February 14 – June 9, 2013
Since 1989, the influential Delhi-based Sahmat has offered a platform for artists, writers, poets, musicians, actors, and activists to create and present works of art that promote artistic freedom and celebrate secular, egalitarian values.
The collective formed in the weeks after playwright, actor, and activist Safdar Hashmi was fatally attacked by political thugs while performing a street play. In the more than twenty years since, Sahmat has drawn on India’s secular heritage and an expansive group of collaborators to produce a series of projects that engage in important political and social debates through a mix of high art and street culture. This exhibition will introduce Sahmat's work to the United States through a survey of art and ephemera while assessing the impact this unique—and sometimes controversial—collective has had on contemporary Indian society and artistic practice.
Safdar Hashmi (1954–1989) was a political activist, actor, playwright, poet, and founding member of the street theater group Jana Natya Manch, or Janam ("birth") for short. He was deeply committed to secularism and egalitarianism, and built Janam into a forum for democratic and accessible theater aimed at political change.
On January 1, 1989, Hashmi and Janam were violently attacked while performing the play Halla Bol! (Raise Your Voice!) during municipal elections outside of Delhi. Hashmi died of his injuries the next day. His death aroused a nationwide wave of revulsion against political violence and led to the founding of Sahmat. The name is both an acronym for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust and the Hindi word for "in agreement."
Ever since, Sahmat has been at the heart of what co-curator Ram Rahman likens to "India's culture wars."
Animated by the urgent belief that art can propel change and that culture can reach across boundaries, Sahmat has offered a platform for an expansive group of artists and collaborators to present powerful works of art that defend freedom of expression and battle intolerance within India's often divisive political landscape.
Sahmat's projects (timeline PDF) are defined in part by their consistent stance against the threat of religious fundamentalism and sectarianism—known in South Asia as "communalism"—in public life. Collaborations have cut across class, caste, and religious lines and have involved artists, performers, scholars, and a wide array of other participants, such as the Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim auto-rickshaw drivers in the contest Slogans for Communal Harmony. Projects also have sought to counter political distortions to India's history, most notably in Sahmat's multifaceted response to the demolition of Babri Masjid (Babur's Mosque) in Ayodhya. In other cases, Sahmat has sought to celebrate India's cultural diversity and democratic ideals, engaging artists to create work that responds to ideas of national history and individual identity.
In a series of videos, artists and other collaborators discuss Sahmat's history and its impact on contemporary art-making in India.
Browse all the videos below (or on Vimeo). They're also available on iPads in the exhibition itself.
The Sahmat Collective includes works in a variety of media from over sixty artists including Manjeet Bawa, Atul Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, Zarina Hashmi, Rummana Husain, Bharti Kher, Pushpamala N., Nalini Malani, Gigi Scaria, Nilima Sheikh, and Vivan Sundaram.
See a complete list of all those who have participated in Sahmat projects (PDF).
Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
September 13, 2013–January 5, 2014
Art Gallery of Mississauga, Mississauga, Ontario
July 24–October 19, 2014
Fowler Museum, University of California, Los Angeles
April 12–July 26, 2015
Jessica Moss, Smart Museum Associate Curator for Contemporary Art, and Ram Rahman, photographer and independent curator.
The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989 is made possible by The Smart Family Foundation; Helen Zell; the Efroymson Family Fund, a CICF Fund; The Joyce Foundation; and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by Larry & Marilyn Fields; Barbara Fosco, The Fosco Family Foundation; Lisa and Michael Kornick; and the University of Chicago’s Committee on Southern Asian Studies.
Presented in the Richard and Mary L. Gray Gallery and the Robert and Joan Feitler Gallery.