There are too many artists to count in the informative, exuberant “The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India Since 1989,” which thwarts visitors’ expectations of how an exhibition—and art itself—should look and function.
A group of Indian artists, musicians, scholars and other cultural figures founded Sahmat in 1989, in response to the politically motivated murder of 34-year-old activist Safdar Hashmi. (Sahmat stands for “Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust” and means “in agreement” in Hindi.) The collective’s projects promote the freedom of expression Hashmi cherished and repudiate the Indian “communalism,” or religious extremism, which caused the destruction of a medieval mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 and the 2002 riots in Gujarat that killed more than 1,000 people, among other tragedies.
The Chicago art world embraces community-based initiatives and activism to an unusual extent, but Sahmat comes off as shocking because of its unambiguous political views and rejection of religious orthodoxy. The show includes powerful works by internationally successful artists such as Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani and Zarina. But most pieces reflect Sahmat’s commitment to recruiting non-artists, including children, and its eagerness to take its projects to the streets.
Despite myriad photographs and other documentation, it’s impossible for “The Sahmat Collective” to convey the vibrancy of such actions in a museum setting. Curators Jessica Moss and Ram Rahman (a founding member of Sahmat) do their best, however. Visitors can sit in an auto rickshaw to view a video about the awe-inspiring Slogans for Communal Harmony (1992), a competition that solicited poems about Indian unity from Delhi’s diverse population of auto-rickshaw drivers. Contestants painted their compositions on their vehicles, and in what the exhibition catalog calls one of India’s “biggest public art projects” to date, drove together in a procession through the city.
Sahmat also presented Art on the Move (2001) in the middle of Delhi. Organized by Sundaram, the project commissioned mobile sculptures from 16 emerging artists, who installed their works on rickshaws, pushcarts and other small vehicles used by the city’s outdoor vendors.
In a related video, Rahman recalls that the sculptures’ movements were restricted because the artists couldn’t obtain the licenses they needed—which reminded them how difficult life is for the vendors who rely on such vehicles all the time. This is one of the few moments “The Sahmat Collective” acknowledges any distance between Sahmat’s artists and the general public they seek to serve. While the success of Slogans for Communal Harmony and other projects suggests the collective enjoys broad popular support in India, the show leaves visitors wondering whether Sahmat often changes opinions. Still, even if it ends up preaching to the choir, it’s inspiring to see artists standing up for freedom—at serious personal risk.