South Asia Institute of Chicago Exhibition ‘Testimonies on Paper’ Combines Art, Poetry by South Asian Women

Bani Abidi’s visual piece “Flailing Barriers” is composed of roadblocks — the kind you’d see blocking a street or train tracks.

Captured in bright red and yellow on a white background, each barrier gives a clear impression of movement.

The work reminded writer Deepika Mukherjee of her poem Generations, which opens with a poetic invocation to the goddess Durga, then intertwines the story of three generations of Bengali women—the multidimensional, sweeping barriers they encounter throughout their lives.

“Overcoming one barrier often just leads to the next, but we must persevere, crossing borders and communities and transforming ourselves to make this world ours,” Mukherjee said. “We are armed with nothing more than a prayer to the goddesses we grow up with.”

“Generations” is one of 13 poems paired with a visual companion piece in “Testimonies on Paper: South Asian Women’s Art and Poetry,” an exhibit that opened in January at the South Asia Institute and runs through June 10.

Poets were asked to choose from works of visual art drawn from the museum’s Hundal collection and craft poems in response. All works feature South Asian women.

The artistic kinship between visual artists and poets is essential to Testimonies. Mukherjee likened the experience to touching someone through a mirror – someone you can’t understand but whose presence you can feel.

Institute founder Shireen Ahmad said the idea came from a conversation about the lack of representation of women in the art world.

“It’s not just a problem with our mainstream artists, but when you look at artists of color and particularly South Asian artists, it’s even worse,” Ahmad said. “Hopefully, with exhibitions like this, we can tackle this … one exhibition at a time and bring about change.”

Flailing Barriers (1-6) by Bani Abidi (2016).

Curator Andrea Moratinos selected visual works that span generations and styles. Moratinos said she started with the basics — sourcing works on paper from female artists.

“It was everything … that draws attention, like a deeper meaning,” Moratinos said. “Honestly, all the pieces they have in the collection are great, so it’s been difficult at times.”

The art ranges from Abidi’s large, colorful barriers to a black-and-white image of the subcontinent by artist Zarina titled “Atlas of My World IV,” in which the Radcliffe Line—the dividing line between India and Pakistan—stretches in black across the frame .

Many of the poems explore themes of gender, spirituality and migration.

“If you read some of the poems, you just get this sense of … this longing for what was or when you lived there … this sense of home,” Moratinos said.

Looking at Abidi and Mukherjee’s work, I felt a small part of the kinship that the exhibition exudes. The description of the goddess in Mukherjee’s poem brings back moments from childhood when I stood beside my mother watching the Durga Puja rituals. She did the same with her mother—my Didu—and suddenly I see us a lot like the generations in Mukherjee’s poem.

Despite the strength and creativity clearly visible in the exhibition, Mukherjee said she feels that stories about South Asian women are often stories of victimhood. She hopes visitors will find reasons in this exhibition to challenge this idea.

“The fullness of artistic talent, just the joy of creation, just the magic of art and artistry that is inherent in the talent that is from South Asia, is in itself something very worthy to bring back with him,” Mukherjee said. “This exhibition is a very clear response to another window from which to look at the Asian woman.”

I have long felt guilt and sadness that I can barely string a sentence together in Bangla, a language so dear to generations of women in my own past. But as I slowly work my way through Testimonies, I remember the parts of it I’ll always have, distant memories of a goddess sinking into a river.

Poet Nina Sudhakar reads her poem

Poet Nina Sudhakar reads her poem “After the Goddess of Time Abandoned Us” at the opening reception for Testimonies on Paper.

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