Guest Post by Lise McKean
Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams
Art Institute of Chicago (Modern Wing, Galleries 182-184)
Until May 18, 2014
In Nilima Sheikh’s exhibition, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, 10 scroll paintings hang throughout the galleries from ceiling to inches off the floor (10 x 6 feet). The scrolls (casein tempera on canvas) are painted and stenciled with figurative, decorative, and verbal evocations of Kashmir past and present, of daily life during times of violence and peace. They fill the galleries with color, form, and movement, with sorrow and delight.
Over decades of artistic practice Sheikh’s initial modernist orientation accrued layers of contemporary and art historical references. Engagement with South Asian regional painting practices as well as with artistic production including textiles, stencils, and calligraphy further enriches her visual and technical repertoire. From the start Sheikh’s work beat with pulse of its times and environs. For example, the murder of a girl she knew gave rise to When Champa Grew Up (1984). This series of 12 works brought image together with Gujarati poetry, making visible—and felt—in a new way the realities of child marriage, extortionate dowry demands, and the burning to death of brides by husbands and in-laws.
Sheikh’s work in her 2003 exhibition at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai, The Country without a Post Office: Reading Agha Shahid Ali, was inspired by Ali’s poetry. That is, readings of Ali fostered her development of a visual language for Kashmir. For example, her use of the bhand, a narrator-like figure of satire and buffoonery in Kashmiri folk theatre. The title of the Art Institute’s exhibition, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, is drawn from a line in Ali’s poem, “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight.” Eight of the show’s scrolls were created between 2003 and their 2010 exhibition at Gallery Chemould. Sheikh created an additional two, We Must Bear and Hunarmand (one with a talent or gift) for this 2014 exhibition.
When talking with me about her work, Sheikh said she prefers “sizes and scales that have potential for extension and openness.” She added that this potential is not linked to size alone, and noted that miniature painting has structures within it that allow for adding on, extending, and moving from one pictorial space to another. In her view, the scrolls’ life-size scale allows the space to be traversed as in mural painting and set design.
About her methods, Sheikh said that sometimes she made preparatory sketches and studies for the scrolls, but that the process of painting them was improvisational, adding, “I make changes as I go along.” Collaboration is vital to Sheikh’s approach. She has longstanding artistic partnerships with sign painters and stencil makers, particularly sahji stencil makers Sanjoy Soni and the family of Vishnu Prasad of Mathura. She also spoke about the “workshop” character of her studio, in which current and former students provide “people power” for the labor intensive work of preparing, stenciling, and lettering the large scrolls.
Valley is the first painting the visitor sees when entering the gallery and was Sheikh’s first work in this series. Valley is a lyric portrait of Kashmir, gorgeous and green with meandering rivers, lapis blue lakes, evergreens flanking a tall plane tree, and hills rising to distant mountain peaks. Ornamental geometric and floral stenciling whispers its presence like the rustle of silk.
Contrasting with Valley’s visual harmony, the narrative and pictorial structure and use of color in the scroll, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, brings to mind the syncopated rhythms and fragments of dreams. Here, rectangles and squares frame figures—the bhand, two musicians beneath a golden tree, an elongated woman looking over her shoulder—slices of landscape, and textile-like stenciling. A vertical swathe of midnight blue encompasses a domed building with darkened doors, an abode of sleep, dreams, and cauchemar.
Hanging from the ceiling rather than up against the wall, Sheikh’s two-sided scrolls descend into the galleries. The viewer can circumambulate each one, moving from its image-filled front to textual materials on the back drawn from poetry, myth, legend, and historical archives. The text on each scroll introduces viewers to diverse undercurrents in Sheikh’s historical imagination—ideas, experiences, and memories that animate and flow through the work. Yet textual reference is not a formal basis for her image-making. She develops her own vocabulary of image, material, and technique in response to specific visual and aesthetic concerns.
