On Wednesday, September 7, 2022, the Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS) at the University of Michigan hosted artists Mahwish Chishty, Gunjan Kumar, and curator Shaleen Wadhwana for a virtual discussion on their research and artwork in The Sindhu Project: Enigma of Roots.
The Sindhu Project is a multi-site exhibition that debuted at the South Asia Institute in Chicago in June 2021. The show was later reconfigured into two displays to honor the partition of India and Pakistan, with one half in Lahore, Pakistan, at Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq Gallery, National College of Arts, in November 2021, and the other half in New Delhi, India, at Exhibit320 Gallery in June 2022.
“As a curator, the thing that drew me to this project was both artists' love and dedication to not just the artifacts, but the entire region and its history,” says Wadhwana, an independent researcher and curator. “We are talking about one of the oldest civilizations on earth.”
The Sindhu Project embodies the responses of contemporary artists Chishty and Kumar to explorations of archaeological sites and artifacts in the expansive Sindhu (Indus) watershed, a geographical region stretching across present-day India and Pakistan. The cities of Indus, spanning from 3300 BC to 1300 BC, were noted for their urban planning, baked brick houses, elaborate drainage systems, water supply systems, clusters of large non-residential buildings, handicraft techniques, and metallurgy.
Gunjan Kumar is an artist and scholar based in Chicago. Her process involves ground earth and organic matter used as core mediums, applied on natural surfaces with techniques inspired by traditional methods that she has spent years observing in India and other South Asian countries. Her works have been shown worldwide, and she has been a resident fellow at the Edward Albee Foundation, Montauk, NY (2016-2017). In 2020, Kumar also started a course on nature as a medium in arts, focusing on prehistoric cave art. She earned her bachelor’s in economics from Mehr Chand Mahajan DAV College for Women, Chandigarh, and is a postgraduate from the National Institute of Design and Technology, New Delhi.
“The most interesting thing about our exhibit, to me, is the connection between Mahwish and me,” says Kumar. “We met in Chicago - a world away from South Asia - and started discussing how similar our backgrounds are. My family moved from Pakistan to Punjab, India, during the partition and her family moved from Punjab to Pakistan. We eat the same foods and speak the same language, Punjabi, yet we would be worlds apart in those two countries. Being in the US allowed us to come together in this way.”
Mahwish Chishty combines new media and conceptual work with materials and techniques of South Asian art and craft traditions. Her work has also been exhibited worldwide in both public and private collections. Chishty is an art associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and other fellowships and awards. She holds a BFA with a concentration in Miniature Painting from the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, and an MFA in Studio Arts from the University of Maryland in College Park.
“The challenge for me was to work off of Gunjan’s art and her methods,” says Chishty. “Her work is full of color, textures, and our heritage. I tried to contrast that by working with laser-cutting and plexiglass, acrylics - something I had never tried before, but I just thought it was a beautiful compliment to her pieces.”
Following the CSAS lecture, the two artists and the curator were asked how their audiences reshaped their work for this exhibit.
“The best part for me was seeing my family’s reaction to the exhibit in Pakistan,” says Chishty. “I’m not sure if they understand what I do, so to watch them as they saw my work in person is something I will never forget.”
“The biggest thing I realized was there are so many more possibilities than differences,” says Wadhwana. “Both countries, our heritage, our history, it’s all so connected. Sharing our historical roots in this exhibit connects all of us to where we came from.”
Shaleen Wadhwana's curatorial practice explores meta-narratives in global history and artistic responses to contemporary social issues. She has worked with National Museum, Delhi, Chemould Prescott Road Gallery, Mumbai, and cultural institutions like the British Museum, London, National Museum, Delhi, and Chemould Prescott Road Gallery, Mumbai. Madhwana is visiting faculty at the MIT Institute of Design, Pune, and her academic research for The Unfiltered History Tour, which is on display at the British Museum, won India 12 awards at the Cannes Lions Festival.
“It was so interesting to hear about the inspiration behind this exhibit,” says Matthew Hull, director of CSAS. “I haven’t seen anything quite like The Sindhu Project. The combination of the contrasting work of the two artists was fascinating, and the innovative virtual tour of the exhibition in Delhi added a whole new perspective.”
You can see a virtual 3D walkthrough of The Sindhu Project here.