invitation card for Jagrati exhibition

Consistently present: Alice Correia on South Asian women artists

To celebrate South Asian Heritage Month Althea Greenan interviewed Alice Correia about her research on South Asian artists in the Women of Colour Index, part of the Women’s Art Library.

colour slide illustrating Shareena Hill painting called Juicer
Shareena Hill was included in the third “In Focus” exhibition, which ran from 7 to 23 March 1990. She exhibited alongside Yashwant Mali, Sohail and Shafique Uddeen. These artists were (most likely) grouped together because they were all primarily painters, but the show also included drawings, photography and installation, with works that veered towards the surreal, intangible or oblique. Hill presented recent paintings depicting magnified domestic utensils, including, “Juicer” (1990), in which a shiny metallic orange juicing machine is compared with an imagined hairy one. Although I had seen examples of Hill’s work elsewhere, finding the Time Out exhibition review and a colour slide of “Juicer” in the Women’s Art Library felt like a momentous discovery. The vibrancy of Hill’s painting was beyond my expectations
magazine clipping
Research image of review in WAL file on Shareena Hill – Alice Correia 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a Mid-Career Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art in 2017, Alice Correia initiated her research project, “Articulating British Asian Art Histories”, which continues in her research discussed below. The following was excerpted from a conversation tracing lines of enquiry and the overlap of art practice and activism.

Alice Correia: I’m researching South Asian women artists who were active primarily in the 1980s and into the 1990s […] I knew that there were lots of South Asian artists participating in group shows, but weren’t entering into the mainstream narrative of Black British Art […] So it was really a case of wanting to draw out those stories of South Asian artists active in the 80s and I was interested in women artists especially because I have an interest in feminist art histories. I was looking again at Griselda Pollock’s and Rozsika Parker’s book[1] and in the introductory essay they identify a show called Four Indian Women Artists that was staged in 1982[2] curated by Bhajan Hunjan and Chila Burman […] as the first group exhibition of black women artists.

AG: Wow!

AC:  But, but, all they did was identify the show. […] I think they list the four artists, but they don’t talk about what was in it or anything about it or its reception. It’s just one sentence, and it was, like, ‘wow’! This is really significant. That show then becomes a really important marker for Black feminism and Black feminist art history. Obviously we think about Black feminist shows and what Lubaina (Himid) was doing at Elbow Room and The Thin Black Line and those things, but here’s a really early example before Lubaina was working on those exhibitions. So I just started investigating what other group shows of South Asian women artists there were to map on to a more widely known history of Black feminist exhibition.

colour image of artwork
Slide from Symrath Patti’s file in WAL  – image Alice Correia 2020

What I found was there weren’t very many, but they’re almost unheard of. So Symrath Patti’s [1986 group exhibition]  Jagrati was a major show.  […] A lot of that research was published in the online journal British Art Study[3]… I talk about Jagrati, but at the time all I had to go on was the exhibition essay/brochure which had the exhibition list and an essay written by Fay Rodrigues in the Panchayat’s archive which is now held in the Special Collections at Tate Britain in the Tate Library and Archive.  So I had known about Jagrati and I talked about that show with Bhajan who participated in it. […] She put me in contact with Symrath – and that was a revelatory moment only a few weeks before I was due to submit my final copy of my paper. She said, oh, the archives are at the Women’s Art Library! So at this point I just had to insert a line and a footnote saying this research will continue when I get to the Women’s Art Library.

paper file
Jagrati file in Symrath Patti’s archive box in WAL – image Alice Correia 2020

What was there was really comprehensive. You had a lot of the planning documents, minutes […] pages and pages of photocopies from the visitors’ book, black and white photographs of all of the works that were in the show, the exhibition list and pamphlet […] and then all of Symrath’s correspondence with the artists. […] It felt like a lot at the time.

typescript paper from Jagrati file
Item from the Jagrati file in Symrath Patti’s archive held in WAL – image Alice Correia 2020
invitation card for Jagrati exhibition
Invitation opening for the group exhibition Jagrati held in the WAL –  image Alice Correia 2020

AG: Did you ever find more information on the 1982 Four Indian Women Artists exhibition?

