Seeking identity in no man's land

In one of the rooms, Bernard Akoi-Jackson is on a sewing machine stitching together fabrics procured from different people in India and his hometown, Ghana. In another room, Cape Town-based Malika Ndlovu and Tina Schouw are penning down site-specific poems from what they absorbed during their stay in India.

Glued to his laptop, with headphones on is Baroda-based Amshu Chukki who is taking references from the character of Jamal-ud-din Yakut, the Abyssinian slave who rose to the ranks of a nobleman in the court of Razia Sultan, and juxtaposing it with text from Ibn Batuta’s travelogue and film narratives for a video.

In the first attempt, these contrasting themes don’t lead to any particular direction, till the artistic veneer chips off, giving way to the underlying theme of relocating and repositioning India-Africa relationship in terms of Non Alignment Movement(NAM), identity and belongingness, and then the concept of each artist starts making sense.

These artists, along with Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan, Juan Orrantia and Priya Sen are part of a month-long residency at Khoj Studios for the exhibition titled Coriolis Effect: Currents across India and Africa which will open today and conclude August 31.

The setting of the studio, Khirkee Extension -which is home to many African migrants in the city, was a perfect breeding ground for the assimilation of ideas looking at the racial discrimination and confrontation they face in their day-to-day life, at times, forcing them to go underground and be “invisible”.

This invisibility is what poets and artists Ndlovu and Schouw are exploring through a performance in Delhi’s forgotten suburban railway, Ring Rail which is a lifeline of Delhi’s invisible people. The video of the performance is one of the works for the exhibit.

“It was surprising to know that there are sites within Delhi that are invisible to the city. Through the performance we are questioning whose Delhi you are navigating? It was overwhelming to see how these people have taken ownership of this forgotten line and how they are negotiating in this invisible space,” Schouw tells Metrolife.

Last time, when Philadelphia-based Dattatreyan was in the south Delhi’s dense urban village, the 40-year-old visual anthropologist ended up making a film “Cry Out Loud” that explored lives of African men and women residing in Khirkee Extension. He forged some relationships and decided to take the narrative further interweaving with his own. Born in Ethiopia to Indian parents and then growing up years in the US, has given him an across-ocean experience in relationships that form the crux of his works.

For the first installation, he has taken photographs from his father’s archive of his growing up years in Ethiopia and the intimate relationship he shared with him.

The desire to represent the closeness he shares with people around him and as an extension of his first work, the second installation draws from over two years of ethnographic research and relationship building in Delhi’s pan-African enclaves.

“I had 4-5 men working with me on this work who opened about the relationship with their fathers,” Dattatreyan says.

“Most of the people I work here are men and many of them are away from home, so it started to become a theme... the relationship between home and theme was inseparable with their relationship with their fathers,” he points out, adding his work has now moved towards intimacy and relationship. “So my relationship with people and then their relationship with people and place, starting with family is what I am exploring.”

Making a point of entry into this socio-cultural dialogue through fabric is Akoi-Jackson. He has spent many sleepless nights stitching(hand and sewing machine) the fabric that he has collected from filmmakers, designers and locals, and has also brought fabric from Ghana to create a large tapestry that embodies collective stories and imagined aspirations.

“I am using the fabric poetically and look at the relationship that was planted by the NAM movement because the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, was a close ally and friend of Jawaharlal Nehru. Through my works, I am asking what has become of NAM? Looking at racial tensions at Khirkee, I am asking what is causing these things. We are supposed to be brothers and sisters working together for what we hoped for,” he tells Metrolife.

According to Akoi-Jackson he is also carry forwarding the idea of NAM through hand-stitched flags in white fabric that don’t represent any nation.

“The intention is to show them in chorus with the video of the Indian flag, whose images he captured at the Central Park in Connaught Place, when it was blowing in the wind as if a sculpture was dancing.”

The exhibition seeks to activate the social, economic and cultural relationship and historical exchange which exists between India and Africa through their voices.


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