Serving up traditional South Asian delicacies of samosas and Bombay mix, the Guerilla Cafe in Berkeley transformed into a multicultural venue for the opening of the art exhibit “Our Name is Rebel.” Paying homage to the formation of South Asian American identity, Berkeley artists and activists Nisha Sembi and Amman Desai joined forces with the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour to produce a mixed-media exhibition exposing the untold history of South Asian resistance in Berkeley.
The exhibit features eight distinct pieces created by both of the artists as well as archived material from past resistance efforts, including a large-scale wall mural designed by Sembi. Her portrait was digitally projected onto the cafe wall and painted collectively by the duo. A portrait of Kartar Singh Sarabha, a UC Berkeley student and leading revolutionary of the Ghadar Party in 1913 who was executed at the age of 19, the mural is the backbone of the exhibit’s rebellious sentiment promoting Sarabha’s statement of resistance: “If anyone asks who we are / Tell him our name is rebel.” One hundred years after the founding of the Ghadar Party, a radical South Asian anti-imperial movement founded in San Francisco, the mural, along with the other seven works of wood paintings, linocuts and prints, advocates South Asian American self-identity through rebellion.
Co-curated by Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee, the masterminds behind Berkeley’s monthly South Asian Radical History Walking Tour (scheduled for Nov. 16 and 17), “Our Name is Rebel” exposes the hidden histories touched on in the two-mile guided walk in the cultural melting pot that is Berkeley through the lens of South Asian immigrant heritage. Like the Walking Tour, the exhibit strives to unmask resistance efforts of Indian and Pakistani freedom fighters.
Curator Anirvan Chatterjee sees that “South Asian Americans have over a century of history in the city of Berkeley doing everything besides being the meek model minority. We have been revolutionaries thriving to overthrow imperialism, queer activists making space for LGBQ voices and feminists who are breaking down gender boundaries.”
The walk passes typical buildings seen everyday in the streets of Berkeley, exploring the tales of South Asian American resistance lying behind the brick walls. Similarly, the exhibit exposes viewers to the stories left untold in an attempt to create a fixed identity. The isolated identity of a South Asian American as being just that — South Asian American — is shattered in this collaborative effort to manifest a multifold representation of what it means to be both South Asian and American.
As young first-generation South Asian Americans, artists Sembi and Desai grew up feeling a sense of dissociation between the cultures of their motherland and homeland. Born and raised in Berkeley, Sembi sees “being that hybrid Indian American is always something we struggle with, because we’re not Indian and we’re not American.”
“There is a false notion that being queer and being South Asian are mutually exclusive identities,” Desai said.
This feeling of disconnection is central to their works. Immersed in an educational system that focuses distinctly on American culture and the English language, Sembi and Desai took the initiative to learn about their ancestry, channeling this knowledge of past and present South Asian rebellions through art as a means of resisting the confines of their supposed identity.
Through contemporary artistic modes, Desai’s linocuts and Sembi’s on-wood paintings and murals represent a tumultuous history and build a cohesive exhibit melding past and present. Sembi began working with the traditional Indian medium of henna but while growing up in urban Berkeley was influenced by graffiti and murals. While visiting India two years ago, Sembi met a number of local female graffiti artists and was taken with their ability to express themselves via art. This became the inspiration for her newfound focus on large-scale mural work. Her wood painting “Ghadar Printing Press” emphasizes something similar to what Sembi is attempting to accomplish. While the Ghadar Party used the printing press in 1913 to produce pamphlets promoting resistance of colonialism, Sembi hopes through her work and the exhibit that individuals will be moved to discover self-identity independent of imposed identity.
Contact Peggy Beim at [email protected].