In this post, Kirat explores the recent Voices exhibition at The Portico Library.
The 215-year-old Portico Library, at the heart of Manchester’s city centre- does very little to announce itself to the public. Built in 1806, its discreet entrance was at first intended as a gathering place for Manchester’s wealthy, male elite- later expanded to include people of various professions and backgrounds.1
Today, the Library itself occupies the top floor of the building and is topped by an ornate glass dome. Thousands of texts, carefully placed within dark-brown bookshelves, cover the walls; everything is lit with a soft-orange light.
I’m here for the opening of ‘Voices’, a pop-up exhibition, curated by Uthra Rajgopal, featuring the work of five female artists of South Asian heritage. Opening on the anniversary of The Partition of India, this exhibition aims to explore the experiences of the South Asian diaspora through the perspective of five female artists.
On entering the upper level of this Grade II listed building, I see a group who have gathered in the centre for the opening of today’s exhibition. Facing this audience are Rajgopal along with four artists Sunaina Bhalla, Asmaa Mahmud Hashmi, Suman Gujral and Madhu Manipatruni. These women are collectively known as the ‘Didijis’- a Hindi word which describes ‘an elder sister or lady.’
The initiative for the group came from Gujral who wanted to create an environment of sympathy, caring and reassurance as suggested by the group’s name. Specifically, a space for women of the South Asian diaspora- who are often responsible for navigating multiple ‘cultural barriers’ in both domestic and professional contexts- to gather and discuss their experiences.2 After an introduction of the exhibition and artists, Rajgopal hands over to the artists who talk about their work in further detail.
Each of the works have been developed in response to aspects of the Portico Library, spanning from its architecture to the collection. The exhibition itself is tucked into a corner of the library, with the works placed on bookshelves- poetically weaving the voices of the South Asian diaspora into a backdrop of a colonialist legacy.2
The effect is poignant, tragic and beautiful. Threads of human exploitation and violence interspersed with cultural resilience and strength, weave through the works to create a raw, evocative and deeply personal reflection on the fallout of Empire.
Encased within the first shelf is ‘Fragile Preservation’ by Asmaa Mahmud Hashmi; a deconstructed leather book jacket suspended within stunning web of gold thread, encased within a rectangular gold-painted wooden frame. Hashmi is drawing on personal experiences of migration and drawing on aspects of the Portico Library to represent ‘themes of tension and resilience’.3
On first impression, the deconstructed book appears to be symbolic of archaic systems of knowledge production being broken apart and analysed through a modern lens. The gold threads then, may be seen as a complex network of discourse around decolonisation; a myriad of voices which are analysing the effects of Empire.
Directly below this sit Suman Gujral’s three works, ‘The Sun Never Sets’, ‘Routes’ and ‘River.’ Gujral is responding to the infamous address by MP Enoch Powell, known as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech; the layout of each piece as a rectangular concertina suggesting a fluidity of movement.3
Through stitching threads into ‘Khadi cotton rag paper’3, the works highlight the violent domination of the British Empire, the barbed-wire stream of blood underscored with text from Gujral’s poem ‘River’- a harrowing account of people fleeing from the horrors of Partition:
‘We ran, red-eyed, raw-edged, tears mingling in the river. We ran over those face-down in the water.’ – Excerpt from ‘River’. By Suman Gujral.4
Sunaina Bhalla’s ‘Residual Landscapes’ is inspired by the text, ‘Curry and Rice on Forty Plates, or the ingredients of social life at ‘our station’ in India’ and showcases an array of spices beautifully encased in blocks of resin, displaying the ‘power, aura and resilience of Indian spices’.3
On to Madhu Manipatruni’s ‘Ocean of Distress’, which responds to the fascinating story of Hannah Snell during the 1700s. Snell, who had suffered the loss of a child and been abandoned by her husband, disguised herself as a soldier under the name ‘James Gray’ in order to search for him.5 Her military career lead her from Britain to Pondicherry where she fought in battle; avoiding the need for medical treatment by treating her own injuries.5
To depict this history, Manipatruni has chosen to use a technique dating back centuries called Kantha- a straight, running stitch on cotton.6 Originating in Bangladesh, Kantha is a technique which has been passed on through generations of women primarily in rural villages.6 The artist beautifully highlights the story of a woman who took matters into her own hands through a technique both pioneered and preserved by women.
Altogether, this pop-up exhibition showcased a personal and nuanced exploration of the continuing residual effects of colonial history through the lens of four female artists of South Asian heritage. Having enjoyed listening to the artists speaking about their work and then exploring the exhibition, I was struck by how succinctly powerful these responses to the Portico Library were displayed. Although the exhibition has now ended, I plan to visit Rajgopal’s exhibition ‘Cotton: Labour, Land and Body’, which continues to explore the experiences of the South Asian diaspora, on show until 4 March 2023at Crafts Council Gallery in London.
‘Voices’ ran from 11th August – 26th November 2022 at The Portico Library, Manchester.
All photos taken by author on visiting the exhibition.
- The Portico Library. n.d.a. About the Portico. Available from: https://www.theportico.org.uk/about. [Accessed 12 January 2023].
- The Portico Library. n.d.b. Voices: a pop-up exhibition curated by Uthra Rajgopal. Available from: https://www.theportico.org.uk/event-calendar/voices-exhibition-launch. [Accessed 12 January 2023].
- Text from Voices Exhibition Panels. 2022. [Exhibition panel].
- Horniman Museum and Gardens. 2022. River – Suman Gujral. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoPaJU9Fd0o. [Accessed 11 December 2022].
- Capaldi, E. 2022. The Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell: Cross Dressing in the 1700s. Available from: http://hunterian.academicblogs.co.uk/the-life-and-adventures-of-hannah-snell-cross-dressing-in-the-1700s/. [Accessed 13 December 2022].
- Artpro. n.d. Nakshi Katha: Interwoven Dialogues. Available from: http://artpro.com.bd/welcome_area/nakshi-katha-interwoven-dialogues/. [Accessed 19 January 2023].