LONDON — The British-Indian artist Sutapa Biswas has always found herself playing a confrontational role in the British art world, forcing conversations about empire and its legacies that the establishment preferred to evade.
But it seems that may be changing. This year Biswas, 59, is the subject of two major British shows, running concurrently: at the BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art, in Gateshead, England, and at Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge. The BALTIC show, which runs through March 20, 2022, focuses mainly on Biswas’s work with the moving image; the Kettle’s Yard exhibition, which opens Oct. 16 and runs through Jan. 30, will take in the whole arc of her career.
Emma Dean, the curator of the BALTIC exhibition, said that both shows suggest that if Biswas’s work has not gained the kind of visibility it deserves, it may be because “she asks some very difficult questions.”
“The legacy of the British Empire hangs very heavily,” Dean added. “Her work forces us to confront the colonial past.”
Biswas first came to public attention in 1985, when the British artist Lubaina Himid curated a landmark exhibition of work by Black women in a long corridor of the Institute for Contemporary Art in London, called “The Thin Black Line.”
Although Biswas was just 23 and a recent college graduate, her mixed-media piece “Housewives With Steak-Knives” was one of the show’s standouts; it depicts a brown-skinned woman — the Hindu goddess Kali doubling as an everyday mom — brandishing a machete in one of her four hands, the severed head of an old white man in another. She holds a third hand up, palm out, in a gesture of peace, and with the fourth, she grips a poppy and a little flag bearing an image of Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes.”
The piece was hung from the wall at an angle so it leaned over the viewer in a way that could be read as menacing. At least one visitor spat on it.
It landed, Biswas recalled in a recent video interview from her London home, right between the eyes. “Whoever spat at it was either a really good shot,” she added, “or they’d been practicing.”
Growing awareness of structural racism and exclusion has meant that, 30 years after “The Thin Black Line,” its artists are finally gaining traction. Himid won the Turner Prize in 2017, and is about to have a major retrospective at the Tate Modern. Sonia Boyce, an artist in the show, will represent Britain at the 2022 Venice Biennale. And now, it is Biswas’s turn for recognition.
Born in India in 1962, Biswas came to Britain when she was four. This was a double exile for her family, which had already been displaced in India’s 1947 partition, forced to leave their home in what was first British India, then East Pakistan, and now Bangladesh. They moved to India’s West Bengal region.
Biswas’s work, she said, addresses these complicated displacements.
“We often assume that, after independence, everything is tickety boo. And in India it really wasn’t the case,” she said. “India was pretty much impoverished because it had been stripped more or less of all of its assets.”
Her father, an outspoken Marxist university professor, was frequently under house arrest, and there were rumors of a planned assassination, Biswas said; he fled to London, and his wife and five children soon followed.
Biswas grew up in the heavily South-Asian suburb of Southall, not far from Heathrow Airport. As an undergraduate at Leeds University in northern England, she was the only person of color on the art history course.
The art historian Griselda Pollock, who taught her at Leeds and appeared in “Kali,” an early experimental video Biswas made, later wrote that her student had “forced us all to acknowledge the Eurocentric limits of the discourses within which we practiced.”
Biswas demanded that her teachers “decolonize their curriculum” by “rewriting the mainstream canon” to include work by artists of color — and gave them a week to do it. “I felt that if I could re-contextualize art’s histories, a week was sufficient time in which to make a start,” she said. “Ah, youth!”
In the years after “Housewives with Steak-Knives,” Biswas pivoted to more nuanced reflections on exile, the body and the family. It was on a 1987 trip to India, her first since leaving as a child, that photography became more important to her practice, she said.
Photographs she took there of the relatives and the places she visited became such precious documents, she said, that she carried them with her on her return to England, “like they were my passport.” She used the pictures for a series called “Synapse” (1992), projecting them onto her naked torso, before rephotographing them, “as if to reclaim them.”
A 1994 installation at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, an institution that displays a range of artifacts from Britain’s former colonies, featured slides of a children’s nursery rhyme projected onto the sails of a boat: “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man.” The last word, “thief,” was missing; “but looking around the museum in anticipation of the next word in the rhyme,” she said, “drew the viewer’s attention to all the loot that surrounded my work and the viewer.”
Her 2004 film, “Birdsong,” shows a young boy (Biswas’s own son) perched on a settee in the shabbily opulent sitting room of an English country house; facing him calmly is a large chestnut horse, saddled, reined, and ready for the lord of the manor.
The image borrows from the palette of the eighteenth-century British painter George Stubbs, the “colors of empire” as Biswas called them: The yellow and white stripes of the couch, the faded oxblood red of the “oriental” rug, against placid sea-foam green walls. The scene plays out on two screens simultaneously, one running slightly behind the other.
There was trouble all over again in 2009, when “Housewives With Steak-Knives” was shown at the Neuberger Museum of Art in upstate New York, and two right-wing Hindu nationalist groups called for the painting to be taken down. “They were offended at the fact that I was kind of poking fun at religion and Hinduism,” Biswas recalled. “She’s a housewife, and their argument was that it was very offensive to Hindus.”
Her response, she said, was to remind them that it was a fictionalization of Kali: “It’s just a work of art!”
Andrew Nairne, the director of Kettle’s Yard, said that what makes Biswas’s work distinctive was “the imaginative poetic space that she absolutely builds into the work. This is not work that is brilliant, but ultimately didactic. It’s complicated,” he said, adding that Biswas’s art works “through the intuitive, through the poetic, through the personal.”
“All of those aspects allow the viewer to bring their own imagination and their own sense of themselves,” he said, including their feelings about politics and history.
Looking back 30-something years after “The Thin Black Line,” Himid said in an interview that she admired Biswas’s honesty. “Running through everything she does is this real, strong sense of telling it how it is, and of putting the record straight. She’s just not afraid.”
Biswas’s latest work, a film called “Lumen,” is the centerpiece of the exhibitions in Gateshead and Cambridge. In it, a narrator (Natasha Patel), wearing a black sari, addresses the camera with controlled anger and Shakespearean grandeur, to tell the semi-fictional story of Biswas’s mother and grandmother’s journey away from the place of their birth.
The actress’s monologue plays over scenes of documentary footage filmed in India from the 1920s to the 1950s, which was recently uncovered in an archive in Bristol, England. It shows English people frolicking, playing croquet, boating, enjoying a gin and tonic, striding around as if they owned the place.
Biswas said there were some “very uncomfortable moments” in the film, for example, a scene in which the white mistress of a grand house talks to her Indian servants while they water roses in the garden. As she walks off, she flirts a little bit with whoever is holding the camera — “either her lover or her father or somebody else who is also white,” Biswas said.
It asks the viewer to think about who the camera is building sympathy with in a scene like this: with the woman, or with the exploited Indians who work for her? “When I see that scene, I don’t identify with the woman; I identify with the servants,” Biswas said. She added she hopes that in that moment, the viewer, who may be white, will also feel a sense of disavowal — “that’s not me” — followed by the recognition that it could very well have been.
“You can’t separate yourself from history,” Biswas added.
Part of dealing with that, Biswas said, was maintaining a knack for the absurd and the off-kilter, something her work has always done: that horse in the living room; the missing last word in “Tinker Tailor.”
“Six million people were killed as a consequence of partition,” Biswas said. “My parents witnessed that and, you know, and when you live through that, it’s bleak. But you also have to have a dark sense of humor, in order to get through the day.”
“You know, I’m a lot of fun,” she said, laughing. “But for people who don’t know me, I’m probably a little bit daunting.”