Enabling Transnational Artistic Exchanges on Gender and Conflict in South Asia
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Leeds
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Ananya Kabir's pioneering research on how the visual arts in South Asia
express trauma generated by conflict resulted in a major exhibition at
Leeds and associated events nationwide, attracting over 130,000 visitors.
Her focus on female artistic responses enabled long-term partnerships with
South Asian cultural producers, whom she helped to connect with museums
and galleries in the UK. Through both her research and direct involvement
with impact, Kabir has facilitated transnational pathways of professional
development whilst creating and interpreting South Asian cultural capital
for British and South Asian heritage audiences.
A member of the School from 2003-2013, Kabir began her research here by
exploring the relationship between memorialisation of the Partition of
India in 1947 and the resurgence of conflict in contemporary South Asia
through right-wing and separatist movements. Her question was whether this
resurgence was `a return of the repressed.' Literary Studies had exposed
Kabir to psychoanalysis-inflected analysis of cultural production around
memory, particularly scholarship on Holocaust survivors' testimonies.
Applying this scholarship to South Asian visual art to explore the
connections between South Asia's foundational traumas and postcolonial
conflict, she was able to provide fresh, non-Eurocentric understandings of
South Asian collective trauma, in particular highlighting women's voices
as alternative memorialisations of trauma .
Throughout the 2000s in South Asia, radical activism against extremism
flourished within the arts. To capture these developments, Kabir focused
on visual and performance arts alongside literary texts. Using external
funding awarded between 2004 and 2006 [2, 3], she produced a monograph on
the Kashmir conflict in 2009 , in which she examined creative dialogues
between Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri artists as a non-militaristic approach
to a conflict zone. This research established the `psychosocial' roots of
conflict in South Asia and revealed colonial discourse as the link between
violent postcolonial modernity and collective fantasy. In her book, Kabir
argued for the philosophical necessity of the artist as visionary, who can
use the ambivalences of artwork to challenge this interdependence of
violence and fantasy and who can therefore offer new possibilities for
working through collective trauma.
Between 2005 and 2013 Kabir produced fifteen articles and a monograph on
the subject of the Partition of India (for which she was awarded a British
Academy Senior Research Fellowship), in which she extended these
conclusions. Through this research Kabir identified the potential of
applying this research model within art world contexts, posing the
question: If artists from across South Asia were to come together in a
neutral space to express themselves as subjects of conflict, what insights
might emerge on conflict's genesis and resolution, and art's capacity to
create post-conflict possibilities? Funding opportunities arising largely
from Knowledge Exchange schemes [5, 6] allowed Kabir to realise her vision
for a `laboratory' of artistic dialogue.
Through an AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship (2007-10), Kabir worked
with a curatorial team comprising Fareda Khan, deputy director of Shisha,
a Manchester-based agency for South Asian crafts and arts, and Dr Daisy
Hasan, a full-time postdoctoral researcher employed by the University of
Leeds under the scheme for the same period. Under the project banner
`Between Kismet and Karma: South Asian Women Artists Respond to Conflict'
(BKK), they brought cutting-edge work by women artists from Bangladesh,
India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to multiple British venues (2010). An
initial exhibition in Leeds sparked a series of subsequent artist
residencies, film screenings, performances and events that exposed British
audiences to South Asian cultural products and encouraged dialogue between
researchers, arts professionals and practitioners.
References to the research
1) `Gender, Memory, Trauma: Women's Novels on the Partition of India,' Comparative
Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25:1 (2005):
177-90. Reprinted in Modern Indian Culture and Society: Critical
Concepts in Asian Studies, ed. Knut A. Jacobsen, Routledge, 2009,
Vol I: Identity. DOI: 10.1215/1089201X-25-1-177.
2) British Academy, January 2004, Small Research Grant, 'The Poetics of
Dispossession: Literary Responses to Political Conflict in Indian
Kashmir,' January 2004 (£3,870).
3) AHRC Grant for Research Leave in Semester 1, 2006-7 (£22,000; report
awarded an A+).
4) Territory of Desire: Representing the Valley of Kashmir
(University of Minnesota Press, 2009; Permanent Black, Delhi, 2009).
