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Visual Arts

One CADD FUNd Finalist Wants to Tell a Truer Story of Traditional South Asian Art

Challenging categories and moving into the voids of erasure, artist Nida Bangash hopes to return context to work in museum collections.
Mo Mulney

This Sunday, six local artists who study at area universities will compete for money to fund their projects at a dinner hosted by the Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas. How much money— and who takes it home— depends on the public, in a surge of adrenaline for all involved. The net from ticket sales determines the sum awarded, and attendees vote to choose the winner after each artist has six minutes to pitch their idea. 

Contending finalists were chosen by a distinctive jury of three: Amy Lewis Hofland, Director of the Crow Collection of Asian Art; Maggie Adler, Associate Curator of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art; and Phillip Collins, Curator, Scholar, and former Chief Curator at the African American Museum in Dallas. Representing vastly different cultural and formal traditions, the artists make somewhat provocative work, sensorily or thematically. They are Heather Charlet, UTD; Chris Evans, UNT; Barbara Horlander, TCU; Sara Rastegarpouyani, UTA; James Talambas, UTA; and Nida Bangash, SMU.

The final artist in that list has been quietly exploring something with her practice that’s usually relegated to talk, at most, in the art world: the colonialist whitewashing of cultural traditions and spaces even as they are hailed by museums, and how cultures oppressed by white supremacy might acknowledge and reclaim the riches that are theirs. This whitewashing, Bangash says with her art, is evidenced by many concrete actions, like the erasing of colorful facades in Lahore, Pakistan, with white paint, and the conversion of the Tomb of Anarkali into a church by the British. The art and architecture on view within her reach as a kid in Pakistan was often reduced to rubble, or gravely damaged, she says.

It wasn’t until Bangash visited the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that she was able to view original works that reflected the bold colors and grandeur of her heritage as an artist.

“I got to see the works I grew up admiring [in books] in flesh and up close, a privilege that I did not have growing up,” she says. “When I went to the Met I saw these school kids walking around in their school uniforms. I felt so envious.”

Born in Iran and raised in Pakistan, Bangash was trained in miniature painting techniques of Persian and South Asian miniatures at National College of Arts, Lahore. These works are often found in collections which carry the label “Islamic Art,” even when they have nothing to do with the religion. Through contemporary art Bangash applies her foundational knowledge of miniature painting to complicate the narrative institutions assign to the medium. At the Crow Collection last year she led a series of workshops as an artist-in-residence centered on the Crow Collection’s 18th century Façade of a Residence. Engaging deeply with this historic work and its context, she says, was incredibly formative, after being so distanced from the real thing. 

From Nida Bangash’s work in progress.

Bangash works to subvert classification by bringing to light the inherent colonization reflected in traditions like miniature painting, which the British co-opted to exoticize and generalize South Asian cultures. To illustrate this, the artist lettered a giant scroll of white paper with the words “Miniature Painting” in white block letters in Farsi and English, and has used shades of white and deteriorative lead to articulate colonization through whitewashing of patterned paintings.

“I think there are debates happening around this idea of redefining these objects or these terminologies,” Bangash says. I think this is a good space and a good time for the dialog to happen.”

That conversation has begun to happen at Dallas institutions. At the Islamic Art Symposium hosted by the Dallas Museum of Art this spring, Shahzia Sikander spoke about the phrase “Islamic art,” used widely at the museum — a slippery protagonist, she said. The Pakistani-American artist is perhaps best known for depicting what appeared to be a swarm of insects or birds on Times Square’s electronic billboards in a work called Gopi-Contagion in October 2015. She used images of hair from female worshipers of the Hindu god Krishna, and projected them at such a speed and frequency it gave the impression of some gaggle, perhaps insects, in flight. 

To Sikander, the Islamic art category “is elusive, as it does not always imply the religion of Islam itself. And yet the term ‘Islamic’ is omnipresent in both art history and issues regarding Islam in the current state of the world, where there is a broader lack of imagination. Complex and nuanced art— and history, for that matter— that does not fit in any dominant narrative is marginalized under the umbrella of the the term,” she said. 

Major institutions like The Metropolitan Museum of Art have taken small steps to right this by renaming their galleries for “Art of Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran Central Asia and Later South Asia.” That’s a mouthful, critics will say. But the discourse under consideration is complex, Bangash says, and the name should reflect that.

Bangash can’t disclose much before Sunday’s pitch reveals her ideal project. But in stepping out this weekend— the artist has rarely shown work outside her studio in the United States— she hopes to fully illuminate age-old traditions and bring them closer to her, and to museum patrons, by telling their complex stories.

Find tickets to the CADD FUNd Sunday Soup Supper, held this Sunday at Trinity Groves.