The Radcliffe Line & Other Geographies

By Bart Gazzola

There are instances where the gallery architecture adds unintended depth that enhances an exhibition. That Sarindar Dhaliwal’s The Radcliffe Line and Other Stories is at Rodman Hall (once a residential space built by the grandson of a United Empire Loyalist, described as a “stately Victorian mansion” and “transitional from late Gothic to early Tudor to Jacobean”) only augments Dhaliwal’s artwork.

Dhaliwal “weaves compelling narratives [exploring] culture, migration, and identity. Rooted in memories and dreams, Dhaliwal’s work reflects on the dissonance of the immigrant experience, often addressing her childhood experience and perceptions of Eastern and Western customs. Drawing out the themes of personal identity and familial relationships that appear throughout her practice, this exhibition brings together monumental works from Dhaliwal’s oeuvre of the last twenty years, contextualizing her recent interdisciplinary body of work exploring the history and ongoing consequences of the 1947 partition of India.”

In diverse media, Dhaliwal’s works are spaced around the building and even outside (a floral version of the cartographer’s mistake: the Radcliffe Line is on the front lawn; a chromira print of another manifestation hangs inside). Pieces like the green fairy storybook or the various book works in the front left room (notebooks and drawings in vitrines) take on an almost domestic feel, like you’ve stepped into an inhabited space.

The left front alcove gallery has an installation that acts as a good example of Dhaliwal’s aesthetic. Atop a pile of salt chunks are marble facsimiles of the sporting toys of the British upper class; cricket bats and balls, badminton rackets and birds, imbued with the power of any object rendered in “classical” marble. The room itself has a beautifully carved fireplace that only adds to the sense of how a Union Jack should be installed somewhere, and that we must “take up the white man’s burden” – the less than subtle racism that pervaded the British Empire, whether in the blatant acts of Cecil Rhodes or the more desperate yet equally damaging Radcliffe in his drawing of his “line.” The salt alludes to the resources and wealth that were the real colonial motive…

Let’s have some history before we proceed. The “Radcliffe Line was published on 17 August 1947 as a boundary demarcation line between India and Pakistan upon the Partition of India. It was named after its architect, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who, as chairman of the Border Commissions, was charged with equitably dividing 175,000 square miles (450,000 km2) of territory with 88 million people”. That’s a bloodless description. If you’ve read Salman Rushdie, especially Midnight’s Children that’s intimately concerned with India’s independence, you know there’s more to the story: the Radcliffe partition displays that same arrogance and incompetence that led to boundaries being drawn on the Prairies, or in Africa, by those whom knew nothing – by design, by intent – of what was on the ground. Sometimes acts of violence are symbolic before they become literal.

A three channel video installation titled olive, almond & mustard fills its own room, where you can sit and have projections bracket you as you face another. Looping continuously, the audio and video meld together in the darkened room. Some of the audio is haunting: voices singing “Lavender’s Blue” (When I am king, dilly, dilly, You shall be queen) or Oranges and lemons / Say the bells of St. Clement’s / You owe me five farthings / Say the bells of St. Martin’s and excerpts (Pussy and Owl) you’ll read in bookworks Dhaliwal presents elsewhere in Rodman. These cede to talk of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968. The language of that diatribe is sadly still familiar to us (Maggie Thatcher praised it): “We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants…It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

Images interrelate, but you can watch repeatedly, noting further correlations between components. Girls braiding each other’s hair with ribbons, black and white images of British children at play, both groups in circles of play and community. Colour scenes from trains, rural images and then industrial brick buildings, children running down streets, and studio portraits of family that are classic school photos. The British scenes, of “empire”, are gray and nostalgic, obviously of the past: this mixes with Powell and the archaic singsongs to speak of what has been, less than what is…

Dhaliwal’s works spans two decades: repeated visits to see new connections between works is necessary (I’m only giving you a taste here of what’s on display and Sarindar will be giving a talk on September 17th). The strength of Dhaliwal’s exhibition is that it’s more than it seems, and invokes many ideas that come to the fore at various times, with different observations.

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