Metallic fingers skim the pages of the books, their mechanical bodies churning as the motors recoil and repeat the motion.
Kinetic installation by Indian artist Shailesh BR Page Turner (Ulta Pulta) features rows of these books, housed in contraptions made by the artist to perform a single action. A contemplation of ritual methods in academic and religious contexts, the work is also a critique of rote learning and “unthinking reliance on mainstream media”, as the artist describes it, which has come to to dominate contemporary ways of thinking.
How language and knowledge are wielded and weaponized is a critical issue within Page Turner (Ulta Pulta)which is part of the Language is Migrant exhibition at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi, which ends next month.
Presented in partnership with Colomboscope, a contemporary art festival created in Sri Lanka in 2013, the show develops the role of language within communities and societies. How does language travel and evolve? How does it shape us? How can it be used to control or liberate us? These are the questions he seeks to answer.
Language is Migrant takes its title from the 2016 poem-manifesto by Chilean poet and artist Cecilia Vicuna, who lives in New York and Santiago. It is written in part to respond to anti-migrant rhetoric, the pursuit of global war, and the ever-increasing toxicity of fake news and divisive media.
“Language is migrant. Words pass from language to language, from culture to culture, from mouth to mouth. Our bodies are migrants, cells and bacteria are also migrants. Even galaxies migrate,” Vicuna writes in her opening lines.
“So what is this discourse against migrants? It can only speak against ourselves, against life itself.
As much as language can be used to divide, it can also be used to unite, as Lebanese-Dutch artist Mounira Al Solh demonstrates In love’s blood.
Presented as part of the exhibition, the work is composed of words scribbled in charcoal on the wall associated with a suspended textile piece. The embroidered words relate to love.
As part of this ongoing collaborative project, Al Solh first worked with women’s groups in Sri Lanka, asking them to sew words such as ‘affection’, ‘youthful passion’, ‘blood’ and ‘fever’ in English and Sinhalese, compiled and translated by the 13th century Islamic theologian Ibn Qayyim Al Jawziyya.
On the walls are columns of words in English, French, Arabic, Tagalog, Sinhalese and Tamil, evidence of how the concepts fit into various native languages.
Anushka Rajendran, who curated the show with Colomboscope’s artistic director Natasha Ginwala, says the embroidery was completed during the Covid-19 closures. With limited access to fabric stores, women instead traded materials from home, adding a new dimension to the labor process.
“It’s also about their own domestic confinement, and what that entails. It’s meaningful to think about some of these words during this time and in this context, what sustains them,” says Rajendran.
Other works of art illustrate how the visual language of art can express lesser-known or suppressed knowledge and stories, particularly in relation to displacement and migration. Vinoja Tharmalingam from Sri Lanka The day, for example, traces the battered landscape of his homeland, the result of the decades-long civil war. Stitching the paths of internal displacement and the sites still populated by landmines, she creates a body of evidence that testifies to these memories.
Meanwhile, Vijitharan Maryathevathas’ illustrations offer insight into the artist’s inner world, rooted in his experience of displacement after the Sri Lankan army recaptured his hometown of Killinochi from the Tamil Tigers in 2009.
Lavkant Chaudhary’s Maasinya Dastoor The series includes scrolls that tell the story of the indigenous Tharu community in Nepal, to which he belongs – a group oppressed by forced labor, caste systems and displacement. The work as a whole bears witness to a people whose experiences have been excluded from official documents.
“These are very South Asian narratives, but at the same time we think these words really mean how big the global movement is and how the movement is part and parcel of everything. Traffic is paramount in any part of the world,” says Rajendran.
Movement is inherent in human existence, and the ideas contained in the works of Language is Migrant can spread across the Gulf, where migrants arrive in search of opportunity, forming and navigating linked multicultural and multilingual communities. through work and trade.
In the United Arab Emirates, for example, everyday language may reflect the different nationalities that live here. Interactions can include scatters of Urdu, Hindi, Filipino, and Farsi (and their prominence varies by neighborhood), among the most dominant languages being English and Arabic.
The echo of stories in different societies is evidenced in Pangrok Sulap’s impressive large-scale woodcut titled All nations are created special.
Conceived after months of dialogue between Pangrok Sulap, a collective of artists and musicians from Malaysia, and the Sri Lankan music group The Soul, the piece traces the movement of Malay populations to Sri Lanka around 200 BC and the ethnic hierarchies present in both societies.
Such historical parallels can also be drawn in the Gulf, where migration has been necessary for its progress and where groups around the world are building shared histories that otherwise would not have existed without movement.
While the tangle of languages may reflect the potential for more harmonious communities, with the right words can we speak our way to peace? Vicuna believes him. “Language is the translator,” she writes. “It could take us to a place where we stop tolerating injustice, abuse and the destruction of life. Life is language.
Language is Migrant is presented at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi until May 8
Updated: April 15, 2022, 6:02 p.m.