Recap of Research Night: Modernisms along the Indian Ocean
On Thursday September 28th, the first public gathering of Modernisms along the Indian Ocean took place at the Nieuwe Instituut.
10 January 2024
In an intimate setting on the 6th floor of the institute, speakers and guests gathered around a table, shared thoughts, tea and some sweet snacks. The evening invited speakers Renan Laru-an (Artistic Director SAVVY Contemporary), Hajra Haider Karrar (Senior Curator at SAVVY Contemporary), Amal Alhaag (curator, researcher and cultural worker, and one of the initiators of Metro54) and Ain Contractor (Researcher at IHE Delft) to share insight into their practices which each approach the geographies around, along and entangled within the Indian Ocean and was moderated by Setareh Noorani and co-hosted by Federica Notari.
Modernisms along the Indian Ocean explores a multipolar perspective, attempting to engage with the world's cartography from an Indian Ocean viewpoint. How can we find a multitude of mappings that lead us to the Afrasian Sea? In doing this, we step away and challenge eurocentric notions of ‘fieldwork’ and its reductionist approaches to the region. The project examines the circulation of aesthetics and materiality as influenced by colonialism, imperialism, and globalisation, using port cities, and their architectures and infrastructures, as gateways to explore the actuality of world-building practices happening through these meeting zones. As such, it aims to embrace diverse historical storylines to reimagine political belongings, while understanding and engaging with the region’s complexities. Modernisms along the Indian Ocean wants to commit to acts of specific and situated naming, on countering the collapsed and collapsable identities, overshadowed by the size and strength of prevalent discourses around this region.
After an introduction on the scope of the research given by Setareh, situating the audience, encouraging them to have some tea and join in the conversation the floor was given to the invited speakers to share their insights and practices.
Hajra kicked off the speaker’s presentations by bringing us behind the scenes of the research that formally began in 2020 and has later manifested into a chapter exhibition called "Indigo Waves and Other Stories: Re-Navigating the Afrasian Sea and Notions of Diaspora" The research explores historical and contemporary aspects of trade, migration, geopolitical affiliations, economies, and cultural exchanges across the expanse of the Afrasian sea that manifested in languages, food, sounds, philosophies, and more. Stretching across the East African coast, Asia, Oceania, the Arabian Peninsula, and Western Australia, the study delves into labour practices, indentured histories, and the architecture of coastal areas.
Hajra concluded her presentation by referencing an artistic research practice and sharing an indigenous resistance song , which links to ongoing research on exploring the sonic and seascapes in southern Pakistan, emphasising devotion as resistance and the interplay between resistance, devotion, and the unfolding of forgotten histories.
Following Hajra’s presentation, Renan contributed by reflecting on the implications and imaginations that were sparked by the "Indigo Waves and Other Stories: Re-Navigating the Afrasian Sea and Notions of Diaspora" exhibition and the broader research program, his contribution emphasised the importance of methodology, focusing on three points of annotation to the project’s title.
The first annotation revolved around the preposition "along," underlining its unidirectional nature and questioning the velocity and violence associated with it.Renan asked us to also challenge the idea of the Indian Ocean as a methodology and encouraged thinking about smaller seas and cultures.
The second annotation featured an image of a propaganda newspaper, "Jungi Akhbar," circulated among Indian soldiers during the war. This case study example highlights how this newspaper, used to repair Quran manuscripts in the southernmost region of the Philippines, raises questions about the virtuality of the Indian Ocean and unexpected transmissions that repair cultures outside its known boundaries.
The third and final annotation explored unexpected transmissions through the discussion of the Ramayana. Renan delved into the diverse articulations of the Ramayana in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Mindanao. The ethical and artistic dimensions of these adaptations are emphasised, challenging conventional notions of aesthetic imagination and promoting alternative artistic imaginations within the context of the Indian Ocean.
Amal, the following speaker of the night connected to Renan's presentation by highlighting the concept of the margins, in this particular instance, focusing on where the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean meet. Amal expresses the need to problematise the renewed interest in the Indian Ocean, highlighting the importance of acknowledging the diverse origins and histories of ports, such as Berbera.
Amal’s presentation brought attention to the afterlife of the East African slave trade and how it shapes biographies and material culture, highlighting the complexities and intersections of migration, trauma, and memory. The presentation delved into the colonial and war trauma within the Somali context, exploring the concept of "kaftan" (joking/humour) as a way of navigating these histories. Amal discusses the importance of storytelling, troublemaking, and naming in understanding untold histories.
The talk continues with Amal’s exploration of personal family histories and the sea as a historical, speculative site for everyday sea migrants, touching upon the experiences of Somali migrants seeking opportunities, dreams, and artistic visions across different routes, including the Saudi and Libya routes.
