Art installation by Montreal artist Swapnaa Tamhaneto highlightcolonial and decolonial histories of India’s cotton

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Surrey Art Gallery will be hosting the solo exhibition Swapnaa Tamhane: No Surface is Neutral. The exhibition opens Saturday on September 23, with a conversation between artist Swapnaa Tamhane, Gallery Curator Jordan Strom, and Associate Curator of Adult Programs Sameena Siddiqui at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free.

Tamhane is a Montreal-based artist, curator, and writer. Her body of work includes drawing, textiles, handmade paper, text, and sculpture.

Tamhane’s work considers the role of cotton in India’s colonial and decolonial histories through large-scale textile installations. They challenge the hierarchical colonial separation between art, craft, and design in India. Her artwork includes block-printed and embellished textiles and works on paper handmade from cotton cloth. They harness different moments in India’s history of industrial and handloom cotton production, bringing them together in contemporary artworks to challenge how we understand ideas of ornamentation and decoration. Tamhane treats textiles as though they are drawings, layering ideas of mark-making and the presence of the hand to explore what it means to make a decolonial gesture.

The exhibition features two bodies of work displayed side by side. The first includes textile works made in collaboration with artists in western India from the Kutch region. They are arranged in sweeping architectural forms that reference the Mughal and Ottoman shamiana (imperial tent) layered with motifs from Le Corbusier’s architecture in Ahmedabad, India, as well as the shimmering mirrored walls of mud homes. The second body of work includes drawings on paper handmade by Tamhane from khadi (handspun cotton cloth) that have been deconstructed to its base fibres and reconstituted. In these works, drawing can take any form of mark-making—from pencil or ink on paper to folding, crumpling, and mixing paper pulps even before the paper has dried.

Guest curator Deepali Dewan explains, “Tamhane’s artwork pushes against a complicated colonial history of cotton, exposes colonial ideas around art and artmaking that linger with us today, and imagines a different way forward. It must be experienced to be felt and understood.”

Dewan is the Dan Mishra Senior Curator of Global South Asia at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto and an Associate Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Toronto. Her research spans issues of colonial, modern and contemporary visual culture in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora. She has curated and published for over twenty years the history of photography and its critical historiographies and contemporary art as it explores ways of being and knowing in the world.

The Fall Opening takes place on September 23 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. The Artist Talk will be followed by an opening reception, which also celebrates all roses sleep (inviolate light), a multimedia installation by Alana Bartol and Bryce Krynski which invites viewers to inhabit the perspective of a bee (on display until December 4, 2023), and Kampala to Canada, a commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the mass exile and migration of Ugandan Asians to Canada (on display until January 28, 2024).

On Thursday, October 12, the exhibition’s curator Deepali Dewan is leading a tour of Swapnaa Tamhane: No Surface is Neutral. Associate Professor T’ai Smith at the University of British Columbia will join Dewan for a discussion of India’s colonial textile histories and decolonizing artistic processes.

September 23−November 26, 2023

Fall Opening and Artist Talk: Saturday, September 23 | 6:30−9:00 p.m.

Tour and Talk with Deepali Dewan and T’ai Smith: Thursday, October 12 | 6:30−8:30 p.m.