Gabrielle Moser on Swapnaa Tamhane

“Do hands have a chance?” This audio recording, emanating from an intricate hexagonal tent, greeted viewers at the entrance to Swapnaa Tamhane’s solo exhibition “Mobile Palace.” The statement, which reverberated throughout the show, is both a promise and a warning. Tamhane speaks this line—the title of a 1986 essay by Indian artist K. G. Subramanyan (1924–2016)—along with other excerpts from the text, a meditation on the possibilities of artisanal labor in the wake of India’s independence from Britain and increased mechanization. The question seems simple, but across three immersive textile installations, Tamhane demonstrated its potency, weaving together histories of colonial cotton production, national sovereignty, International Style architecture, and the intellectual and physical value of craftsmanship.

Covered in naturally dyed fabrics decorated with elaborate geometric patterns Tamhane made in collaboration with inker and dyer Salemamad Khatri and woodblock carver Mukesh Prajapati, Tent: A Space for the Ceremony of Close Readings, 2018, which housed the voice-over, is just one iteration of a “mobile palace,” a term that refers to the movable canopies, covered stalls, and fabric shelters that have been used by South Asian and Islamic cultures since the 1700s. While they are largely associated with displays of imperial power and sites of militaristic strategizing, these structures are also used for weddings, celebrations, improvisational gatherings, and, crucially, protection from the elements. In Tamhane’s hands, the tent is all these things, but also becomes a site of contemplation, ornamentation, and resistance, particularly within the Royal Ontario Museum, a world-culture and natural-history institution, where distinctions between high art and craftsmanship, colonized and colonizer, can be cemented all too easily.

Mobile Palace, 2019–21, the exhibition’s namesake, is a remarkable assembly of more than a dozen pieces of naturally dyed and woodblock-printed fabric, which hang vertically from the ceiling as banners might, or cascade in peaks and valleys resembling hilly terrain and oceanic waves. Adorned with triangular and rhomboid patterns, the indigo, cherry-red, and khaki-colored cloth references the important place cotton production occupied within India’s Swadeshi movement—a form of self-governance that allowed the nation to cut its reliance on Britain for economic support. The work’s elaborate shapes created darkened alcoves for the viewer to rest in, but also acted as obstacles one had to duck and evade. As visitors passed through the space, Mobile Palace’s fabric walls seemed to shift, casting dramatic shadows on the floor while certain embellishments—such as carefully applied lines of beadwork covertly added by the artist—caught the light, shining as metal rooftops would in sunlight.

These architectural references are not accidental. Though nearly every component of the installation is collectively and collaboratively made by hand, its formal content, from the textile’s geometric patterns to the shapes made by the suspended swaths of material, is primarily drawn from Le Corbusier’s designs for the Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owners’ Association House (or ATMA House). The building is located in Ahmedabad, the architect’s modernist complex—named for the city in which it resides—and was commissioned in 1951 to celebrate Indian independence and establish a new governmental center for the municipality. Unfortunately, Ahmedabad was left unfinished at the time of Le Corbusier’s death in 1965.

Tamhane reworked interior and exterior views of the concrete but airily designed ATMA House, flattening and compressing its grand entryway ramp, brise-soleil angled facades, and floating staircases into intricate motifs. The artist made her working process visible via two vitrines at the rear of the gallery. The cabinets displayed her sketches, several woodblocks carved by Prajapati and his collaborators, the test prints, and a short documentary featuring interviews with the artists and artisans. Where Le Corbusier’s spare International Style arrived in India as a sign of the country’s modernity, independence, and cosmopolitanism, here Tamhane digested and metabolized it into something daringly soft, nomadic, and decorative.

In this contrast between industrial production and handmade craftsmanship, between inked patterns and luminous ornamentation, Tamhane created a space where the work of many hands combined in the creation of beautiful new worlds.

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