As the exhibition Art From Elsewhere opens in Bristol, Copyright considers the role art can play in broadening our global perspective
‘I tried very hard to cut the sky in half,’ proclaims Shilpa Gupta’s artwork There is No Border Here. Seen from a distance, the work is an anonymous yellow flag drawn against a wall. As the viewer moves closer, it is revealed that the flag is actually a visual poem and, drawing nearer still, it becomes apparent that the lines themselves are composed of adhesive border tape, printed with the ironic declaration that ‘there is no border here’. The piece underlines the intangible nature of geopolitical boundaries, the absurdity of dividing the world along invisible lines. At a time when the control of those lines has precipitated a global crisis, the work stands as a strong example of the power of art to expose issues of injustice and prompt viewers to question some of the aspects of modern society we take for granted.
There is No Border Here is one of the works on display in Art From Elsewhere, which opens in Bristol on 22 April 2016. The piece was purchased by Bristol Museum and Art Gallery through the Art Fund International programme, which since 2007 has awarded six museums and galleries across the UK over £4 million to enrich their collections through acquiring global contemporary art. Art From Elsewhere, the resulting group exhibition, showcases work by 39 artists from 22 countries, and provides visitors with the chance to share in the different realities of global change.
The show’s curator, David Elliott, speaks about how important it is for galleries to engage with art from outside of North America and Western Europe, and that such work is presented as contemporary art in its own right without being patronisingly cast as exotic, ethnic, or confined to a ‘folk’ context. ‘It’s contemporary, yes, but why do we have to say contemporary?’ asks Elliott. He emphasises that this is not about unfairly prioritising some artists, but providing an equal platform: ‘If you privilege the artwork you can be so privileged that you’re not being equal any more. Well this really is equal.’
Common themes run through the work exhibited: conflict, political oppression, capitalism. But the pieces are diverse in media and focus, representing the concerns of individual artists working in very different ways. Jitash Kallat’s painting Sweatopia, for example, depicts workers on the streets of his native city, Mumbai, their heads composed of jumbled auto parts, road maps and human figures. Emily Jacir’s video installation Crossing Surda (a record of going to and from work) documents her daily commute from Palestine through the Israeli checkpoint where she was threatened at gunpoint. And Brazilian Bank, an installation by Beninese artist Meschac Gaba, takes the form of a roadside stall selling obsolete coins and banknotes.
A sense of place is central to many of the works presented in Art From Elsewhere, but as Shilpa Gupta explains, the perceptions invoked can be misleading. ‘Yes, a sense of place and the past is part of my work. However, associations like memory are always partial, fragmented and not always true,’ she says. ‘Consciously or unconsciously, we always belong in large, small, fragmented or temporary ways to many worlds.’
It is in helping us to understand these worlds that art may be an agent for social and political change. ‘I think that all art, if it is any good, is at some level socially or politically engaged but not in an obvious way, as it is complex, multi-layered and often ambiguous,’ says Elliott. ‘It is not art’s job to ‘tell’ anyone what they should do or think but the experience of it may well trigger feelings, thoughts or reactions which consolidate or change other fields of perception.’
Taken together, the works reinforce a sense of global community and shared humanity. Faced with these realities, we may well ask ourselves, what do we mean by ‘elsewhere’? Is it really somewhere else?