For Autograph’s project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, we commissioned ten UK-based visual artists to create new bodies of work in response to the wider context of the global pandemic. We then invited ten writers – each paired with one of the artists – to produce a short reflective essay contextualising the new artworks made.
Poloumi Desai collaborated with her elderly mother, who was shielding during the pandemic, to produced her commissioned works Our cultures are the portals – the gateway between one world and the next. The works were created by inoculating petri dishes with bacteria combined with imagery from her family archives, salvaged debris and newspaper clippings to evoke the spread of the virus.
Below, curator Tarini Malik reflects on notions of cultural heritage, collaboration and familial relationships in Desai’s work.
"...neither act hoping for a desired result nor stop acting because the result is beyond you."1
These words from the Bhagwat Geeta sit below a reproduction of an oleograph of Lord Krishna riding on Arjuna’s horse-drawn chariot. It is a fragment of mass-produced religious iconography: one of countless similar small cards that have a quotation from holy scriptures accompanying an image of a Hindu deity. Cards like this are often found propped up in cupboards, on end tables or in obscure corners of Indian homes that serve as shrines. In the South Asian supermarket in Ealing the cashier might put one into your bag of groceries, just as the bookseller near my childhood home in Delhi will slip one into the novel I bought: a free token, a gesture of goodwill, a (gentle) means of spreading philosophy and ideology. I recognise it immediately. It is a symbol of my own diasporic identity: a portal or a gateway between one world and the next.
The text is distinct amid the dense and overlapping layers of ephemera among which it sits: fragments of a partly filled-in newspaper crossword, a gold locket, a black-and-white photograph of a sitar. Soft, fuzzy spores of green bacteria are rife, gradually multiplying and threatening to cover everything in reach. The assemblage is encased in a square Petri dish and sealed with a top sheet of transparent acetate that has an imprinted image. The Petri dish, of which there are six, each one layered and collaged with different materials and images and then contaminated with living bacterial cells, is the site of two iterations of a new photographic commission by artist Poulomi Desai. The first is a series of 12 prints that are enlarged images of the original Petri dishes before they were sealed, and the second includes five images of these dishes each with a corresponding acetate print layered over the top.
Desai, whose legacy as an artist, organiser and provocator spans decades, defies being seen as representing any single community of people. All the while she refuses to stop acting on behalf of the communities that raised her: those which the mainstream cultural sphere chooses to systemically under-represent and silence, namely - but by no means limited to - women of colour. In this body of work we see this more poignantly than ever: the artist’s principal collaborator is her elderly mother. Desai’s mother was born in Uganda and grew up in India, emigrating to the UK in the 1960s. A progressive educator and an activist, she both taught and fought for anti-racism and women’s rights, mixing with leading cultural figures such as Stuart Hall and John La Rose.
In the summer of 2020 the pandemic raged on and Desai cared for her mother amid the onset of her dementia. She was confronted with hoards of objects, documents and belongings that her mother had stored at home over the course of her rich life. It is this archive, unconsciously collected by her mother, that became the material for Desai’s artistic project: Hindu paraphernalia, receipts, stamps, educational pamphlets, letters, scraps of fabric, jewellery and even part of a radiograph of her mother’s lungs. These fragments from her life, and by extension Desai’s, are not just a means of regaining control in a familial relationship under siege, but speak both to the everyday and the personal, as well as to a larger sociopolitical sphere and the collective experience.
Desai places the archival amid the new: we see newspaper clippings bearing the words ‘quarantine’, ‘NHS’ and ‘Covid’. These are jarring reminders of the world in which we now live. Here, Desai explores the relativity between the past and present: the inherent contradictions but also the patterns that emerge. Each dish is a universe within a universe, a microcosm of something vastly bigger and not always tangible. Her work, like Arundhati Roy’s now seminal text ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’ (which inspired the title of Desai’s series), reinforces the point that we must confront the history of social and political injustice alongside our contemporary moment in order to discover why this pandemic has hit the disenfranchised the most.²
One of the most fascinating layers in these works consists of the bacteria with which Desai infected them. Each Petri dish has bacteria growing on its surface, sourced from different places, including: swabs of the artist’s mouth, her mother’s, dust found in the corners of her home and between the bathroom tiles. Desai even draws some of the bacteria from ‘British Beef Stock’: a symbol of a menacing imperial presence whose use of beef is seen as sacrilegious for many Hindus. The bacteria represents both decay and death, as well as something living, mutating and expanding. Now preserved in each Petri dish but also frozen in time though photography, the relationship to the pandemic is powerful, as is how this contamination alters and shifts our relationship to each object and image. Desai’s use of bacterial form echoes the fact that art is inherently liminal: it can be life, death and everything in between.
Returning to the ancient words of the Bhagwat Geeta, I am struck by how strongly they resonate with Desai as an artist: in both the open-ended and expansive nature of her practice as well as the rigour she applies to her artwork and the tenacity of her critique.
¹ The full quotation included in the image Our cultures are portals - the gateways between one world and the next (Desai, 2020) reads: ‘You are destined only to act. The result of your action is beyond your control. Therefore, neither act hoping for a desired result nor stop acting because the result is beyond you’. These words are found in the Bhagwat Geeta of which there are multiple versions in Sanskrit and corresponding translations in English.
² Roy, A., 2020. Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’. [online] Ft.com. Available here.
Tarini Malik is Assistant Curator at the Hayward Gallery since 2017 where she has co-curated a number of landmark group exhibitions, as well as the first solo presentations in the UK of artists: Emmanuelle Laine, Thabiso Sekgala and Igshaan Adams. Previously, she was Head of Exhibitions for artist Isaac Julien, and co-curator on several major international exhibitions with curator Mark Nash during her tenure at their shared studio (2014- 2017) . She has held curatorial posts at Fiorucci Art Trust (2012-2014), Frieze Projects (2013) and Serpentine Galleries (2011-2012).
Tarini holds a MA in History of Art from the University of Edinburgh and Université Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne, and a MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art, London. She has published her writing in various magazines and journals including: Art in America, Critical Collective and Mousse Magazine.
See the full artist commission by Poulomi Desai
Read an in conversation with the artist and Autograph's director Mark Sealy
Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...
Read the introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project
Visit the Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other exhibition at Autograph's gallery
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