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When was Modernism? by Goshka Macuga

Rescuing Rabindranath

Artists, curators and archivists liberate Tagore from unjust neglect, Corinna Lotz reports from Shoreditch.

In India and Bangla Desh, Rabindranath Tagore is a household name. His poems, plays and stories are the stuff of everyday life and lyrics of popular songs.

But although he was well known in England and internationally during the 1920s, these days for many people Tagore’s contribution to 20th century thought has become an unknown territory, unjustly so.

Thanks to a multi-facetted project at the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) in Shoreditch, Tagore’s protean creativity, his vision and his educational work are being brought to life, freed from the encrustations of poor translations, cultural divides, mysticism and Post-Modernist prejudices of many kinds.

Iniva’s collaboration brings together high-calibre international artists and the efforts of first-generation British Bengalis to reclaim and introduce their cultural heritage. Goshka Macuga, who is well-known in Britain since her Turner-prize nomination and Whitechapel Art Gallery project, is close friends with Cairo-born artist-activist Anna Boghiguian.

Boghiguian’s street-level installation unfolds gradually. Papier-mâché heads and figures are suspended like puppets, embroideries and a line of small paintings appear as a cross between the sophistication of Arte Povera and Outsider art. But as in Arte Povera, the naiveté is deceptive.

Tagore at Rvington Place
Anna Boghiguian's installation at Iniva

Her take on the writer-poet-artist-ecologist-political campaigner brings us close to Tagore's stories and many-sided approach to the cosmos. The small paintings lining two of the walls re-tell Tagore’s famous allegorical play, The Post Office, through the real experiences of later generations; they are multi-layered in a historical as well as visual sense, full of complex forms and symbolic references.

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Above: multi-media images by Anna Boghiguian

Boghiguian often starts with postcards and photographs, some reminiscent of the great Satyajit Ray. One sequence is based on The Post Office, which was performed by inmates in a number of Nazi concentration camps. The puppets, the embroidered screen, scattered leaves and lonely crows on the gallery floor gradually bring Tagore’s personality to life.

As with Tagore himself, Boghiguian’s global approach cuts across continents and disciplines. Her boldly brushed envelopes stuffed with letters invite visitors to revisit his life, evoking links with writers, scientists and poets such as Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Yeats, Ezra Pound and Albert Einstein.

Macuga worked with Iniva’s senior curator Grant Watson back in 2008 to create a haunting evocation of the outdoor campus at Kala Bhavan, part of Tagore’s utopian experiment in education near Kolkata.

Tagore founded Kala Bhavan, also known as the Institute for Visual Arts, in 1919 – the same year as the Bauhaus in Germany – and it shared many of the same ideals. Much of Tagore’s thinking and his ideas about education ran parallel to those of the Bauhaus, as well as progressive and alternative educationalists. He was a determined opponent of the British Raj, rejecting his knighthood after a massacre by British troops at Jalianwalla Bagh.

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Grey concrete benches arranged around a tree, surrounded by sculptures excavated from the garden at the school give rise to the understanding that Modernism was not a “western” phenomenon, but was a global movement. When was Modernism? invites contemplation about not only the histories of Modernism but much more besides.

The name of Macuga’s installation, When was Modernism? was also the title of a lecture by cultural theorist Stuart Hall, a co-founder of Iniva. Hall’s special contribution to cultural identity is the subject of an outstanding new film, The Stuart Hall Project by John Akomfrah, in British and Irish cinemas this autumn.

In Iniva’s upstairs space, roughly-hewn heads and figures retrieved from the Kala Bhavan garden by Macuga and Watson, in a kind of archaeological excavation, look down from the walls. Made by unknown students at unknown times, they are encrusted with straw and grass and have an elegiac feel. Macuga says the school’s garden is a peaceful and meditative space.

Tagore’s writing is brought to life in Iniva’s education space through books and materials, researched and curated by the UK Tagore Centre which first generation British Bengalis have created to bring his legacy back to younger generations.

In the 21st century, Tagore has remained a distant presence. A magical name which promised more. It’s not often that we encounter a whole world that we have missed before. Iniva’s show opens that special door.

19 September 2013

Tagore’s Universal Allegories is at Rivington Place until 23 November. Free admission. Accompanied by talks and events.

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