Activism in art: See 'Division, Commonality, Encounter' at Detroit's Scarab Club

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Themes of migration, division and inclusion color the four-person group show at Detroit's Scarab Club, "Division, Commonality, Encounter," which will be up through Feb. 15. 

The show was curated by Ann Arbor artist Sajeev Vadakoottu Visweswaran, originally from Kerala state in southwestern India, who says he was interested in finding other artists who've lived outside their own countries, and experienced the rub of cultural difference and the isolation of being foreign. 

Some of the most striking images on display are Balbir Krishan's "All the Flowers Have Turned Red" series, which seem to balance hope and agony in equal measure. A resident of both New York City and New Delhi, Krishan's male nudes in shades of red suggest suffering that may -- it's unclear -- be partly relieved by the scent of red flowers attached to a gas mask. 

Balbir Krishan's "All the Flowers Have Turned Red IX" in Division, Commonality, Encounter at Detroit's Scarab Club through Feb. 15.

Visweswaran wondered why Krishan, a gay activist from a culture still very condemning of homosexuality, chose red for his nudes. But, as Krishan wrote in his artist's statement, he wanted to explore the color's "fervid associations -- heat, depth, beauty, yearning, violence, and suffering especially." 

Alison Byrnes Rivett, who lived for years in India, tackles a different sort of exclusion, with charmingly rendered portraits of animals a la Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and zoologist whose 1735 "Systema Naturae" was one of the first taxonomic texts to identify the world's organisms in a rational, systematic way.

But Rivett notes that Linnaeus himself was not an explorer, and had to rely on descriptions from those out in the field -- some of which were fantastical, indeed. These the great classifier listed under the heading "Paradoxa," for beasts that couldn't be forced into existing categories. 

"Draco" by Alisn Byrnes Rivett in "Division, Commonality, Encounter" at Detroit's Scarab Club.

These colorful gouache paintings are whimsical takes on scientific textbook illustrations, and include "Pelican," "Scythian Lamb" and, most intriguingly, a cheerful,  bat-winged serpent -- clearly straight out of "Paradoxa" -- titled "Draco." 

With her "Soft Shelter" series, Sharmithsa Kar, a textile artist from India now living in London, Ontario, explores the nature of temporary housing, epitomized by the refugee tent. Employing the tarpaulin cloth associated with such make-do structures, with "Soft Shelter VIII" she stitches tent-like parallelograms in sharp blue thread across the surface. It's simple, abstract and oddly compelling. 

Sharmistha Kar's "Soft Shelter VIII" at Detroit's Scarab Club through Feb. 15.

Finally, Visweswaran includes some of his own work, including examples from his "Witness Blinding" series. These are black and white pencil sketches of crowds at the funeral of a protester shot dead by the armed forces, who've put Indian-occupied Kashmir on lockdown since August. 

"They used pellet guns to scatter the crowds," he said, "and that’s supposed to be non-lethal. But when you shoot at close range, it can cause horrific injuries, and indeed, blinded and killed a number of people." 

Those injuries are represented by subtle lines of red gouache, but you have to get close to the drawings to see them. 

Detail from Sajeev Vadakoottu Visweswaran's "Witness Blinding I" at Detroit's Scarab Club.

"I have friends from Kashmir," Visweswaran  said, "and I feel a responsibility, not only as an artist, but as an activist. But in my case, my resistance takes the form of my visual language."

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

'Division, Commonality, Encounter'

Through Feb. 15

Scarab Club, 217 Farnsworth, Detroit

Noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Sun.

(313) 831-1250