Rodman Hall Art Centre
May 23–September 27, 2015
In Violence, the philosopher Slavoj Zižek explores differing aspects and attitudes regarding the book’s eponymous theme, some esoteric and others horrific. This interrelation between banality and brutality informed my experience of Sarindar Dhaliwal’s The Radcliffe Line and Other Geographies, an aesthetically breathtaking exhibition spanning two decades of her work in various media. Works like the green fairy storybook (2009) or when I grow up I want to be a namer of colours (2010), and the intimate nature of some of the spaces when visited alone, make it a seductive body of work.
The inability of the British Empire to survive the post-World War II era didn’t diminish its autocratic nature. Described by poet Matthew Hall as “a palimpsest drawn by constructs / and overlays of violence,” the Radcliffe Line that “created” India and Pakistan was disastrous from its inception, exacerbating and fostering many of the contemporary issues those nations face today, sparking mass migration, murder, and ethnic cleansing. But don’t assume that’s all that suffuses Rodman Hall. Though Dhaliwal’s works explore dark and violent spaces, she often succeeds in her attempt, in her words, in “[returning] beauty to the world”.
The aforementioned green fairy storybook is playfully enticing, with words on book spines constructing variants of tales depending how you read them. Southall: Childplay (2009) fills a long wall and, like a number of Dhaliwal’s works, uses the objects of a child’s world (coloured pencils here, storybooks and toys elsewhere). Perhaps this is because the lessons we’re taught as children—especially concerning home, history, or belonging— are not always erudite, but often explicit.
Text factors heavily into Dhaliwal’s installations. The cartographer’s mistake: Dormers Wells Grammer Schools (2012) or the cartographer’s mistake: Woolloomooloo (2013) are rendered with honesty and humour (channelling the voices of children and “criminals”): sometimes fitted into recesses in the walls, other times filling the long walls of Rodman Hall, with directness and clarity. Mother with Sisters (2010) or Mother with Daughters (2009), both richly coloured chromira prints, bridge the personal and political, reading as larger artistic statements about family and history but also having a quality of personal narrative of family.
Rodman Hall itself adds another layer to The Radcliffe Line. An older, originally residential space, with alcoves, fireplaces, and even an elaborate chandelier, it suggests not just the coziness of a living space, but also the weight of history. Built by the grandson of a United Empire Loyalist, the building is a pastiche of styles from Victorian to Jacobean.
The cricket bats from a cartographer’s mistake: untitled (2012), rendered in timeless marble and sitting on a pile of rough salt chunks in a front room are perfectly at home here. The badminton rackets and birds in the same work become imposing singular weapons laid over pillaged colonial spoils.
This continues in olive, almond & mustard (2010), with Rodman Hall’s architecture assisting: a small separate room is illuminated with a three channel video installation bracketing visitors. Less direct than some of the textual “accounts,” images and audio bleed and mix together in an almost stream of consciousness manner, sometimes offering similarities and other times contrasting harshly. Ethereal voices singing the children’s songs Lavender’s Blue (“When I am king, dilly, dilly, you shall be queen”) or Oranges and lemons / Say the bells of St. Clement’s flow into Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood,” an anti-immigrant rant from 1968. We see scenes of young women braiding each other’s hair with ribbons, followed by black and white images of British children at play, both groups in joyful circles of community. Colour scenes of rural labour and play, and then industrial brick buildings, as grey as the (presumably British) children run in the streets.
These vignettes inspire a nostalgia worthy of a United Empire Loyalist, but “when an institution outlasts its conditions [as the decline of the British Empire post WWII inevitably led to the Radcliffe Line], what’s left is a myth.”
While The Radcliffe Line was at Rodman Hall, a social media meme proliferated, displaying an alternative contemporary North America as it might have been had Columbus never crossed the Atlantic, with names and boundaries as alien to current “empires” as the Chittagong, Gurdaspur or Karimganj were to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, showing the power of borders to redefine the narrative of space. The Radcliffe Line & Other Geographies never becomes an arduous history lesson, but offers personal stories and experiences that entrance artistically and broaden perspective. Dhaliwal’s work furthers the argument that art is a subtle, yet significant, aspect of living history.
 Lisa Robertson and Matthew Stadler, ed., from their margin commentary in Revolution: A Reader (revolutionreader.com)
Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for three years), Magenta, PrairieSeen, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters and was art critic at Planet S for over a decade. Also host & producer of The A Word, he currently lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, after nearly two decades on the Prairies.