Sheikh’s scrolls pose complex questions about present and past, about what is lived, dreamt, suppressed and forgotten, and about what needs to be seen, remembered, and felt. She is as leery of historical interpretations that invoke Eurocentric views of progress as she is of those invoking timeless tradition and undying enmity. When speaking of the ideas and concerns underlying the series Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, Sheikh told me, “The work has been a learning process to make visible various worlds.”
The scenes on some of the scrolls evoke the violence assailing Kashmir in recent decades and centuries past. She shows violence stalking daily life and prowling in myth and legend. Weapons abound—demonic claws, daggers, ax, mace, sword, and guns. A goddess hurls a mountain to destroy the demon menacing Kashmir. Nearby a lion’s claws tear into the underbelly of a bull. Elsewhere a demon dangles a sword over a picnicking family. Pearl-like tears stream down delicate faces of cloud goddesses as they mourn Kashmir’s lost paradise. A kneeling woman weeps red tears in a corpse-strewn field.
A few days before writing this, I made a refresher visit to the exhibition. A South Asian family was sitting on bench outside the gallery—a man and woman with their two-month-old daughter sleeping in her carriage and the man’s grey-haired parents. When I asked if they had seen the Sheikh exhibition, the son took charge and answered yes. He had heard about it and since they were coming downtown for an immigration appointment, they came together to see it. He told me they’re from Pakistan and he has Kashmiri friends at home. For him Sheikh’s exhibition shows how Kashmiris in India are suffering. After a moment he added that the dispute over Kashmir hurts everyone in both countries because they’re neighbors and it keeps them from being at peace.
Indeed, Sheikh doesn’t avert her gaze or ours from Kashmir’s plague of violence, loss, and sorrow. Yet she refuses to reduce Kashmir’s present to violence or its history to battles and brigands. Her scrolls also make visible other histories of Kashmir—times when antagonism between Hindu and Muslim, India and Pakistan, did not afflict Kashmir. Imagining other possible presents and futures for Kashmir, Sheikh alludes to Kashmiriyat, a centuries-old belief in the possibility of peaceful coexistence among the region’s ethnic and religious groups. Construction Site, with its scenes of making and building presided over by the towering bhand, extols another vision of Kashmir. Anonymous laborers build cities and terrace hillsides using their intelligence, energy, skill, and tools. Here, constructive collaboration has the upper hand over violent conflict and destruction.
The reverse side of Hunarmand is visible outside of the gallery, and its size and curious detail might beckon visitors into the exhibition. This work also is closest to the exit, and thus positioned as the exhibition’s final scroll. This scroll echoes Sheikh’s Rozgar series (2011), which draws on a nineteenth century manuscript illustrating Kashmir’s professions. Hunarmand celebrates the many ways that Kashmiris manifest their talent and skill: as ironsmiths, farmers, weavers, embroiderers, papier mâché makers and painters, carpenters, dancers, musicians, boatmen—and even a scribe. Unlike the other scrolls, the relaxed grid structuring the space on Hunarmand’s front side includes large chunks of text alongside its images.
The reverse side of Hunarmand is a painting inspired by legendary Kashmiri works of art commissioned by the king to be bestowed as royal gifts. Teams of artists took years to create incomparably beautiful shawls embroidered with a map of the Vale of Kashmir. History tells us these precious gifts brought prestige to their recipients and acclaim to the king and gifted artists of Kashmir.
Sheikh’s scrolls and their details photograph beautifully. However, the vitality and complexity—and yes, aura—of these works of contemporary art exceed digital or verbal capture. Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams generously rewards face-to-face viewers, and especially those who slow down and look closely. When talking about the aesthetic sensibility that infuses her work, Sheikh commented, “Beauty isn’t an end in itself. Within every language, a work comes together to make beauty possible. Created by a hunarmand whose talents are at full strength, Sheikh’s scrolls make visible nuanced and moving worlds while giving rise to others in the imagination. In response to my question about the conjunction of beauty and violence in the scrolls, she replied, “You don’t have to use violent forms for violent things. You can talk about pain tenderly.”
Lise McKean is a social anthropologist and writer based in Chicago. In 2013 she curated StreamLines, an exhibition of contemporary art in Vaishali, India.