AC: Yes, Bhajan was really generous [and] gave me access to her archival materials and within that there was a review written by Errol Lloyd for the Minority Artists Advisory Service (MAAS) Newsletter […] and that was really exciting because it had photographs of some of the works, and a really amazing figurative soft sculpture by an artist called Naomi Iny. […] I’d love to be able to find out more about her.

AG: So these four women were of South Asian heritage living in the UK?

AC: Yes. There was Chila Burman, Bhajan Hunjan and Naomi Iny. Bhajan and Chila had known each other from the Slade [School of Fine Art] and I think Naomi had also studied at the Slade, but a little bit earlier. Vinodini Ebdon, who I think is in the Women’s Art Library, was a slightly older generation. […] The Four Indian Women Artists show was curated under the aegis of the Indian Artists UK collective which was a group of male painters predominantly. […]  They had secured an exhibition space in the basement of the Indian High Commission in London and had identified that they wanted to do an exhibition of women artists and they asked Bhajan to curate it. […]

AG: Bhajan seems to play a critical role in all of this. I have heard her speak about what was important back in the 1980s in order to survive as an artist.[4] Exploring the idea of how the woman artist’s career becomes subsumed in other occupations in order to sustain and develop it… [It’s] quite critical what she did.

AC: Yes, I would agree in terms of her role as someone who connected people and who gave other artists opportunities and supported them. I think that’s a story that is less known. […] A few years later she also curated Numaish which was a GLC [Greater London Council]-funded project which had Bhajan, Naomi Iny, Vinodini Ebdon, Nina Edge and Dushka Ahmed […]and then she was included in the Jagrati show. […] Indian Artists UK established the Horizon Gallery and [Bhajan] had a solo show there. Throughout that time, Bhajan was supportive of her contemporaries whilst also working at an Asian women’s refuge in Reading, and that’s how she supported herself. She’s talked about working in the daytime doing translation for South Asian women who were in need of support and then going home to her attic and finding it really hard, because the shift in mindset between those two worlds is so difficult.

Bhajan is one of those people who has, quite quietly, been consistently present throughout the history of South Asian art in Britain. It’s really interesting and frustrating that she isn’t better known and that her contribution to those stories isn’t better known.

AG: But that’s where your research is coming in.

AC: Yes, that’s where my research comes in.

artwork by Bhajan Hunjan
Confrontation (acrylic on canvas, 3½ x 4½ ft) This image is a digital scan from a slide in Bhajan Hunjan’s WAL file made by Lauren Craig for the Women of Colour Index Slide Show in 2015.

AG: You recently gave a paper about the magazine Mukti for the online conference Grassroots: Artmaking and Political Struggle in June. Were artists involved in publishing?

AC There’s a complete run of copies in the British Library which is great and it’s a fantastic resource. As we were saying earlier, women artists were doing all sorts of different things to support themselves whether financially, intellectually, socially. Mukti arose from a network of women who were working either in education or the arts more generally, who wanted to give support to South Asian women. This is early 1980s, so this is the time when the revised Immigration Act is coming into play. South Asian women are being deported, or refused entry. There are virginity testings taking place to verify whether fiancées are virgins, and authorities were deciding that if women were not virgins that they are coming into the UK fraudulently to get a British passport. So the South Asian female migrant became on the one hand, this incredible perceived threat, but on the other hand there was this meek submissive, couldn’t-do-anything-for-herself figure who was always going to be a victim of patriarchal abuse within South Asian families. So my understanding of it is that Mukti came out of this group of women – really radical women – who wanted to give their own voice a space to discuss […] all those things that were affecting their daily lives [including] articles about immigration policy, housing issues, how to apply for funding. They listed women’s refuge shelters, had articles about how to give yourself a breast examination and what to say to your GP if you had any medical problems, and all sorts of different things. Within that there were poems and short stories, some of which were really poignant and self-reflexive about personal experiences of being a woman, in particular environments and situations.