Shortlisted for the 2010 European Society for Studies in English Prize.
Available on request.
5) British Academy Small Research Grant, 'Visualising Partition:
Remembering the Partition of India through the Visual Arts,' April 2007
6) AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship `Home, Nation, Body: South Asian
Women Artists Respond to Conflict,' October 2007, November 2007- January
2010 (£169,000). Awarded in first round of KT applications.
Details of the impact
The BKK project combined Kabir's research with Fareda Khan's interest in
exhibiting art arising from conflict through the lens of gender. This
dynamic curatorial dialogue formed the basis for collaborations with a
number of UK museums and galleries, which in turn prompted the invitation
of the following ten South Asian artists, to make and exhibit work, and
participate in events: Priya Sen, Shilpa Gupta (India); Naiza Khan, Sadia
Salim (Pakistan); Yasmine Kabir, Tayeba Begum Lipi (Bangladesh); Sujeewa
Kumari, Anoli Perera (Sri Lanka); and the film-makers Paromita Vohra
(India) and Sabiha Sumar (Pakistan).
The principal event, the exhibition entitled `Between Kismet and Karma',
held at the Leeds City Art Gallery from March to June 2010, exposed
British audiences (85,340 visitors [recorded in C]) to new work by
contemporary South Asian artists. The impact of the exhibition and its
planning rippled outwards to further collaborations and audiences through
a number of related projects:
- Artistic residencies during the period of January-July 2010 placed Sen
at the Gasworks, London and Kumari at Wolverhampton Art Gallery (27,436
visitors [recorded in C]).
- Supported by the British Council in Pakistan, an exchange scheme in
February and May 2010 enabled Salim to take up a residency at the
Bluecoat, Liverpool, while Liverpool artist Lin Holland visited the
Indus Valley School of Arts, Karachi, resulting in a collaborative
photographic installation (16,857 visitors [recorded in C]).
- Cornerhouse, Manchester's international centre for contemporary visual
arts and independent film, showcased documentaries by Vohra, Y. Kabir
and Sumar (May 2010), followed by a panel discussion (150 estimated
visitors [recorded in C]).
- A symposium Beyond Borders at Leeds City Museum (March 2010)
brought together the artists, writers and museums and galleries
personnel. Tamil-Malaysian-British dramaturge Rani Moorthy delivered the
- At the invitation of Dame Jude Kelly, Moorthy, Holland and Salim
presented as part of the Alchemy Festival of South Asian Culture at
London's Southbank Centre (April 2010).
- In response to the exhibition, Yorkshire-based dance group Manasamitra
created the performance piece `Mirror Images'. BKK's contribution to
diversity was further confirmed when this was performed at Wakefield
Cathedral in July 2010.
These transnational pathways in turn generated new professional
opportunities for participants.
- Khan became a Board member of Moorthy's Rasa Productions in 2011.
- Moorthy performed at Alchemy 2012 at the Southbank Centre.
The To-Let House, a first novel by Postdoctoral Research
Assistant Hasan dealing with the research themes of conflict in
northeast India, was launched by Khan to an international audience at
Asia House, London, 2011; in the same year it was longlisted for the Man
Asia Literary prize and shortlisted for the Hindu Best Fiction Award.
- Numerous creative and intellectual collaborations between symposium
participants were recorded in essays comprising the journal special
issue `Beyond Borders' (A).
The BKK project was discussed in media including the BBC, the Times,
the Observer, TLS, THES, South Asian Times (full list collated in
[C]). Impact affected the following key areas:
UK-based museums and galleries
The BKK team acted as specialist advisors for museum and gallery staff
who were unfamiliar with contemporary South Asian art but interested in
diversifying their programming expertise. Kabir's research revealed that
South Asian women artists mobilise vernacular, elite and craft traditions
to interrogate the psychological pressures of a society rife with
contradictory patterns of exclusions and inclusions. Working closely with
curatorial and programming staff at Leeds City Gallery, the BKK team
identified ten female South Asian cultural producers whose practice
innovatively reflected these mobilisations. The Learning and Access
Officer at Leeds Museums and Galleries said that `BKK presented the
gallery with a special opportunity to exhibit work by South Asian artists
deeply rooted in their own social and geographic contexts' [D].
