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Among the ruins


Naeem Mohaiemen's 'Rankin Street, 1953'.

A demolished family home in Dhaka. Razed tombs in Timbuktu. And an ‘apartheid wall’ in Israel. Three artists from the subcontinent are showcasing their powerful work at Art Basel

Centuries-old structures torn down by religious zealots and a family mansion razed to the ground by property developers evoke feelings of sadness that turn into silent rage at the sight of a wall that, if anything, qualifies for immediate demolition. These feelings are eloquently brought out in the works of three contemporary South Asian artists that are being exhibited at Art Basel, arguably the most influential event in the global art market, by Experimenter, a Kolkata-based art gallery.

Naeem Mohaiemen, a Bangladeshi artist who lives and works between Dhaka and New York, will showcase Rankin Street, 1953, a body of work originating from photographs taken by his father with his first camera of the family home on Rankin Street, now a busy commercial area in Dhaka. Mohaiemen discovered the negatives in a box after 60 long years and encountered vignettes of a mansion demolished in the early 1970s. Quotidian scenes from a multi-generational family, playing, laughing and talking bear witness to a way of life now rendered impossible by the property boom, fraying family bonds and Mohaiemen excavates, the archaeology of a ghost city in the first decade of the Pakistan era, vanquished by the dystopia of Bangladesh's contemporary hypercapitalism project. His project speaks of a growing city and changing landscape, not only of the fabric of the city but the lives of its inhabitants as well.

Hajra Waheed, an artist of Indian origin who was born in Canada and grew up in Saudi Arabia, is presenting Lost 1-28, a continuation of her ongoing Expansion Chart series. It is a sequence of delicate drawings of real and imaginary architectural sites and lost histories of centuries-old structures being demolished in Mecca and Medina for fear of idolatry. An estimated 95 per cent of Mecca and Medina's historic sites, many over a thousand years old, have been torn down since 1985. Lost 1-28 imagines a handful of such sites: a series of homes, tombs, wells, mosques and cemeteries built around the birth of Islam. Most of these places have fallen to the frenzy of development around Masjid Al-Nabawwi and Masjid Al-Haram, two of Islam's most important places of worship. Waheed also catalogues the loss of other important sites like the 2012 demolition of tombs in Timbuktu.

Bani Abidi, a Pakistani artist who lives and works between Karachi and New Delhi, is showcasing Disrupting a Biblical Memory, the concluding chapter of her larger body of work called, A Table Wide Country, 2012. It is set in Palestine. In Disrupting a Biblical Memory, Abidi imagines a character laying out the contents of his latest postal order on a table: toy models of gun-toting Israeli soldiers, dead Palestinian insurgents, boys throwing stones, palm trees and miniature sections of the 700-km-long 'apartheid wall' that segregates Palestinians from Israelis. This imaginary character has, with his miniature models, put together many different scenes in the past year, and is now sorting out his collection in preparation for the final chapter in which protesting (Palestinian) civilians will entrap (Israeli) soldiers, the dead (Palestinian) freedom fighters will be resurrected and children play on the ruins of the demolished 'apartheid wall'.

Experimenter, set up in 2009 by Prateek and Priyanka Raja, is one of the four Indian contemporary art galleries invited to participate in Art Basel this year. "Most of our artists have a rather deep political engagement within their practice and hence our gallery's programmes often have a very strong political reflection, " says Prateek. "This trend is upheld in the works of the three contemporary South Asian artists we're showcasing at Art Basel. "

The works of the three artists have been collectively christened Graveyard of Defiance - Architecture of Cities in Crisis. The trio responds to the idea of a city in crisis through imaginary or factual narratives, exploring the means of skirmish, structures, relationships, changing political fragments and mechanisms that emerge from the ruins. The theme that emerges from the works of the three is the urgent need to reflect on an emergent relationship between conflicts and the built environment. And also that existing architecture withstands a wide and spectacular range of urban destruction, some remain standing as symbols of defiance to their own demolition. And these symbols remain proof of their devotion to the cultures that had erected them and the people who survive them.

The works of these three artists are being exhibited at Art Basel, Switzerland, till June 16

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