Starting out with a question: Judy Blum Reddy and Poonam Jain map identity and religion on two ends of a time scale defining the contexts of modernity and the contemporary using the prism of feminism. Judy uses sarcasm and humour to poke fun on the iterations of male modernism and painting by drawing out train tables and bureaucratic committees in New Delhi. The identity of the nation is defined in its systems that are inefficient like committees to eradicate poverty, but identities are not always national. Judy was born to parents who had escaped from the holocaust in Vienna to New York; she married Krishna Reddy in France. India has been recurring in her artistic career. But is she Indian? The system of religion is inefficient in defining ones’ choice of vocation and life choices such as partners. Poonam Jain draws impossible architectures as if it were based on the tenets of Jainism. Dealing with the assertions of Jain philosophy that is based on mathematics and infinity she allows us to see the alienation and violence that a city sheds on an independent woman. Here drawings, sculptures and timetables of the two artists reconfigure a seminal solo of Judy Blum Reddy 'Who is She?' in New York in the 80s - but this time in two parts along with Poonam Jain - where they present affirmatives of feminist conceptualism.
Is the Ganga Namavali Strotra or the 108 names of the river Ganges, paeons in her beauty, magnificence and her nature to nurture, an act of feminism? 'Who is She?’ is the story of etymologies we do not share about words when addressed to the feminine. Thus in a society that venerates the woman as a goddess it does not particularly acknowledge her presence in quotidian life, the etymology of those praises remains lost and abstract. Though venerated the Ganges is dammed across its course and is a river system verging on death because of the pollutants that garland it foam and toxicity. The Strotravali is a register of names and when pronounced rhythmically one receives all the benedictions the river imbibes in itself.
Judy Blum Reddy has always made lists, lists of daily actions, to artist actions and innate amusing lists that spell out patriarchy and forms of discrimination. Therefore registering the names of the Ganges on an accounting ledger somehow allows Judy Blum Reddy to register what they mean in the heads of those who simply hear them as chants. Mythical representations of the woman in society stem from the mollycoddling of the resistance that arises from structural discrimination. Blum-Reddy worked for two decades at the Hatch Billops Archives (an African American Visual Archive in New York.) There she transcribed interviews and made lists of all that was to remain for African American visual culture. As an artist she showed her work along with many African American artists. Thus in 1980 as the photographer Ram Rahman designed an invite to her show, he aptly named it 'Who is She?’. It was apt because she had spent the past decades with her partner a relatively well-known printmaker from India, who was among the inventors of viscosity printmaking - Krishna Reddy. She had frequented many greats of the Indian art arena and had shown within group shows with other Indian artists and did a seminal solo at Nature Morte curated by Peter Nagy, she never figured among the lists of Indian artists. This dis-inclusion from the list mirrored the dis-inclusion of Indian artists abroad from museum and biennale lists even though they held French, American and British passports, their identities never sought them a place.
Poonam Jain right across from the wall where the names of the Ganga are displayed makes a book shelf of clay sculptures that are a script coded to read as a poem. But once you read the poem you realise it narrates the story of the 'No Name'. Jain reads out her personal space into the white cube as an assertion of herself - a self that has been obliterated by love, work, money and family. In another series of letters to herself she uses those very sculptures to dictate shadows from her past. The staircase, pistol, fish , hanger, letter all now hanging upside down narrate memories that are beautiful but now have to be forgotten or relived with others. Small Songs is a series of black and white serigraphs that Blum uses to narrate the idea of the home and fear. Lines that are poetry adorn small black serigraphs that look like toy versions of political posters. There are two maps that sit stretched across the gallery walls. One of them is a map of an unknown imaginary geography that resembles America; this map is made up of bumble bees that resemble signs for Atomic activity. Drawn in the 1970s, one of the maps takes on octagon shapes much like Vasarely's optical artworks. But they are imagined maps of landscapes unknown to the artist who has travelled as a young American in Europe, and then through marriage to India and Africa. The last map which is at the end of the gallery is like the sun that sets in the mountains of Asilah, a place where she went many years after drawing it , much like premonition.
Poonam Jain also constructs Impossible Architectures; this impossibility arises from a mathematical ability to count the impossible. Three pillars of counting in various angles form shapes at the far end of the gallery. They are written numbers that add up to the possibility of infinity. Jain as her surname suggests comes from the Jaina tradition of philosophy where life is not dictated by theism of belief but by infinite cycles of sufferance. Once studying to be a Jain monk she quit to become an artist but since has illustrated her disappointments of how theoretical philosophy is interpreted by adherents. The idea of impossible architecture is a feminist act of rebellion against patriarchy because rationalism is a masculine obsession. This rationality often finds numbers to discriminate against black people, female sportspersons and all that can be hidden behind numbers and theories. Rationality based on emotions maybe called ethics. Blum makes a cartoon of Francafrique, ridiculously dressed army men stand atop a tank that has no arsenal. The following drawings reveal a sinister nightmare that are animated by cartoon characters such as Minnie Mouse who is about to rise up on the golden stairs to a black heaven. Blum-Reddy comments on the machinations of France and its policy in Africa that was so literal during her first two decades in Paris, as France gave up colonial positions but created caricatural political systems ruled by dictators.
