“Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions: South Asian Art in the Diaspora” was the first exhibition since the Queens Museum’s “Fatal Love: South Asian American Art Now” (2005) to focus on works by United States-based artists with origins in the various countries of South Asia. Organized by artist and curator Jaishri Abichandani, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center curator Lawrence-Minh Davis, and Asia Society Museum director Boon Hui Tan, the show included works by nineteen artists, most of whom are based in New York and were born in the 1960s or ’70s. “Lucid Dreams” was hardly comprehensive, but it was not intended to be. Its strength was in representing a selection of artists who put forth an array of materials and aesthetic practices.
Pakistani-born and Brooklyn-based Khalil Chishtee’s wall-mounted cut-metal scene History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake II (2017) is at first glance a series of horseback-riding and sword-wielding figures that appear to be moving from right to left, the way one would read Arabic or Urdu. On closer inspection, the metal forms are shown to be composed of tightly rendered calligraphic script: an Urdu verse written by Muhammad Iqbal, a poet who is widely regarded as a driving force in the formation of a Muslim-majority Pakistan in the 1940s. Chishtee has merged form and content as a critique, perhaps, of the violence embedded in the selection of Urdu as the official language of Pakistan.
New York artist Chitra Ganesh was represented by two large-scale drawings on paper of famous early twentieth-century actresses in India: Gopa in the Garden (2012) depicts the Anglo-Indian Seeta Devi playing the role of Gopa, one of the wives of the Buddha, and Devika Rani (2012) portrays the eponymous actress as Savitri, the Hindu goddess who bargains with death to restore her husband’s life. Both are photorealistic and rendered so the actresses’ gazes confidently meet the viewer’s. The loose graphite powder Ganesh used to create the images, however, gives the figures’ agency a certain precariousness—a fitting choice, since the archival stills on which the works are based are from films by German filmmaker Franz Osten, who has been criticized for his primitivist and sexualized depiction of darker-skinned women. (It is worth noting here the ironic transnational nature of the formation of a national cinema.)
The photographs of the “Rumpty-Tumpty” series (1997/2017) by Kenyan-born, California-based artist Allan deSouza depict Donald Trump’s now-defunct Taj Mahal hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. However, the building does not immediately read as a simulacrum of Islamic architecture in South Asia, since the artist zooms in on details, such as onion domes, and gives only partial views. Not only place but also time is blurred. While the photos were taken two decades ago, the subject matter clearly resonates with aspects of the contemporary moment, in particular the xenophobia of President Trump.
Several artists declined to participate in the show—presumably because they were concerned that the complexity of their works would be overshadowed by the focus on their backgrounds. The exhibition, though, pulled a sleight of hand in this regard: if viewers entered “Lucid Dreams” expecting a presentation highlighting the artists’ biographies, the diverse forms and materials on display ensured that the works could not be reduced to such details.