The MIA has quite a few objects from India in its permanent collection, primarily sandstone carvings, watercolors and jewelry, all centuries old. Curator Bob Jacobsen says the exhibition opening this weekend offers Minnesotans a more contemporary perspective on some universal themes.
"The issues they deal with are issues we're familiar with: illiteracy, the role of women, personal identity, national identity, terrorism, warfare," Jacobsen said. "Indian artists have arrived. They are part of a global artistic community and that's one of the underlying factors of this show."
'India: Public Places Private Spaces' is filled with images that depict a complex modern reality. One panoramic photographic fills almost an entire gallery, capturing a street scene lined with both ancient buildings and modern conveniences. Another depicts beauty contests sponsored by cosmetic manufacturers. A video tells the story of a couple who couldn't have children, and instead planted trees along a road they walked each day, tending to them over the years as though they were their children. Many images contrast the beauty of India's spiritual ideology and the squalor of present day living conditions.
Jacobsen said the exhibition is part of the museum's long-term strategy to display more contemporary art, and to draw in younger, more diverse audiences. That includes the Twin Cities' burgeoning Indian-American population.
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"We want to meet them, we want them to meet us" Jacobsen said. "We want them to be aware of the museum, and this is an audience that maybe hasn't visited us yet."
Aparna Ramaswamy and her sister Ashwini are both already familiar with the MIA. They grew up half in Minnesota and half in India. Their mother is the founder of Ragamala Music and Dance Theater in Minneapolis, in which they both perform. For Aparna, the MIA's exhibition is a welcome exploration into modern Indian culture that moves beyond stereotypes.
"It shows once again that there's no one way to describe India," Aparna Ramaswamy said. "That it's such a juxtaposition of new, old, tradition, modern technology. This exhibit shows people that India is so many things to so many people and it can be that. That there are so many different things to draw from."
Aparna said she was particularly struck by a photograph of an Indian family looking at a camera from behind a barred window. Many of them have their hands folded in prayer, and look intently into camera. "There's such a spirituality and religiosity in their expressions," Aparna Ramaswamy said. "And to me that will always be this very strong part of India that will never disappear. It doesn't have to be specific to any one religion but it's very very strong in India and you can't separate the culture and the religion."
Ashwini Ramaswamy agrees that spirituality is found everywhere in India, and she was particularly drawn to a photo that showed that same spiritual devotion still present in Indians living in America. She singles out an image of a group of men pulling a colorful chariot through a Tennessee parking lot.
"It's the same feeling, that's what unites them," Ashwini Ramaswamy said. "But they're down south, living here, and I think that's one of the really important things about the exhibit. I think it really brings out this feeling India- especially for us having been there - has. It's transcendent."
Ashwini said her work with classical Indian dance has taught her a great deal about older art forms, including traditional music and painting. But the exhibition exposed her to a much broader and more current artistic vision.
"It is important not to pigeonhole India as being in the past," Ashwini Ramaswamy said. "I haven't been back to India in five years and so I'm learning from this exhibit what's happening there now, what visions people have of the country and so at a personal level it was really interesting."
Ashwini Ramaswamy said she feels the artists in this exhibition are doing work that's similar to her own in dance; drawing on the beauty and richness of Indian tradition while presenting it in a modern context for people to better understand. 'India: Public Places/Private Spaces' opens Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It runs through January 18,2009.