Updated: Jan 3
By Polly Bates
Sutapa Biswas is a conceptual artist working across a range of disciplines including painting, drawing, film, video, and photography. Drawing from a range of sources, which include art history, literature and film, Biswas is interested in exploring the human condition. Art critic and writer Laura Cummings reviewed Biswas to have a 'poet's gift for contemplative echoes and metaphors', which through layered juxtapositions tell unsettling truths addressing the complex legacies of colonial histories and the impact on every-day life.
The exhibition 'Lumen' at BALTIC spanned Biswas' extensive career, from her early photographic series 'Synapse I', 1987-92 to the major new film commission, 'Lumen', 2027 Since the early 7980s, Biswas' works have explored themes of time, space and the human condition through a decolonial and feminist lens, engaging with oral histories, literature, poetry and art history. The 'Lumen' exhibition investigates deeply personal and historical narratives which are shaped by Biswas' lived experience as a British-Indian woman. They are connected by recurring themes of motherhood, migration, memory and loss, ideas of belonging and desire. The works share a poetic sensibility, inviting us to reflect on our own personal histories and family relationships. They also tell unsettling truths, tracing the diasporic experience and confronting the colonial histories of the British Empire. This exhibition was developed in partnership with Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
The film 'Lumen', 2021 has been co-commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art with Art Fund support through the Moving Image Fund for Museums. This programme is made possible thanks to Thomas Dane Gallery and a group of private galleries and individuals. The commission has been additionally supported by Autograph and Arts Council England. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated publication available in the BALTIC Shop and online at shop.balticmill.com.
'Lumen', 2027. Still image from the digital video mastered on 4K. Duration: 30 minutes. Colour with sound. Woman and Banyan tree.© Sutapa Biswas. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2022.
POLLY: Congratulations on your major solo exhibition! It collates such a powerful series of works throughout your career and was beautifully curated within BALTIC’s Gallery. The mood of the low-lit rooms with warm lights igniting the works encouraged me to really indulge in the films, paintings and photography presented. I felt a strong curational connection to darkness, light and colour of the “blue-grey” walls in relation to the semi-fictional narrative within Lumen (2021) impressive and cohesive.
Before we get into some of the works exhibited, how did you find preparing for an exhibition throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, and even navigating and completing your most recent work Lumen within the year 2021?
SUTAPA: Firstly, thank you for your note of congratulations. I’m delighted that you visited my exhibition at BALTIC. Preparing for two major solo exhibitions, including making an ambitious new film piece ‘Lumen’, 2021, alongside other new works, a publication and an education programme with an international profile, is a challenge in itself. But that this was achieved despite a pandemic is a huge accomplishment, of which I’m very proud. As a process, it’s involved working with over ten different arts organisations across four countries, in over seven cities. It has involved huge organisational and communication skills on my part in terms of liaising with and between the respective partners involved in the project. I think having a good sense of humour helped!
In terms of the direct impact of the pandemic, my shows were understandably postponed because the film production schedule was impacted by covid restrictions. This was during the height of covid, which also meant I had to work with one actress as opposed to two. In the context of my film script and planning, I then had to re-work this to create my second, third, and fourth characters. I achieved this through the formal use of two circular mirrors, which worked perfectly with the subject of my film and with my aesthetic intentions. Using the mirror as a formal device is a trope that I have used in an early work titled ‘Kali’, 1983-85 which was accessioned by TATE Collections in 2017.
'Remembrance of Things Past". 2006. Installation view of the two-channel video. 35mm transferred to digital format. colour. sound. Duration: 9:58 min.© Sutapa Biswas. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2022. Photo credit: Rob Harris.
POLLY: As a (relatively) young person, I really connected to your film Remembrance of Things Past (2006), where a group of young people share playful interactions as they wait for a school bus at the harbourfront in Toronto, Canada. They are seemingly carefree, listening to music together through earphones, playing the guitar, laughing at the birds and full of smiles. This tone contrasts against the more sombre feeling as you delicately pose a question, “what do you think the world expects of you?”. They share thoughts on life expectations and personal pressures, and their answers pretty much mirror how I also would have responded. What inspired this piece, and what do you think the world expects of you?
SUTAPA: Thank you for your feedback on this work and sharing that it really connected with you. This work was inspired by a real life happening I had witnessed on the harbour quay in Toronto from my hotel room on the 5th floor, where I was staying at the time in 2002. I was in Canada to attend a memorial service of a dear friend of mine, Judith Mastai, who had sadly passed away earlier in 2001 and with whom I’d worked with previously. The two major curatorial projects I developed with Judith included a site-specific exhibition titled ‘Public Moments / Private Thoughts’ at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada. I’ve always been interested in the work of many of the early socialist realist film makers, such as Federico Fellini. It’s possible that witnessing this scenario of a group of teenagers disembarking from a school bus, seemingly arbitrarily waiting in the middle of what was at the time a strange arterial traffic route on the edge of the commerce banking district in Toronto, while I was in effect saying goodbye to a loved friend – my own father to whom I was very close had also passed away in 2000 - prompted me to again consider the gravity of life, our relationship to capitalism, and rites of passage.