Through their various collaborations with artists, venues were able to
challenge widespread assumptions regarding South Asian culture's
conservatism and extend their curatorial practice to respond to both South
Asian and non-South Asian heritage audiences [B, C]. Venues have
acknowledged the crucial role played by Kabir, Khan and Hasan in ensuring
thematic and aesthetic coherence of their projects. The Exhibitions
Curator at the Bluecoat noted `the importance of Kabir's original
scholarship to the project... in leveraging funding as well as informing
[its] development' [E]. Further recognising the importance of the team's
expertise, the Programme and Engagement Director at the Cornerhouse
observed that their involvement was essential to the import and screening
of films otherwise unavailable in the UK [F].
BKK also provided a model of inter-institutional and academic-artistic
partnership/collaboration that several of the venues and museums
recognised they could use in further collaborations. For some of the
venues involved, BKK successfully showcased the explicit conjoining of
`theory and practice' in BKK [D]. For others it provided a new model of
artistic exchange and of `hub and spoke' (multiple venues, with BKK as
centre) collaboration [E].
Participating artists and individuals
The South Asian artists felt that their creative practice was transformed
by the brief of `conflict' and new exhibition contexts, and they
subsequently took their transformed themes and media back to their own
countries. In Salim's words, BKK `changed the way I work and the medium
that I normally employ (ceramics). I created a cynical/critical response
to the (then) latest developments in the city especially in context of its
architectural spaces.' Exploring these ideas in her subsequent Masters
thesis changed `the direction of [her] work and inculcated a deeper
dimension of enquiry through [her] art practice.' Moorthy said of her
keynote performance at Leeds City Museum: `It was the first time I'd
experienced that level of artistic engagement; a platform for women to
talk not only about geopolitical areas of conflict, but also to talk about
their personal experiences in those areas.' Holland, the only non-South
Asian artist participating in the project, commented that her time in
Karachi increased her knowledge of contemporary Pakistani artists, which
has influenced and enriched her own practice and teaching, and that both
she and Salim worked as a result in new mediums [G].
Communities and general audiences
Each of the participating organisations developed education programmes,
public talks and panel discussions that opened the culture of South Asian
heritage communities to others and encouraged public understanding around
the topic of the `Asian woman' [A, B]. BKK enriched British cultural life
by creating and interpreting artistic capital of South Asian heritage
communities and helped generate awareness and appreciation amongst
non-South Asian and South Asian audiences. Individual questionnaire
responses record `I didn't realize that there were so many (South Asian
women artists)' and South Asian viewers expressed they could `take pride
in being South Asian' [recorded in C]. Collating feedback confirmed that
the artworks challenged stereotypes about South Asian women and South
Asian art circulating in both South Asian (18% of visitors) and non-South
Asian heritage British audiences (50%). Of the total visitor figure for
BKK (130,026), 97% of those returning feedback expressed interest in
seeing future South Asian art exhibitions as a result of BKK and over 51%
felt that their understanding of South Asian art had been altered by BKK
[recorded in C].
Sources to corroborate the impact
A) Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Fareda Khan and Daisy Hasan, eds., Beyond
Borders, Special Issue of South Asian Popular Culture, Vol.
9, No. 1, April 2011, available on request.
B) Fareda Khan, Daisy Hasan, Ananya Jahanara Kabir, eds, Between
Kismet and Karma Exhibition Catalogue (Shisha Publications, 2011),
available on request.
C) Daisy Hasan, Evaluative Report on Between Kismet and
Karma (report commissioned by Shisha, 2011), available
D) Learning and Access Officer, Leeds Museums and Galleries,
testimonial, 24 August 2012, available on request.
E) Exhibitions Curator, Bluecoat, Liverpool, testimonial, 22 August,
2012, available on request.
F) Programme and Engagement Director, Cornerhouse, Manchester,
testimonial, 23 August 2012, available on request.
G) Testimonials of artists involved in BKK, August 2012, available on