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MoMA exhibition on constructing and decolonization in South Asia raises questions concerning the authentically hopeful structure of nation-building


The Venture of Independence, now open on the Museum of Trendy Artwork (MoMA), is steeped in eager for a return to a extra hopeful time when architects made nation-states. The drawings, fashions, and images on show mirror a willingness on the a part of mid-century architects to collaborate with nation builders, regardless of the price. The prevailing ideology of the time was that decolonization may solely be achieved by way of modernization and industrialization, and the exhibition presents artifacts of this venture of decolonization.

But, as a viewer, I discovered myself questioning what has modified, conceptually, within the final 60 years. How has latest scholarship on the decolonization and deimperialization of the lands and peoples in South Asia come to be an indictment, not solely of colonial histories but in addition of present political regimes that orchestrate pogroms and land grabs? How has the fantasy of the nation-state turn into illegitimate, given its reliance on violence to keep up its legitimacy?

Sunil Janah (Indian, 1918–2012). Industrial Paperwork. Untitled. Forties–Sixties. Gelatin silver print, 14 3/16 × 11 1/4 in. (36.00 × 28.50 cm). (Courtesy Swaraj Artwork Archive/Picture through MoMA)

The primary object one encounters earlier than getting into the present is a big reprint of Sunil Janah’s {photograph} of males climbing a tv tower. This festivity of expertise covers the identify of MoMA’s Philip Johnson Galleries, a convention begun by Mabel O. Wilson and Sean Anderson’s 2021 Reconstructions. On the opposite aspect of this threshold, one finds a small {photograph} by Margaret Bourke-White, from her sequence on partition refugees making the journey throughout the India-Pakistan border. The picture is much less a doc of the unfathomable violence and trauma of partition and extra a metonym of the nation, rising painfully from colonialism, headed towards a self-determined future. Relatively than reckon with this historical past, The Venture of Independence takes all of the violence of colonial conquest and postcolonial nation-building and condenses it into an eight-inch rectangle. Partition wasn’t merely an occasion that produced the necessity for brand new buildings and new methods of dwelling; it was a sampling of the huge legacy of violence that has accompanied each the colonial and postcolonial historical past of South Asia.

Curators Martino Stierli, Anderson, and Anoma Pieris handle to sidestep the a number of pitfalls of the style. They steer clear of the “modernity-tradition-identity” trope, choosing a thematic rubric starting from establishment constructing and industrial infrastructure to new city preparations. This conceptualization adheres to traits in scholarship, despite the fact that the narrative of forging a brand new nationwide aesthetic lies just under the floor. Now and again a venture appears smuggled in, maybe for its magnificence. A customer would possibly, as an example, pause on the pretty drawings of Valentine Gunasekara and Christopher de Saram’s Tangalle Bay Lodge (1972), questioning which theme they have been presently immersed in, solely to find none. There may be worth to how particular person nations—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka—fall into the background as one peruses the initiatives on the partitions and within the catalog, but this too is a double bind. Eschewing nationwide origins, Stierli et al. appear to make a case for a shared colonial historical past and doable postcolonial unity, but this identical gesture evades historic specificities, significantly the unsavory political contexts inside which these buildings are uncomfortably embedded.

Anguri Bagh Housing, Lahore, Pakistan, 1972–73. Yasmeen Lari (b. 1941). Exterior view. c. 1980. {Photograph}: Jacques Bétant. Aga Khan Belief for Tradition (Picture courtesy MoMA)

Acknowledging the exclusion of ladies frequent in exhibition-making, the curatorial workforce has been cautious to incorporate girls practitioners reminiscent of Yasmeen Lari within the combine. Equally, the present considerably steers away from the great-man method, in order that instead of Le Corbusier, we get his architectural amanuenses, together with Minnette de Silva and Aditya Prakash. I like to recommend pausing in entrance of the attractive drawing of Prakash’s Tagore Theatre (1962) and at an city mobility research that indexes the lifelong work he did, institutionally and architecturally, to make Chandigarh a vibrant, dwelling metropolis. A government-produced documentary movie about Chandigarh’s building depicts the laborers who moved up and down ramps to pour the concrete that shaped the Capitol Advanced. That buildings are constructed by employees is a tautology; the true query right here is, what are the a number of labors of architectural considering and making that the parable of the solo creator has hid? Le Corbusier is rarely dismantled because the origin story of Indian modernism; he’s merely displaced onto his acolytes and into his buildings.

