Review: Bringing Tribal Art Into the Mainstream Arena

Between Memory and Museum questions our perceptions of diverse cultures and the roles of capital and markets in the world of art.


By Durga Bai Vyam (Gond, Madhya Pradesh). Courtesy: Tara Books

By Durga Bai Vyam. Courtesy: Tara Books

The origins of this unusual and important book, Between Memory and Museum, lies in an ongoing dialogue that Tara Books has been having over the last 15 years with folk and tribal artists whom they have employed as authors and illustrators. The culminating inspiration for the book comes from a five-day workshop with 38 folk and tribal artists at the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya at Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The Manav Sangrahalaya is an anthropological museum dedicated to the culture of tribals and folk artists. In implementing the 1988 Guwahati Declaration which directs museums to be inclusive and consult the subjects of the exhibitions about the content of their exhibitions, the Manav Sangrahalaya invited tribal artists to be the curators for gallery exhibitions at the museum which feature their diverse community cultures, customs, rituals, oral myths, artefacts and homes.

Arun Wolf and Gita Wolf (ed.) <em> Between Memory and Museum</em> Tara Books, 2016

Arun Wolf and Gita Wolf (ed.)
Between Memory and Museum
Tara Books, 2016

Tara Books’ editors Gita Wolf and Arun Wolf took the opportunity to create discussions and dialogues with the artists about their relationship to the museum and the exhibitions they have installed. Along with their interviews and interactions with the artists, they put forth arguments that indigenous peoples in India need to be projected on an equal footing with other artists and art forms, and that their rich individual and community resources and knowledge need to be recognised and encouraged so that much of their traditional wisdom will be preserved and passed on to future generations. Museums, they say, have a major role in projecting indigenous art and artists into the mainstream and for creating opportunities for them to experiment and connect their art to the world around them. As they rightly noted, the world of tribes is swiftly changing and this too needs to find a place in their work and how their work is perceived.

The book is beautifully brought out.  Each of the 38 artists, from the Bhil, Pithora, Saora, Gond, Madhubani, Warli, Ghodna, Mata-Ni-Pachedi, Patua and Patachitra traditions, is represented by a full-page illustration by each artist along with an interview about their painting and response to the question of how they perceive the museum and their relationship to it.  Gita and Arun have looked at wider implications of the artist’s comments in respect to museums in a paragraph on each page.

By Dawat Singh Uikey. Courtesy: Tara Books

By Dawat Singh Uikey. Courtesy: Tara Books

The book is divided into four sections and each section builds on the previous one. The first is about the idea of a museum and the knowledge that it provides. The limitations of museum exhibitions are recognised, but also the possibilities and importance of the museum in reconstructing communal memory are explored, even recognising that a museum can be a site of contestation.

The second section explores the notion of tradition, posing the question of how the artist reimagines tradition in a contemporary multicultural world.  The third section looks at the position of the individual within community art and connects to the earlier section on tradition, which notes that traditional art is created by people from a community, and then through constant repetition in rituals and festivals is passed on and renewed over generations. Where then is the liberty of the artist to innovate and still be true to the spirit of his/her art? Today tribal art has emerged from the realm of floor and wall paintings and tattoos to encompass a variety of new and different materials and themes. Everyday events merge with the sacred, are abstracted to their symbolic level and in

Where then is the liberty of the artist to innovate and still be true to the spirit of his/her art? Today, tribal art has emerged from the realm of floor and wall paintings and tattoos to encompass a variety of new and different materials and themes. Everyday events merge with the sacred and are abstracted to their symbolic level, and in each it is noted that there is always space for “play and whimsy”.  Beyond an inherited grammar, the artist is free to adapt to a changing world and approach to art.

By Bhajju Shyam. Courtesy: Tara Books

By Bhajju Shyam. Courtesy: Tara Books

The fourth section “traces the relationship of lived histories to indigenous art”, named ‘The Tangible Power of Symbols’.  This section cautions that neither the museum nor the public should romanticise the tribal or revert to the colonial label of primitive.  Museums should allow room for new and emerging identities and provide opportunities for interactions between cultures and encourage the blossoming of new forms.

The team recognises that the vast repertoire of collective memory expressed visually and orally is a dynamic contribution to the richness of India’s art and culture and to the concept of India as a nation. They contest the binaries of contemporary artists vs folk and tribal, and of capital as the only way of life, and encourage the public and museums to be open-minded and question the boxes they conveniently put artists and cultures in.

By Rajender Kumar Shyam. Courtesy: Tara Books

By Rajender Kumar Shyam. Courtesy: Tara Books

The tribals express themselves simply and directly to the questions posed, introspecting on their own culture and definitely happy with their relationship to the museum which they view as a wonderful privilege and exposure. Worried about the swift changes taking place in their lives, they are grateful that the museum will hold the memory of the richness of their centuries-old traditions and rituals. Although they have brought their visual and oral cultures into the museum, as they remarked, the limitations of museum exhibits preclude the visitors’ deep understanding of the sanctity of the rituals and beliefs as they are practised in the village. Well, culture is almost there authentically in the museum but not quite.

The book is essential reading for anyone working or connected to museums and to the art world today. For the general public, it poses so many questions we should reflect on. Besides looking at museums and the subjects of their exhibitions, the book questions lifestyles, our perceptions of diverse cultures, the role of capital and markets, and our understanding of our environment.

The book is accompanied by a DVD which brings the artists and their work and the museum alive to the reader through conversations with the artists and their reflections on their changing world and the place of their art in museums and the marketplace today.