15 August 2022 marks 75 years since the independence of India and Pakistan, and the Partition of India. For the first in the series, we hear from Suman about her practice, and how Partition and migration have influenced her work.
My practice meditates on universal issues – joy, sorrow, struggle and human resilience.
The subjects I address are sometimes painful to think about, however, I feel that as an artist, I am in a unique position to cast a light on difficult issues and generate discussion.
Life has brought me many challenges, including treatment for cancer, but I am essentially an optimist, believing in our ability to survive and even thrive in the aftermath of trauma.
My history as a descendant of immigrants displaced by the 1947 Partition of India has led me to reflect on the current migration crisis and its roots.
The 70th anniversary of Partition in 2017 led to lots of conversations with my mother, now in her eighties, about her experiences during Partition.
When i first started talking to my mum, I realised in retrospect that I hadn't really absorbed everything she'd been telling me, and how much it still affected her, because my first question to her was, 'So mum, how did you feel leaving Pakistan?' And she said to me, 'Suman, I didn't leave Pakistan, I left India.'
I began to realise the massive reverberations that being displaced from her home aged 12, never to return, has had on her. It has also become clear to me that the trauma has passed across the generations.
I realise that my own tendency to be anxious has come from my mum who was left by Partition with a strong sense of uncertainty and a compulsion to guard against danger.
But I have also learned about thriving through adversity. My parents lost everything twice: at Partition when they had to leave their homes and friends behind, and then coming here when the airline lost all their luggage – but they always travelled hopefully.
The materials and processes I use underscore my themes.
Until recently I worked mainly with etching and monotype. Etching echoes how personal and global events leave their permanent traces on us: the acid creating intentional and accidental marks on the plate as life does on us. Monotype allows me to make spontaneous, one-off works. I have now introduced bookmaking materials into my work to reflect the fact that I am recounting stories and started using handmade Indian papers as a way of reconnecting to my heritage.
Textiles have become important as I grew up in a house where life revolved around them. Mum made all our clothes, weekends were spent starching Dad’s turbans, he also always carried a starched hankie and to relax, I would sit and embroider with Mum.
I see parallels between my history and the current refugee crisis. My recent work, ‘Counted’, about refugees who die seeking sanctuary, is the first of a triptych; ‘Cargo’, about the 39 Vietnamese people who died in the lorry in Essex, and ‘Kismet’ about the role of Chance in our lives, are underway. I am also planning a stitched work on sheet of 200 x 80 Khadi paper in response to the ‘rivers of blood’ that survivors and witnesses to Partition spoke about and which are still flowing in war-torn landscapes.
For me, it is important to keep telling the stories about Partition because a lot of the people who were witnesses and who actually remember - who remember what they saw - are dying.
My family dispersed all over the world after Partition – UK, Canada and the US. My cousin lives in Manchester and is very involved with the local Sikh community. I am hoping, post-Dystopia, to run a memory cafe at the Gurdwara in Manchester to capture stories of Partition before the first-hand witnesses vanish.
Learn more about Suman’s work.
On Monday 15 August 2022, you can join Suman Gujral for a workshop at St Albans Museum to help create an installation commemorating Partition – book your place.
Main image: Absent Hankie by Suman Gujral.
The film: Portrait of the Artist is by Ellie Cooke, with funding from Arts Council England at Dig Well Arts.