The view from Mumbai: a conversation with artist Reena Kallat


Reena Kallat installing Woven Chronicle in 2018 for the Fearless exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

At the Art Gallery of NSW in 2018, visitors encountered a map like no other – a vision of the world turned upside-down and woven, on an engulfing scale, from brightly coloured electrical wire.

This map, titled Woven Chronicle, is the work of Reena Kallat, a world-renowned artist who addresses the politics of borders and migration from her studio in Mumbai. As part of Together In Art’s current focus on ‘migrations’, Natalie Seiz, curator of Asian art, reconnected with Kallat to talk about life in Mumbai and India during lockdown and how COVID-19 has changed her vision of a connected world.

Reena Kallat

Artist Reena Kallat with Woven Chronicle 2018, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Roger Pietri Fund and the Asian Collection Benefactors’ Fund 2018. © Reena Saini Kallat

Natalie Seiz: The world has significantly changed since you were last in Sydney to install your work Woven Chronicle for the exhibition Fearless in 2018. The Gallery was closed for ten weeks and has recently reopened; Sydney is starting to wake up from hibernation. How are things faring in Mumbai? Is the city still in lockdown? Has the city changed?

Here in Mumbai we’ve been in complete lockdown for the last three months and only in the last few days are things partially opening up. Given the sheer density of people, curtailing numbers is proving to be extremely challenging while finding ways of operating in the new normal. It is sometimes said that the virus affects us all in the same measure regardless of nationality, not discriminating between the privileged and less privileged. But in India, the past months have only further revealed underlying inequalities. We have faced a huge humanitarian crisis, with the daily wage worker and migrant population being the worst hit. Not since the partition of India in 1947 have we seen such mass migrations, with people embarking on arduous journeys on foot with no access to food or shelter.

How has the situation affected you personally?

Personally speaking, I find going into isolation a time for reflection, which I periodically enjoy. Normally it’s a self-imposed choice to insulate oneself from the external noise and bring focus while redirecting energies towards a new project. For those of us who have the security of staying in the comfort of our homes, this phase has allowed us the time to pause, to pare down and think of what’s important not just to art but our lives in general. At a time when critical resources are stretched and freedoms shrink, our values, our beliefs are tested. But I have to say that my work life seems inconsequential when viewed against the more urgent and pressing issues concerning people’s lives and livelihoods. It has taken me time to reboot and get on my feet again. Continuing to stay absorbed in my work through this period, and keeping in touch with the people closest to me, has helped mitigate the feeling of falling into despair.

Reena Kallat

Reena Kallat working in her studio in Bandra, Mumbai

Woven Chronicle explored how people moved all over the world and articulated lines of travel across borders, by way of electronic communication and physical movement. As countries now close borders, has the world become a smaller place?

Woven Chronicle was commissioned for your exhibition Fearless, which celebrated diverse cultures and geographies while questioning the politics of borders and migration. And it was within that framework that I chose to make a ‘south-up’ map which also traced the movements of migrants historically. We know that no single projection of the world is more correct than the other. It is the shift in our own vantage point that changes the way we see the world.

By conducting this cartographic exercise with electrical wire instead of a pencil line, I was trying to explore the idea of the map as dynamic, ever-changing, streaming and transferring data with the global flows of energies and people. As a material, electrical wire is a conduit – a carrier of data and energy – but begins to bear contradictory meanings when woven as barbed wire fences. The work reflects on the rise of narrow nationalism amidst the many conversations across borders through technology. Today, even as we tighten national borders amidst fears of the virus travelling through our bodies, we increasingly realise our interdependence. Everything which affects some of us almost immediately affects all of us.

Reena Kallat

Reena Kallat Woven Chronicle 2018 (detail), Art Gallery of New South Wales. Roger Pietri Fund and the Asian Collection Benefactors’ Fund 2018. © Reena Saini Kallat

The writer Jennifer Higgie remarks, in her recent essay for Together In Art, that we need to focus less on the global and more on the different ‘locals’ that each of us inhabits. With that in mind, please tell us where your studio is located? Did you have to close it? Are you working there at the moment?

My studio is in Byculla in central Mumbai, a 45-minute drive from where we live in the suburb of Bandra. Even before the official lockdown I made the decision to close the studio for the safety of the few studio assistants I have working with me. The studio complex comprises two sheds linked through a common terrace that I share with my husband Jitish, who’s also an artist. Besides this we have a second studio which is an old house, right across the street from where we live. I’m incredibly grateful to be able to spend time here these days and continue making my work.

Reena Kallat studio

Reena Kallat’s Mumbai studio with works in progress

Do you think crisis generates compelling art?

I can’t help but think of Shakespeare as a fine example of someone who survived four plague outbreaks in his lifetime. When he was 42, the plague closed down theatres, forcing him away from production, and that’s when he wrote some of his master works of tragedy and introspection (King Lear, Macbeth) which dwell in the deepest realms of paranoia and human solitude. Art has always been a chronicle of the times and it can’t be any different today.

How are artists generally coping in Mumbai? In Sydney there are challenges because the economy has slowed, but there is more optimism now that galleries are reopening…

I feel like the situation in India is different from Australia and some other countries, since historically we haven’t had much of a public infrastructure for the arts. In trying to fill the gap, artists themselves have set up peer-support movements helping other artists get through the crisis, while galleries have created shared platforms to work more collaboratively. This is a time for thinking innovatively and creating a pool of resources which can support various forms of cultural practice, whether literature, music, theatre or art writing, because the space for these might suddenly shrink. Those of us who’ve worked for nearly 25 years in the field, like me, realise that there were moments when opportunities had to be created. You couldn’t wait for something to happen. New paths had to be built. Having said that, it’s also imperative to create a safety net for young and very nascent practices that tend to be most affected and most vulnerable.

And what will come next?

This period will leave an indelible mark. In the near term, as the pandemic compels us towards physical distancing, it perhaps will make it more urgent for us to devise meaningful ways of connecting virtually. I think we may see a transformation in the ideas that artists pursue but also, more importantly, in the structure and possibilities of art. It’s a time for a re-examination of our ways of living and working which can lead to fundamental shifts in our imagination.