In Search of Home
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She is a regular British teenager who relishes her fries and burgers. She negotiates her way around the streets of London with ease and calls the neighbourhood of Whitechapel home. Though the hijab distinguishes her from the crowd, for Shopna, it's just a part of her everyday attire, worn above her jeans and Nike trainers. She chose to embrace it, unlike her sisters. "For her, it's just another piece of clothing. It is in the pre-9/11 world where there isn't as much attention on religious symbolism," says curator Latika Gupta, looking at one of the photographs of Shopna where she makes an appearance as London-based photographer Suki Dhanda's protagonist. Through the British-Bangladeshi teenager, the photographer questions the concept of "homeland" in an era when we live our lives through hyphenated identities, inhabiting multiple places.
The series that raised fundamental questions about the self in the UK in 2002, is now travelling to India as part of an ongoing exhibition called "Homelands". Curated by Delhi-based Gupta, the show — being held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) — comprises over 30 works by 28 artists from British Council's art repository. "The artwork tries to question issues about 'what constitutes a homeland'. Is it ethnicity, language, religion, customs and beliefs? Are homelands those where our ancestors were born? What about outsiders who live and make other lands their homes?" explains Gupta.
Approached to curate the show in early 2011, Gupta wasn't swayed by the star appeal of Damein Hirst and Henry Moore, whose works are part of the 8,500-plus collection of the council, and focus on post-colonialism, multiculturalism and cultural relativism. "There is a plurality associated with 'homeland' now," she adds.
The collection substantiates her observation. Raising issues of concern and loss at the very onset is Susan Hiller's The Last Silent Movie, which records the voices of the last speakers of extinct or endangered languages. Subtitles translate their utterances, while the screen remains black. "Some of them sing, some tell stories and some accuse the listeners of injustice," notes Hiller on her website. Accompanying the film is a suite of 24 etchings based on oscilloscope traces of the voices.
It might be in a more varied manner, but Zineb Sedira too picks on language as a barometer of identity in her video triptych work Mother Tongue. Born in France to Algerian parents, Sedira now lives in England. The video includes documentary-style conversations between three generations of women, each of whom speak in their "mother tongue". In the first, Sedira and her mother talk in French and Arabic; in the second, she speaks to her daughter; but in the third, her daughter and mother can't converse. "Mother tongue isn't the language our mother speaks," says Gupta.
Mona Hatoum also falls back on her experiences. Born in Beirut to a Palestinian family, which fled to Lebanon after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, in the Measures of Distance, the Turner Prize nominee reads letters from her mother where she blames the war for taking her daughters away to different corners of the world.
There are other stories of displacement. Tim Hetherington travels to Sierra Leone, Africa, in 2004 to document how the natives returning home are bringing in Western influences, and Angus Boulton's series "The Homeless" captures the homeless in London between 1995 and 2000, after changes in the social security system. Gupta adds that the aim of the exhibition is not to provide answers but raise questions.
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