Amal concludes this segment by pointing out the significance of looking beyond commonly mentioned places like Mombasa and Zanzibar to include the Somali coast in the conversation about the Indian Ocean.
As our final speaker, Ain shifts the focus to India, discussing the rapid rewriting of the nation's history and constitution. Ain introduced the idea of the "new India," characterised by its status as a rising superpower and the extensive expansion of its extractive infrastructures, including ports. The Adani Group, controlled by Gautam Adani, is highlighted as a major player in India's port operations, the Adani Group is facing resistance from indigenous coastal communities and environmental and social justice advocates.
Ain shares a specific story of resistance from the port city of Chennai. Providing historical context, she explained how Chennai, previously Madras, hosted the first British port in India, and the significance of Fort Saint George which divided Chennai into “Black town” to the north, which housed the Indian port workers and “White town” to the south, where the British lived. The presentation connected historical developments to the present situation of uneven urban development in Chennai, such that North Chennai, home to the city’s working classes, bears the brunt of environmental destruction from port expansions and polluting industries, as well as increasing climate disasters
The resistance against the Adani port expansion in Chennai and the “Stop Adani Save Pulicat” campaign is led and driven by fisher communities. Fisher women used a unique mode of protest where they organised seafood festivals and extended an invitation to the chief minister to join their village and experience the issue firsthand. Using the region’s specific seafood recipes, fisherwomen bring attention to the region’s rich ecology, and their cultural connection to it. This research is present in Ain’s short documentary film titled "Fight With Care", which was created in collaboration with Bhargav Prasad, a filmmaker from Chennai.
Following the collective screening of the film the audience was able to engage through informal conversations with each of the speakers, where there were collective reflections on the geographies involved, on urgencies in the regions and desire for continued moments to find collective physical and virtual gatherings.
Renan Laru-an is a researcher, curator, and Artistic Director of SAVVY Contemporary: The Laboratory of Form-Ideas, Berlin. He creates exhibitionary, public, and research programs that study „insufficient“ and „subtracted“ images or subjects at the juncture of development and integration projects. A founding member of the Philippine Contemporary Art Network (PCAN), a recently initiated public institution for contemporary art housed at the University of the Philippines Vargas Museum, he served as the Public Engagement and Artistic Formation Coordinator. Laru-an has (co-)curated festivals and biennials including the 2nd Biennale Matter of Art, Prague (2022); the 6th Singapore Biennale, Singapore (2019); the 8th OK.Video—Indonesia Media Arts Festival, Jakarta (2017); and the 1st Lucban Assembly, Quezon (2015).
Hajra Haider Karrar is an art curator and writer based between Berlin and Karachi. Currently, Haider is Senior Curator at SAVVY Contemporary: The Laboratory of Form-Ideas, Berlin. Haider has curated Pastures Still Green? at IV Moscow Biennale for Young Art, Meeting House - Aluminium- at Aluminum 5th International Biennale of Contemporary Art Azerbaijan, The Infinite Nectar at Lahore Biennale 02, Geographies of Imagination: My Language is a Bedouin Thief- Kochi at Muziris Biennale 2022- 2023. Other projects have been featured at cultural institutions including Tate Research Centre: Asia, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, Centre Pompidou Paris, Manchester Art Gallery, Yarat Contemporary Art Space-Baku, and Akademie der Künst-Berlin, Haus der Kulturen der Welt-Berlin.
Amal Alhaag is an Amsterdam-based curator, researcher and cultural worker who develops long-term experimental and research practice, public programs and projects. She likes to collaborate with people, initiatives and often works in and outside of institutions and public spaces to create, stage, compose impermanent settings for mutual aid, discomfort, dancing, listening, (un)learning and conversation. Amal is one of the initiators of Metro54, a space and platform for contemporary visual and sonic cultures in Amsterdam.
Ain Contractor is an architect, researcher and water rights activist from Mumbai, India. Working with the Water & Development Partnership Programme at IHE-Delft, she studies water governance, at its intersections with environmental and social justice. Ain's research highlights environmental care practices of indigenous fisherwomen living in the Ennore-Pulicat wetlands, located north of the port-city Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Working with a network of solidarity groups in Chennai, fisherwomen host seafood festivals to bring attention to the richness of their wetland's ecology, and their cultural ties to it. Everyday care practices of Pulicat's fisherwomen make them the backbone of the artisanal fishing economy, which is inextricably linked to the health of coastal ecology. Showing a documentary film made in collaboration with Chennai-based filmmaker Bhargav Prasad, Ain shares unheard voices of the women of Pulicat, who call on us to Fight with Care.