The photographer, Mumtaz Karimjee, was heavily involved in Mukti. She wrote articles, helped with layouts – in one of the later issues she had photographic images reproduced. Likewise, Chila Burman designed one of the front covers and wrote an article about shared ownership housing – flying in the face of that whole notion that a South Asian woman was going to stay at home. […]

AG: …aimed at the younger generation…

AC: Intergenerational. And a lot of their articles – as far as I can tell – addressed some of those intergenerational disconnects. […] There’s a book about feminist magazines and Mukti is the subject of one of the chapters[5] […but the author] misses the point of what Mukti was and what it was trying to do, because her conclusion is that Mukti failed because it was trying to do too much and be too many things and address too many audiences and was too DIY and not a proper magazine. But I think that was the point of it. There was no other outlet. It was trying to do all those things and I think it was brave in attempting to do all of those things.

AG: And low-budget keeps it flexible…

AC: Completely. They used CopyArt [Community CopyArt] photocopiers I think at one point. It was very cut-and-paste on A4, typing up on typewriters and then cutting out and sticking and then photocopying and stapling.

AG: Fantastic. An Indian student recently graduated from the BA Art History at Goldsmiths, Adya Jalan had a paid internship in Special Collections to look across the collections starting with issues of Race Today. […] [She discovered] CopyArt in the WOCI files. […] The Rita Keegan Archive Project book has just come out with a chapter by Naomi Pearce on CopyArt[6] so this inspired Adya [to curate] a display in Goldsmiths Library. [7]  She would have been thrilled to know about Mukti.

AC: I first heard of Mukti when Chila Burman mentioned it in passing. She was talking, saying, “Oh I was doing this in Leeds and reading the Socialist Worker and I was doing things with Mukti…” and I’m… “What’s Mukti?” “Oh, it’s this magazine that we did and it was really great…”

Our conversation continued, expanding on the unique space Mukti offered artists like Zarina Bhimji to develop, but this important topic of the ‘broader ecology’ South Asian women artists worked in – as Alice puts it – needs another blog post to explore. Alice’s articles and reviews have appeared in Art History; British Art Studies; British Visual Culture; and Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art. She is the Chair of Trustees of Third Text and coChair of the British Art Network’s Black British Art Research Group. She has worked at the, Tate, the Government Art Collection, and universities of Sussex and Salford. She is currently working as a Research Curator at Touchstones Rochdale on a major project examining the history of Rochdale Art Gallery during the 1980s. 

 

[1] Parker, Rozsika, and Griselda Pollock. 1987. Framing feminism: art and the women’s movement, 1970-85. London: Pandora.

[2] Four Indian Women Artists, Indian Artists (UK) Gallery, 1981–1982

[3] Alice Correia, “Researching Exhibitions of South Asian Women Artists in Britain in the 1980s”, British Art Studies, Issue 13, https://doi.org/10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-13/acorreia

[4] Bhajan Hunjan spoke at Mining the Gap, a Programmes’ event mapping the histories of artists’ collectives from the 1970s, curated by Michèle Fuirer with Anna Murray and co-hosted with the Althea Greenan, Women’s Art Library, Tate Britain, London 2017 featuring the Scroll and artwork multiple “I’m Not Looking for Mrs Barbara” commissioned from Sarah Carne.

[5] Laurel Forster, Magazine Movements: Women’s Culture, Feminisms and Media Form, London: Bloomsbury, 2015, pp.111-145.

[6] https://www.gold.ac.uk/goldsmiths-press/publications/-mirror-reflecting-darkly-the-rita-keegan-archive/

[7] Photocopying Yourself into History an exhibition which gives insight into the organisation, Community CopyArt, and Rita Keegan’s practice. Buchi Emecheta Space, Goldsmiths Library Second Floor, 20th July – 8th October 2021. https://sites.gold.ac.uk/library-blog/category/womens-art-library/