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A new exhibition opens at the Ellen Art Gallery as India prepares to celebrate 75 years of decolonization

5 artists address contemporary themes ranging from Hindu nationalism to the persistence of caste-based oppression
November 18, 2021
Image of a large mouth with bright crimson lipstick in the background, with a fishbowl filled with goldfish in the foreground.
The Lost Head & The Bird, by Sohrab Hura, 2016-2019. | Photo by Paul Litherland

In 2022 India will celebrate 75 years since the end of British rule on August 15, 1947 — the country’s Independence Day.

Constitutions, a group exhibition curated by artist and writer Swapnaa Tamhane (MFA 21) opened earlier this month at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery. It brings together the work of five artists who explore the persistence of social inequalities, religious discrimination and caste- and class-based oppression in India today. 

Tamhane has been a research fellow with the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute and an international fellow with Kulturstiftung des Bundes (German Federal Cultural Foundation). She developed Constitutions from her frequent travels to India over the past 15 years for her own work and research.

“The country was founded with a secular vision in a place that has a multitude of religions,” Tamhane says. “The exhibition explores this history and the idea that this secular vision is being compromised with the rise of the Hindu right wing.”

View of an art installation, with images on the sparse white walls. Birender Yadav, Sajan Mani and Sohrab Hura at the Constitutions exhibition. | Photo by Paul Litherland

For Constitutions, Tamhane tapped artists Rajyashri Goody, Sohrab Hura, Sajan Mani, Prajakta Potnis and Birender Yadav who are of a similar generation from India.

“I chose these artists after seeing their work when I travelled through Delhi and Bombay in January and February 2020, before returning to Montreal prior to the lockdown,” says Tamhane.

“In researching this exhibition, I’ve been speaking with them for more than a year and a half. It’s a very beautiful show, beautifully installed, and because of the pandemic, none of the artists were actually here, so a lot of the works were made in dialogue with them. I think they’ve put a lot of trust in me as well.”

Engaging with complicated histories

So too did Ellen Art Gallery director Michèle Thériault.

“Swapnaa Tamhane was a student who participated in the 2019 edition of IGNITION at the gallery,” Theriault notes. “She was interested in the structures of display, value and naming within neoliberal institutional culture as well as in how Indian design interfaced with modernity. That combination and her own knowledge of contemporary art in India led me to invite her to make a proposal to the gallery.”

Photographs set side by side of one man with short dark hair and glasses and one man with a white hat and white tunic. Scramble by Sohrab Hura, 2020. | Photo by Paul Litherland

A series of public programs has also been created to complement Constitutions, which runs until January 22, 2022:

Hura and Potnis joined Tamhane for a streamed conversation about the disembodied and overburdened state of the body in the Indian social and political landscape on November 12.

Mani, Goody and Yadav will join Tamhane on January 10 for an online conversation about the emergence of Dalit literature and poetry, as well as implications of caste as violence in consideration of histories of labour and the colonial imprint.

And artist and educator Lynn Kodeih will give a free tour of the exhibition in Arabic on December 8 at 5 p.m.

“I think a lot of people are not so aware of the very complicated histories in India, but people are familiar with the ideas of truth, fascism and the right wing, which we are seeing in many countries right now. So I don’t think these ideas will be foreign to them,” Tamhane says.

“Through the language of contemporary art, I think people will definitely learn about these current histories in India.”

The Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery presents
Constitutions until January 22, 2022. The gallery is located on the ground floor of the J.W. McConnell (LB) Building (1400 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.). Visit


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