The teenagers whom I witnessed from the 5th floor seemed to embody this place of being caught in the mess that adults make. The experience took me back to Marcel Proust’s writing, in particular ‘Swann’s Way Remembrance of Things Past’. I was haunted by this moment, and I felt compelled to explore it through my film. This work was in part generously supported by the educational programme at the AGO, and its Teen Council. Many of the teenagers who appear and act in this piece came from challenging homes. They were coached by my friend Judith’s son Elan, who also appears in this film. Ostensibly, it’s a film about life and the measuring of it.
In terms of the second part to your question ‘what do you think the world expects from you’, which is brilliant I have to say, my answer is that the world, and by this I mean the powers that be, would wish that our expectations are driven by capitalism and a quest for individualism defined by capital, as opposed to a collective need for humanity. The final word in my film is spoken by Elan Mastai, Judith’s son, and his words ring true. I think that you have to dig deep and ask yourself not what ‘the world’ expects of you – a world with so many competing forces all vying for our attention - but rather what do you expect of and from yourself. You have to look deep and consider what is of value, and for me retaining a sense of humanity, collective responsibilities and care is important. We have a right to live creatively and with dignity.
'Birdsong' 2004 (re-mastered 2021), installation view at 'Sutapa Biswas: Lumen' exhibition, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 2021. Photo: Rob Harris© 2021 BALTIC
POLLY: There was a clear yet slight tension between the ‘adults’ and younger people, as they were checking the time on their watch and consulting what I assume is a list or itinerary on a clipboard. This portrayed the sense that as we grow up and let life’s pressures get to us, we can lose our playful and inquisitive nature, do you believe this to be true?
SB: Yes, I do think this is true. It’s a sad and cruel state of affairs that we are corralled into, this sense of becoming ‘workers’ rather than human beings. Children are amazing and we have a lot to learn from them, if only we adults would listen.
POLLY: Lumen is an incredibly captivating film inspired by your personal journey by sea with your family from Mumbai to Dover. A woman dressed in a black sari narrates a poetic monologue which speaks of migration and displacement in relation to colonial histories during the British Raj. I was captivated by the weight of this history as the narrator addresses the audience directly. The film speaks to a clear measure of exploitation throughout agriculture, labour and obedience.
“… Specimens of plants measured by ear, measured by length, measured by volume, taxed, evaluated, accordingly logged. Dispensed from one part of the world to another. Crated, stacked, shipped, longitude by latitude, across a great blue grey expanse. Waves upon waves that engulfed men, women, children, slaves. Carrying them wide and far to unknown places, for which only the heaviest of seeds return to soft sands…” Lumen, Sutapa Biswas.
This was just one of the many incredibly moving quotes I experienced within Lumen. Could you please tell us a little bit about this harrowing and revealing fragment, and how you approached writing the monologue within the film?
'Lumen', 2027. Still image from the digital video mastered on 4K. Duration: 30 minutes. Colour with sound. Woman and Banyan tree.© Sutapa Biswas. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2022.
SUTAPA: ‘Lumen’ was made in collaboration with Film and Video Umbrella (Executive Producers), Bristol Museum, Kettle’s Yard, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, the Art Fund UK, with the generous additional support of Autograph ABP and Arts Council England. But the research I undertook in its making was also supported by Yale Center for British Art Scholar 2019-20, Yale University where I undertook extensive research on the history of the British Raj, and on the Dutch East India Company. My monologue for ‘Lumen’, which is a semi-fictional narrative work, draws from this and other extensive research I undertook in the making of this film, but also drawing from my personal family history - in particular the matrilineal relationship between grandmother, mother, and daughter.
As a work it situates a semi-fictional personal narrative against the backdrop of colonial histories that in fact stretches back to the late 1600s and the Tudor period. It was prompted by my experience as a young child of about five seeing my mother stood against the window light in England as she read letters from home in India, written on blue aerograms. She was wearing a fine blue sari which sometime later when I saw Vermeer’s painting ‘Woman in Blue Reading a Letter’, circa 1663 took me right back to my seeing my mother framed by the window light. When I again came to look at this painting by Vermeer, but this time as a student of fine art and art history at the University of Leeds, I began to deconstruct the painting’s symbolism through its mercantile histories. ‘Lumen’ in part continues this, but through the narratives of three women.
