One of the things I love about great works of art is their ability to tell a story. This can look like an illustration of a story we already know (such as a myth or a story from the Bible), or it can be a story that we create on our own through the visual cues available. The works in the Nasher Museum’s current exhibition Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space all tell a story, although it is a story whose foundations were laid before many of the artists were born. The exhibition evolved from a project that brought together works by contemporary artists who had been affected in some way by the partitioning of India in 1947. This event essentially created two countries: Pakistan and India. This division was dictated by British powers who were, at that point, departing their Indian colony. The colonists were perhaps not best equipped for determining the fates of these peoples; the separation of families, communities, and other groups that resulted has had a lasting effect on the politics and lives of those in this area. While many of the artists whose works are included in Lines of Control may be too young to remember the 1947 Partition, they have experienced its consequences, and it is these stories that they are able to tell through their art.
An exhibition such as Lines of Control opens up a dialogue about issues that we may not discuss otherwise and gives us a chance to hear and tell those stories most important to understanding each other. Recently, one of my best friends visited Durham and came to see the museum. I started to tell her about Lines of Control and how these artists had made works that document and detail the results that can come out of lines that are drawn on maps. And then it happened—she began to tell me her story, a story that had also taken place before she was born but set the trajectory of her life by its impact on those in her family. I knew her father was from Palestine, but I had never heard the story of how he and his family had quickly packed up everything one night after the creation of Israel to leave for Lebanon. It was an amazing story, one that I could not believe I had not heard in the ten plus years we’ve known each other, and I knew that I was hearing something that was special to her family and to her concept of who she is and where she comes from.
Art exists in a certain time and place, but it has the amazing ability to transport us—to our past, to our future, to places both familiar and unknown. Perhaps most importantly it can transport us into someone else’s experience, opening a doorway into their world, allowing us to see through their eyes, if only briefly. And I think one of the best ways to allow art to work this way is to see it together. Viewing art with a friend or family member (or a stranger, if you’re more outgoing than I am) presents an opportunity to talk about your experience of the art, what it says to you, and how it relates to your own position in the world. If we take the time to look at art in this way, to think about it and let it become a part of us, the art continues long after you’ve left the museum, woven into your memory of the story.
IMAGE: Nalini Malani and Iftikhar Dadi, Bloodlines, 1997 (refabricated 2011 by workshop of Abdul Khaliq, Saddar, Karachi). Sequins and thread on cloth; two sections: 65 x 73 3/5 inches (165 x 187 cm) and 49 x 62 3/5 inches (124.5 x 159 cm). Courtesy of the artists and Green Cardamom. Image courtesy of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Photo by David O. Brown.