Sahmat Collective brings a history of Indian activism to the Smart

The latest exhibit at the Smart proves to be one worth visiting for those interested in arts and politics alike.

By Sarah Tarabey

At the crossroads of uniquely Indian artistic expression and political activism stands the Smart Museum’s Sahmat Collective. A wide range of artistic media provide the expansive stage upon which is offered a telling glimpse of India’s often contentious sociopolitical scene, set against the backdrop of its engrossing culture, history, and ethnic diversity. The movement has a multifaceted and highly imaginative approach in giving a voice to Indian people’s rising calls for unity and progress.

The project itself began in 1989, prompted by the politically motivated assassination of Safdar Hashmi, a well-known actor and activist in India. Upon his death, a group of his supporters and other Indian activists banded together to form the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust. Working to promote freedom from prejudice and perceived differences in favor of unity through artistic communication, it continues to provide a forum for Indians to express their hopes and beliefs. It is this air of freedom and dynamism that pervades the exhibit.

The Collective does a good job of articulating the stylistic breadth of the movement. From so driven and passionate a goal emerge deep, sensitive, and spiritual pieces that function on both aesthetic and symbolic levels. Subject matter ranges from social and realistic, to naturalistic, to mythological and religious iconography. It is equally difficult to label the exhibit with a single style; it’s a mixture of past and present, of reality and unreality with heavily mystical undertones. Bright greens, bloody reds, deep yellows, and hues of blues stand out among the more ghoulish black. In observing the exhibit as a whole and examining the detail of each individual work, it is thus easy to get lost—or, better yet, immersed.

There are even more surprising works as well, challenging notions of what can be considered art. An auto rickshaw hearkens to an annual public event in Delhi wherein drivers of these pseudo taxicabs compete to publicly display the best slogans pertaining to the Sahmat movement on their vehicles. These drivers are of highly diverse ethnic backgrounds, and their cooperation reinforces a common bond amongst the Indian people.

Another centerpiece is even more cryptic: Yellow-petaled flowers stand atop an inverted boat, which itself lies on a cart. On its sides are two rows of identically pictured bearded men, under each a different label: “secessionist,” “extremist,” “fundamentalist,” and the like. On the floor of the later portion of the exhibit lie several versions of a picture of a decaying corpse in the street, each with large nails of various arrangements sticking out of the image.

Not all of the pieces explore matters of such weighty consequence. Laid out according to the chronological progression of the movement, the more recent pieces become more abstract, political, and recognizably “modern.” One can even take a picture with a life-size cardboard cutout of India’s noted modern artist, M.F. Hussain, and lounge in a projection room displaying various musical performances, filled with pillows and overcast with banners with painted Sahmat phrases.

The Collective ultimately appeals to a very universal desire to express and to be understood as equals. For the art connoisseur, the politically inclined, and the Curious George, it is well worth the inquiry.

The Sahmat Collective runs at the Smart Museum of Art through June 9.