The performance tent at The Sahmat Collective exhibit reflects the show’s vibrancy.
THE SAHMAT COLLECTIVE: ART AND ACTIVISM IN INDIA SINCE 1989 at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (300 City Centre), to October 19. 905-896-5088. Rating: NNNN
Organized by the University of Chicago's Smart Museum, this exhibit profiles an inspiring Delhi-based collective who use the arts to fight sectarianism (or communalism, as it's called in India). Sahmat is an acronym for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, formed in 1989 after activist actor and writer Hashmi was killed by thugs who attacked his street theatre troupe.
Drawing on a long Indian tradition of cooperation between Hindu and Muslim artists, Sahmat embraces a wide range of artistic expression: an annual commemoration of Hashmi, street theatre and music festivals (represented by short videos); children's books, travelling exhibits, poster and postcard editions, taxicab and pushcart interventions (selections on display in the gallery).
Info accompanying some of the projects provides an informative primer for Westerners on violent outbreaks of intolerance like the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the 2002 Gujarat riots. There's also the fascinating story of "India's Picasso" M.F. Husain; an installation allows you pose with a life-sized cutout of the charismatic painter, who was driven into exile by Hindu fundamentalists five years before his death in 2011.
Artifacts like a rickshaw emblazoned with its driver's words from 1992 project Slogans For Communal Harmony and an artist's pushcart from 2001's Art On The Move can only hint at the vibrancy of Sahmat events. Audiences depicted in videos indicate a massive following.
A selection of artworks can only give a brief taste, as well, of contemporary talent: Arunkumar H.G.'s alternative coins comment on history and economics; Rummana Hussain's photo series conflates images of a screaming woman's mouth, a seeded mango and a Muslim arch; Inder Salim photographs himself as a Muslim and a Hindu. These and other artists all merit further investigation.
With Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government in power, religious violence and repression of secular culture will probably continue, so it's hopeful news that Sahmat is still active after 25 years. The AGM deserves praise for engaging the GTA's South Asian community with this celebration of the progressive arts group.