-tech operation, conveys the group’s public art actions through photography. For its 2001 “Art on the Move” mobile exhibition, artists in India’s capital were ased to make work that resonated with the city’s street transportation and vendors, echoing rickshaws, bicycles and pushcarts. Artists then pulled their works through the streets in a kind of parade. Veer Munshi’s somber, angry “Burial” cart is in the Ackland gallery near pictures of other works of crowded streets.

These shows at the Nasher and Ackland show artists bearing witness to a historical or ongoing event. They raise awareness about an issue and express an issue-specific stance, intended to provoke a viewer to react against or act in concert with the artist. As important, the exhibitions provide a wealth of blueprints for the next time the activist part of you feels the need to just do something about it.

This article appeared in print with the headline “How to change the world.”