Opening the Doors to South Asia

20 March 2019Jyoti Kalsi
Opening the Doors to South Asia
Opening the Doors to South Asia
Opening the Doors to South Asia

The growing worldwide interest in South Asian art can be seen in the rise and success of art fairs and summits in that region, and the well-received shows by established and emerging South Asian artists at prestigious international institutions. However, despite large South Asian populations in the Middle East, South Asian art remains under-represented in the artistic dialogues of the UAE and wider region.

This is about to change with the launch of the Ishara Art Foundation, the first independent institution in the region dedicated to contemporary South Asian art. The Foundation, established by Dubai-based entrepreneur and passionate art patron Smita Prabhakar, inaugurated its permanent space in partnership with Alserkal Avenue on 18 March with an exhibition of works by leading contemporary artists Zarina and Shilpa Gupta entitled, Altered Inheritances: Home is a Foreign Place.

The poignant exhibition takes its title from two key works from the Ishara collection: Zarina’s Home is a Foreign Place (1999), a nostalgic, deeply personal work comprising 36 woodcuts featuring pictograms accompanied by a single word in Urdu, each reflecting a mood or memory associated with the word, and Gupta’s Altered Inheritances -100 (Last Name) Stories (2014), a series of 220 works charting incidents in the lives of individuals and families that led them to adopt a new identity. The works are presented as split images, evoking a rupture with the past.

Altered Inheritances: Home is a Foreign Place explores questions of belonging, identity, and displacement. Though both artists have referenced issues and borders particular to South Asia, the themes they address resonate much further. Zarina was born in Aligarh, India, in 1937 and has lived in New York for several decades. Her poetic works express a longing for home, and her connection with her South Asian heritage and identity. She uses sketches of her homes in different cities, letters from her family members, maps of her travels across pre-partition India, Urdu words, and writings by well-known poets from the Indian subcontinent to depict her memories and feelings about home, and to talk about the borders that have divided people with similar cultures and histories.

Mumbai-based Gupta, who was born in 1976, also has a keen interest in mapping, language and poetry. She has mapped areas around the border of India to create delicate and thought-provoking works that speak about the distances created by man-made borders, the pain of displacement, and the ways in which individuals adapt to these changes. 

Nada Raza, Artistic Director of Ishara and the curator of the show, has transformed the exhibition space into a home with a courtyard and six rooms, a layout directly inspired by the floorplan of Zarina’s childhood home in Aligarh, a recurring motif in the artist’s work. Further infusing the space with Zarina’s presence is a film by Dutch artist Sophie Ernst, featuring her conversations with the artist about home, belonging, and longing. Displayed in this intimate setting, works by the two artists from the 1970s to the present dialogue perhaps unexpectedly, yet naturally. The show ends with Gupta’s installation Speaking Wall, leaving visitors with a first-hand experience of the pathos of division.

“Artists from South Asia are doing brilliant work and I am excited to share this with local and international audiences,” says Prabhakar. “The UAE has been my home for four decades, and this is my way of giving back to a community that has enriched me in so many ways. Our aim is to enrich the country’s diverse and vibrant cultural scene with a dynamic programme of exhibitions and events designed to expand knowledge and understanding of contemporary art and artists from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal. We are grateful for the support of Alserkal Avenue, and we hope to become a new meeting point for artistic and intellectual exchange and cross-cultural dialogue.”

The Foundation’s name, logo and space have been carefully designed to reflect its ethos of being culturally rooted and open to the world, and to convey its aspirations of presenting uniquely South Asian perspectives to local and international audiences. Ishara is a word common to Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, and other languages spoken in the region, and refers to a gesture or signal indicating a friendly gesture of invitation. The logo, featuring a synthesis of a square and a circle, is based on an ideogram by Zarina which symbolises the open, infinite sky.

The Ishara Art Foundation space in Warehouse 3 in Alserkal Avenue was designed by Indian architect Rahoul Singh. It has a large, open, flexible two-storey exhibition area and traditional Indian tiling at the entrance. Custom-made period furniture from India give the space a distinctly Asian feel, and a warm, welcoming ambience. “We wanted to make our space as open and inviting as possible,” says Raza, a renowned curator and specialist in South Asian art who was formerly a Research Curator at the Tate Research Centre.  

“The first exhibition I ever curated was in Dubai in 2005,” she continues. “Since then, I have watched the amazing development of the UAE’s art scene and I am excited to be back to develop Ishara’s curatorial framework. Our programme will build on the age-old links between South Asia and the Gulf and the shared histories, continued presence, and cultural contribution of South Asian voices in the region. It will include works from the Ishara collection, loans, commissioned works, and touring exhibitions. We want to present well researched exhibitions that offer an in-depth look at the practices of established and emerging artists from South Asia, and we want to welcome people of all nationalities to come and engage with the works.”

Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, Founder of Alserkal, is the honorary Chairman of Ishara’s Board of Trustees, and the Ishara team is supported by an Advisory Board chaired by Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, with curators Maya Allison and Sandhini Poddar, and acclaimed artists Bharti Kher and Chittrovanu Mazumdar as members.  


Altered Inheritances: Home is a Foreign Place runs at Ishara Art Foundation from 18 March - 13 July 2019. 

Displayed in the intimate setting of the Ishara Art Foundation, works by two artists from the 1970s to the present dialogue perhaps unexpectedly, yet naturally."