Tangalle Bay Lodge, Tangalle, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). 1969–72. Architects: Valentine Gunasekara (1931–2017) and Christopher de Saram (1939–2018). Engineer: Jayati Weerakoon (1928–2021). Exterior view from the water. (Nihal Fernando, Studio Instances Ltd./Picture courtesy MoMA)

There are two accounts on which the exhibition does actual institutional work, in conserving artifacts and producing new ones. I’d be remiss to not point out the sheer pleasure of drawings and pictures that the survey places collectively. One can solely think about the troublesome process of gathering this materials and mounting this exhibition within the context of a worldwide pandemic. I do know from my very own work that India’s a number of lockdowns made navigating establishments extra sophisticated than it already was. Even exterior of the pandemic, anybody working on this time and area is aware of the ache of discovering drawings alternately eaten by bugs or destroyed by mud and neglect. Complete archives have been misplaced, particularly when drawings have been handed over to state our bodies. The hope is {that a} present reminiscent of this makes scholarship doable by forging new networks and creating the situations for accessing this historical past. However with this hope comes sure questions. Ought to the gallery’s function stay purely object-oriented, consigning the conceptual and historic work to catalogs? Should wall texts that draw on the archival and theoretical arguments of students learn like Wikipedia entries? Though this tone is the usual for exhibitions, it doesn’t must be.

New Secretariat Constructing, Calcutta (Kolkata), India. 1949–54. West Bengal Public Works Division. Habib Rahman (1915–1995). Exterior view. (Randhir Singh/Picture courtesy MoMA)

On the second entrance, the manufacturing of latest materials, Randhir Singh’s images are lovely. A specific favourite of mine depicts a studying room in Mazharul Islam’s public library on the College of Dhaka (1954). The distinction between the books on the wall (material and leather-bound tomes) and the books piled on tables (economically printed textbooks usually designed for cramming for numerous exams) trace on the brutality of present regimes of schooling. A couple of masked college students crop up right here and there in Singh’s images, the only indication of a pandemic that uniquely affected building laborers within the area. However the few representations of laborers within the exhibition don’t convey these sorts of structural exploitations. Then there are the wooden fashions of buildings made by college students from the Cooper Union in New York, that are fantastic. But, it’s simpler to outsource model-making to college students than it’s to really decolonize the pedagogy of South Asian architectural historical past.

Full disclosure: Early on within the exhibition planning, I used to be invited to share some ideas with the curatorial workforce, which has kindly included my identify amongst a listing of advisers in the back of the catalog. On the time, I commented that the second was ripe to drag aside what South Asia is and the way the present discourse on decolonization afforded the exhibition a chance to problem the geographical and temporal determinism embedded within the narrative of independence. (India and Pakistan achieved independence in 1947; Sri Lanka in 1948; Bangladesh achieved independence from Pakistan in 1971.) To be clear, South Asia is a traditionally constituted area; numerous nations, peoples, and languages have been included and excluded from this geography, following shifting geopolitical currents. To that finish, in presenting South Asia as a continuum, The Venture of Independence underscores the ties that maintain the area collectively greater than the borders that separate them. Neither the exhibition nor the catalog is organized in line with the 4 nations that have been chosen to symbolize the area. But, how fantastic it will have been to see a venture from Bhutan or Nepal or the Maldives. It’s a travesty to disavow Afghanistan, however possibly even Myanmar and Iran may have been sneaked in.

My intention isn’t to increase the boundary of the political area that’s South Asia by including extra nations and initiatives to a listing. Relatively, my level is that any severe try to decolonize the historical past of structure ought to clarify the precarity and political violence concerned in border-drawing initiatives and the politics of inclusion and exclusion they subtend. Likewise, the temporality of the exhibition, achieved by its neat bracketing of 1947 and 1985—the yr the South Asian Affiliation for Regional Cooperation was shaped—perpetuates the parable of a break. Absolutely, there are methods of show that acknowledge the momentousness of these beginnings with out falling prey to the mythologies of origins.

Must you go see the present? Sure, in fact. See it and benefit from the authentically hopeful structure of nation-building. However know that the curatorial workforce cites decolonization, not as a postcolonial theoretical discipline, however as a selected historic occasion. In doing so, the exhibition doesn’t ask or reply questions as to what decolonization may probably imply. One other doable mannequin for a survey on post-independence structure would possibly critically take into account what the labor of decolonization would represent theoretically, and what the reparations due would appear to be economically. In addressing the legacy of colonial violence and its confluence with modernism and industrialization, it will have to query whether or not architects have been complicit within the instant imperial flip of impartial governments. With out pursuing these strains of inquiry, The Venture of Independence is in peril of constant neocolonial tendencies by valorizing heroic narratives of late architectural modernism in South Asia.

Ateya Khorakiwala is an assistant professor of structure at Columbia College. She researches famine, infrastructure, and materiality in Twentieth-century India.

The Venture of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985
Museum of Trendy Artwork, 11 West 53rd Road, New York
Via July 2, 2022



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