One of India’s foremost performance and conceptual artists, Rummana Hussain incorporated feminist ideas and political activism in her art practice. Her work ranged from figurative paintings in oil to installations and performance art using everyday materials.
Born in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) to a prominent family from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, Hussain was raised in a progressive and politically active household. The intellectually charged, liberal environment shaped her politics and activism. She studied fine arts at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design, England between 1972 and 1974. After graduating, she returned to India to get married, and began her career in art. In the early 1980s, she moved to Delhi and began to practice painting at the Garhi Artist Studio, which placed her in the orbit of several artists — including sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee and painters Manjit Bawa and Arpana Caur — who proved influential to both her personal life and professional practice.
From the beginning, Hussain sought to make statements and critical commentaries on capitalism, the caste system and social inequalities through her art. These themes were present during her early figurative painting phase — which included works such as Big Fish Eat Little Fish-1 (1989) — and later, neo-expressionist works such as The Angel and Colaba (1990) and When Evil Doing Comes Like Falling Rain, Nobody Calls Out Stop (1989–90). The tone of her art-mediated activism took a turn in the 1990s, during an uptick in communally-motivated acts associated with the rise of Hindutva fundamentalism, including the assassination of playwright Safdar Hashmi in 1989 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. In response, Hussain and a group of artists, writers and intellectuals such as Ram Rahman, Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram, formed the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (or SAHMAT) in 1989, aiming to promote the values of pluralism and secularism across the country.
Following the events of 1992, incidents of communal strife continued to grow across India and especially Mumbai, where Hussain now lived. It escalated to a point where her family had to remove their nameplate from their building and temporarily seek refuge in a hotel. These experiences forced Hussain to become acutely aware of her Muslim identity and the vulnerability that accompanied it. Despite this personal and social upheaval, her social and political voice only grew louder, especially through the activities of the SAHMAT Collective. These developments also caused Hussain to make a sharp transition from painting to producing conceptual and performance-oriented art and sculpture using photography and everyday domestic materials. She often used robin blue fabric whitener, indigo dye and terracotta dust or geru soil which found their way into works such as Crushed Blue (1992) and Fragment from Splitting (1993). In 1994, her first exhibition Fragments Multiples was held at Chemould Prescott Road (formerly Gallery Chemould) and Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai.
In the crisis of identity, Hussain also found a resonance with the politics of the female body, which she explored in her subsequent performance works, the first of which, Living in the Margins (1995), took place on the lawns of the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai. Her performance work also grew out of two events that affected her profoundly: the knowledge that her housemaid was critically ill with AIDS, resulting in the work Home/Nation (1996); and the discovery of her own debilitating illness, breast cancer. In 1997 at the British Council, Bath, England, she participated in the group exhibition Telling Tales —an exploration of female identity in relation to community and nation — along with Ayisha Abraham, Anita Dube, Sheela Gowda and Pushpamala N.
During the latter half of the 1990s, Hussain frequently travelled to New York where she had the opportunity to engage with art historian Moira Roth and artist Jamelie Hassan on performance art, activism and feminist theory. These exchanges, and the consolidation of her anxieties around being a woman and a Muslim artist, culminated in her video performance Is It What You Think? (1998). Less than a year later, at the age of 47, she succumbed to her illness while her final work, A Space for Healing (1999), was being set up for the third Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.
The Talwar Gallery — owned by Deepak Talwar, who met Hussain in New York — now represents her estate and collection. Apart from the works and records at the gallery, little else of her work has been documented or made accessible. Much of what is known comes from accounts and writings by her peers, who remember her as a maverick artist and individual who was as devoted to her artistic expression as she was to her activism.
Our website is currently undergoing maintenance and re-design, due to which we have had to take down some of our bibliographies. While these will be re-published shortly, you can request references for specific articles by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.