Shopping is a sculpture that is not movable even though it sits on a shopping trolley. Young women like Jain in India sometimes feel a certain liberty at small economic decisions they make which includes their role in being allowed to buy what they please. Unlike her mother who had to seek approval from her father on what she bought for herself, Jain could participate in a liberal economy that allowed her surely this freedom. But did it allow a woman's right to choose her partner? Could she purchase her dream of the perfect love? Young couples across India find the mall as a place of privacy where one can enact dating through chores and other activities that might not invite the attention of their conservative parents. But some day a society that illustrates its changes in the millions of Bollywood movies it produces it does betray the dreams of many young women like her. Jain creates an overloaded trolley of dreams made out of precariously stuck together ear buds as a warning to such futures. A watercolor by Blum shows two women embracing each other perhaps an illustration of affinity in camaraderie a 28 year old artist feels with her 71 year old colleague Blum.
Jain was born to parents who run a stationary shop on the outskirts of Bangalore. Like many migrants from Rajasthan who live in South India they speak local languages, eat the cuisine and live lives far from the aridity of the Thar Desert. Often like in Jain's case the women are much more educated than the menfolk who join businesses at young ages. Thus her mother speaks fluent Tamil and Jain speaks Kannada the language taught to her at school. But she has never tasted non-vegetarian Kannada cuisine or if she were to marry a classmate from her school, such an alliance would be shocking to her parents who wish to benefit from a modern India they have migrated too. Colonial Exercises insisted on archiving and making gazetted lists of all that was in control of the empire. Thus castes, races, rivers, animals, plants and languages all that could be named were documented. In families such as that of Jain, they use ledger books called 'Chopdi' where one accounts all ones receivables, payables, debts, credits and wealth. Sometimes people do that with naming the various names one could remember of God as a ledger copy of blessings and good deeds. Blum was attracted to the design of these ledger books and somehow tried to construct the idea of India by listing the names of the lakes, highways and rivers. Interestingly it allows us to think how more than anything else accounting of resources is what makes nations rather than the identities politicians hanker on.
A white pillar in the middle of the gallery as if it were of the Satans, or an edict of Asoka, with clay Jain covers it entirely with numbers. These are numbers from her bank account. In the days of de-monetisation specially now the idea of an independent woman is based on her financial ability. Though showing within a gallery her situation is continuously precarious. But how does financial independence buy her time from her parents from pressures such as marriage is amusing and almost hypocritical. Thus she names the pillar ' The Value Column'. Shadows are sentences that erase over, they disappear. Her sentences first began with installations of erasers. Now on a wall near by her symbolic sentences that is translated using pictograms as objects begin to diminish into singular words. A watch, an umbrella, an orange and an octopus somehow narrate memories of emotions.
The etymology of bank comes from the French word for a bench ' banque'. It was first used by financiers from Lombardy. A white bench near the pillar of values has cut up books that display only the page numbers. Jain is intrigued by the job in publishing that is exclusive to counting and assigning numbers to pages. An ability with numbers was expected out of Jain by her father. Working in a stationary store assisting her father after school she saw numbers as a vocabulary of words. Thus she sees the page numbers as a form of chanting. In an ode to the renowned Iranian artist Chohreh Feyzdjou she creates a book of shredded charts that looks like an exotic oriental dog. Somehow the idea of the book and the record is the only thing that has remained with Blum and her association with Judaism, Blum's parents remained loyal to the idea of secular quotidian modern life. Thus Blum along with Reddy became supporters of the Palestinian cause and were long time collaborators of the Palestinian sculptor Mona Saudi. She refused to somehow associate herself with the politics of identity. Thus critical of the nation state, she began making caricatures of its functioning. Jain similarly a non-adherent often uses tools at thought she learnt through Jaina theology to critique epidemic patriarchy that plagues the Jaina laity.
Across two walls sit an ode to Indian bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is one of the most refined forms of patriarchy that is based on a system of controls and epidemic ' Nos’. Committees are set up to tackle poverty, literacy, development, tigers, art, women, Africa, Army, corruption and then divided into sub-committees and later administered by committees that manage committees. This chicanery allows effective displacement of responsibility off the shoulders of the players of the state. Why is it patriarchal? It is because women have been always subjugated to bizarre controls based on some scriptural affirmations from the church. Judy Blum borrows a phone book from the India International Center and illustrates all the names of the committees in sarcasm thus reflecting their inefficiency in tackling major realities such as poverty and women welfare. The state of India was built on the access of its rail tracks, Blum Reddy writes down on a long scroll of ledger papers all the rail heads and their stops across India. The idea of India became a reality from the possibility where people from south to north and east west could suddenly travel at speed and ease. Soon ideas travelled allowing India to fight for its self-determination. The drawing of the railheads is the map of an India based on an idea of liberty. An exhibition is also a travelling idea.
A large wooden white plank with hand drawn of intervening measurement scales reads - '' Do no listen to this imposter. You're lost if you forget.'' Right beside them are pedestals that hold sculptures that resemble excreta but have the shading of books, and from them two aliens arise. One in paisley hand-woven khadi cloth and the other in faux jeans looking organic khadi hand woven cloth. Both were bought when the Handloom House in Bombay that sold Mahatma Gandhi's handwoven coarse cotton was emptying their stocks. Among them were jeans looking pants for women from the 1970s - symbols of India's desperate effort of economic self-reliance. The other paisley prints from the 1960s that copied the pattern from British textiles that had popular demand. Having been introduced during the Industrial revolution from Manchester they contributed in the death of India's artisan economy. Narratives that are personal, cultural and socio-economic allow an audience perspectives of existential living that are not plotted but lived and rebelled against. Such is the feminism of conceptual making.