South Asia as Seen in Villa Terrace’s ‘Ornate/Activate’ Exhibit
Humsa/Hamsa caught the corner of my eye as it slipped in and out of view through an open door. It loomed large, dark and imposing, but ethereal. When I finally got to it, nearing the end of the exhibition “Ornate/Activate” at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, I realized that the airiness of the piece came from its intricate metal, curving into patterns like lace. There was something familiar in the repeated forms, and with a closer look the patterns coalesce into hands and fingers and eyes: The shape of an ancient protective talisman.
It is more than that. Artist Priyanka Dasgupta, working with Chad Marshall, created this piece to reference this talisman known as the hamsa, and to reflect the architectural form of the jaali, a type of latticework that provides separation between spaces while offering seclusion and privacy. For all of its decorative qualities, it is wrought with inherent layers of implication and symbol. These same qualities run through many of the works in this exhibition.
It is something of an encore, as “Ornate/Activate” was first presented in 2015 at Shirin Gallery in New York. The exhibition was organized by the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC) and is locally co-organized by Milwaukee-based artist Nirmal Raja and SAWCC Representative Monica Jahan Bose, both of whom are exhibiting artists.
The dozens of works shown highlight artistic approaches that are contemporary but clearly draw from cultural histories. The use of abstract design and patterns is especially prevalent in references to architectural forms, as well as the aesthetics of Buddhism and Islam. There is sharp irony in a number of pieces, such Asha Ganpat’s tidy letterpress prints in the Decorous Violence series. Implements for pain and fragile parts of the body are shown in neat lines and swathed by decoration. They simultaneously represent and abstract the reality of their understated narratives.
Through photographs, video installations, textiles and drawings, many of these artists explore familial and personal identity and offer observations about the world at large that open new avenues of consideration via cultural traditions.
Through May 14 at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, 2220 N. Terrace Ave. A special program including film screenings, an artist talk and performance by artist Udita Upadhyaya will be held at 1 p.m. on Sunday, April 30.