There is a tendency to only associate a history of India with the period of the British Raj from the 1800s, but to really understand a fuller scope of events we need to go back to the Tudor period, because this is when The Crown, Queen Elizabeth I, sanctioned the beginnings of the free market economy – a system of capitalism, the basis of which was brutal. The late 1600s was a period when The Crown ‘hi-jacked’ the existing model of the Dutch East India Company, to formally establish in the 1700s the British East India Company. The British East India Company was the basis for a mercantile extraction from India previously unparalleled. It was a brutal, heavily militarised system under which taxation was used to systematically and brutally asset strip India’s wealth on an extraordinary scale. The archival material I researched showed evidence of this system and this is what is highlighted within the excerpt you cite. For these reasons, a significant part of ‘Lumen’ was filmed on location at Red Lodge in Bristol, where its foundation stones were laid during the Tudor period. It’s also why these interior shots are cinematically treated to have a quality to them which resembles Dutch portraiture of the 1600 to 1700s. It is also the case that I incorporated archival film footage from the Bristol archives which dates from the late period of the British Raj in India.
It's relevant to mention that maternal grandmother was born in what at the time was called British India. Following Partition in India, this became East Pakistan. Today it is Bangladesh. During Partition my forefathers were forcibly displaced from their place of birth and forced to move to West Bengal. Orchestrated by the British Raj, Partition represents a period in India’s history during which there was a mass genocide of the millions of Indian subjects. In the aftermath of the bloody events of Partition, things were not rosy. In 1966, my mother was again forced to leave India because of my father’s differences with Indian Congress in West Bengal. Through my monologue, based on some family stories that have been shared, I tried to imagine what my mother must have felt under these very difficult circumstances in terms of again being displaced through no choice of her own. It’s a semi-fictional work, so this is also important to remember, though an interesting fact is also that my actress Natasha Patel in the final scenes is wearing what was once my mother’s sari that she had brought with her to England from India in 1966, and that my mum had gifted to me some years ago because she knew how important it was to my work. I think I’ve been tracing my mother’s journey and that moment of encounter as a small child aged five, for decades.
POLLY: Some of the subtle yet powerful touches I noticed within the film were the significance of a black sari, which is linked to the reference of ‘Crow’ within the piece and can have connotations to grief and darkness. Yet there is a moment where she wears white and speaks that “new metropolis were being built”. The monologue was filmed in The Red Lodge Museum in Bristol, with scenes of archival footage from India layered throughout the film. I am curious to know more about the connection to The Red Lodge Museum, as I found the setting of Georgian interiors to really resonate with the callous history Lumen reflects on.
SUTAPA: I have since 2000 when my father died often used birds as a motif within my works. In ‘Lumen’ crow is a talisman of sorts, and a metaphor for the past, present and future. The sari my actress wears is not white but blue. As mentioned, it once belonged to my mother and more recently gifted to me. It has a silvery presence because it is a very fine translucent silk which under lighting reflects light. It also has some fine embroidery on it which is sliver thread. Fine Indian silks and muslin weaves were during the colonial period highly coveted by the French aristocracy. To control the trade in materials the British destroyed much of the cotton industries in India, and many of the skills of the artisans who made these fine materials were lost. Indigo from India and lapis from Afghanistan was also part of the material extraction of wealth from the sub-continent. They are presences in ‘Lumen’ as metaphorical references to the history of material extraction by the British and other European colonial powers in India.
The Tudor interior settings of Red Lodge are resonant of Dutch interiors. And of course, Bristol as a city is central to the mercantile trade of Britain - including slavery.
'Time Flies'· 2004-ongoing, installation view at 'Sutapa Biswas: Lumen· exhibition, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Gateshead, 2021. Photo: Rob Harris© 2021 BALTIC
POLLY: The presence of birds is both subtle and profound throughout the exhibition. What is your fascination with the animal and what do they represent to you?
SUTAPA: I see birds as beautiful sentient beings. They are of symbolic significance as presences within my works because birds and Marcel Proust’s evocations of time were the subject of my last conversation with my father before he left this mortal world. Birds are beings more bound by changes in season and climate than by geographies. They are often presences in films and in the writing of Shakespeare. As creatures, birds also frequently appear in Indian paintings and in the paintings of for example artists employed by the British East India Company. One of the most memorable and haunting sounds of India for me is the sound of the crow who in many ways is a fearless bird.
POLLY: The Lumen exhibition has been on tour, with a previous showcase at Kettles Yard, Cambridge from October 2021 – January 2022. Will Lumen be exhibited anywhere else, and what is next for Sutapa Biswas?
SUTAPA: My film ‘Lumen’, 2021 is currently on exhibition at Autograph ABP, London until June 2022. In 2023 in collaboration with Bristol Museums it will then travel to Red Lodge which is where it was filmed in part and will be shown as part of a wider exhibition and installation at Red Lodge. I feel enormously honoured by the wide recognition of this important body of work and hugely excited that it’s currently on show in London and will travel also to Bristol; I can’t wait!
POLLY: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your practice and solo exhibition with us. We would like to finish off with one last question - if you could offer one piece of advice to our creative community, what would it be?
SUTAPA: Never give up your creative spirit – not for anyone. Never give up your insistence on the right to live humanely with dignity. We all need to pay bills, yes, but remember that art in whatever form - be it poetry, painting, film, drawing, dance, performance, photography, sculpture, literature, music, sound - is a life force and magic that will nurture your soul and mind; never let it go.