Welcome back to #SAMSnippets! In this live series on our Instagram you get an up-close look at works in SAM’s permanent and semi-permanent installations. Each month, we choose a new gallery to walk through, offering you art appreciation wherever you may be!
In January, we featured a diverse collection of artworks from Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time. The first special exhibition to open in the remodeled and renovated Seattle Asian Art Museum, the featured works explore social, political, and religious perceptions of humanity and the human body through the lens of past and contemporary South Asian artists. Many of them utilize female and feminized forms in a myriad of ways, including as a devotional object, as a mode of self-representation, and to question the safety of public spaces. Watch the video now to get a peek at what’s on view at the Asian Art Museum now and learn more about the works shown below. Get your tickets now to see the entire exhibition before it closes on July 10!
The tour begins with a look at Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s Kali (I’m a Mess). For more than 30 years, Burman has used a variety of mixed media to advocate for female empowerment, racial equity, and her Punjabi heritage. Kali (I’m a Mess) was a part of Burman’s recent installation titled Remembering A Brave New World, superimposed over the Tate Britain’s entrance. Perched atop the building’s pediment, the Hindu goddess of destruction and protection obfuscated the statue of Britannia. The text above Kali reads, “I’m a Mess,” a message usually not associated with Kali. Burman takes Kali seriously as a potent symbol of liberation and rebellion and uses this text to speak to political and social concerns that occurred in 2020. Kali (I’m a Mess) is one of a few works in Embodied Change which was acquired into SAM’s permanent collection as a result of being included in this exhibition.
As we enter the exhibition, the camera pans across five earthenware and clay terracotta figures. Originating from the Indus Valley civilization in modern day India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, these works date back to 2600–1900 BCE. Archaeological digs in the area have revealed numerous small, female figures, usually sculpted with wide hips, small breasts, stocky appendages, and abundant jewelry. Early scholars deified these figures as “mother goddesses” (a manifestation of Devi), creating a tie between past religious beliefs and present-day Hindu practitioners. This interpretation has been reevaluated, questioning whether these items were truly representative of religiosity. Their meaning remains a mystery but the near absence of male figures suggest the body held significant importance.
Next, we see two photographs by Brendan Fernandes: As One III and As One IX. Fernandes is Canadian of Kenyan and Goan (South Asian) descent, and his last name evokes the complex circuits of exchanges between the Portuguese colonial apparatus and western India. In his work, Fernandes is invested in bodies that move, showing that the human body has a range of permutations, meanings, and identities. The artist and his practices does not hold a fixed identity or a singular idea of Europe, Africa, or India. Overall, he envisions “a different process of communication,” one that is body-driven.
These two photographs were created locally. Fernandes used dancers from the Pacific Northwest Ballet in the auditorium of the Seattle Art Museum alongside African masks from SAM’s permanent collection. Using gestures derived from classical French ballet, the two dancers address the African masks with formality and etiquette. Compositionally, the dancers’ heads are hidden, which allows for the masks to stand in for the dancers’ missing faces. Through such juxtapositions, Fernandes forges a bridge between the inanimate and the animate.
Adeela Suleman’s Helmet is part of a series repurposing kitchen objects. Made from utensils including a colander and tiffin (lunch box), the form is gendered as it uses objects typically located in the interior space of the kitchen, often associated with female domesticity. In performance photographs, Suleman dons these helmets, suggesting that women need special armor in their day-to-day movement in the public arena. The rigid and hard helmets provide little real protection. One wonders how much protection Suleman wants her pieces to afford; she seems to gesture to the futility of such an attempt.