Current Exhibition

August 13, 2022
December 4, 2022
In the Moak and Class of 1953 Galleries, Floor 2L

On the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Partition of India, this exhibition explores the legacy of the British colonialism on the modern-day countries of Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Photographs by the American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, Cornell Class of 1927, and contemporary works by South Asian artists underscore the shared history and connection between different religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups and highlight the arbitrary nature of borders in the Indian subcontinent.

On August 14, 1947, Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country, was granted sovereignty. India celebrates its independence a day later, on August 15, though both nations gained liberation from nearly two hundred years of the British Raj (British colonial rule) within minutes of one another. The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, said, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.” The elation was short-lived. Partition triggered the Great Migration of India, a convulsive, violent, and traumatic movement of approximately fifteen million people across newly created borders, and the deaths of up to two million migrants. Partition remains one of the largest migrations in human history and its aftermath continued to impact South Asian political, social, caste, and religious dynamics, including in 1971, when the province of East Pakistan gained its independence as Bangladesh.

Bourke-White’s photographs, published in LIFE Magazine, were, and remain, crucial in communicating the unspeakable violence that occurred during the Partition of India, demonstrating her ability to convey historical events in a manner that appears both straightforward and emotionally charged. Her images continue to inform our understanding of this period, even as her status as a white American journalist protected her from the very atrocities she photographed. As guest curators from Cornell University’s South Asian Council, we respect Bourke-White’s work and the impact she made on our understanding of history while recognizing her privileged position in the context of these global happenings.

Artworks by contemporary South Asian artists, such as Muhanned Cader and Zarina Hashmi, showcase the blurred line between past and present, underscoring the idea that arbitrarily drawn borders can perpetuate historical division and violence. While South Asian voices were only a secondary consideration in the British demarcation of new borders, their experiences were, and still are, primary in the Partition and post-Partition era. People who had historically coexisted were not only forced to cross these borders, but rather, these borders crossed them, and the consequences continue to be felt today.

This exhibition was drawn from the collection of the Johnson Museum of Art and curated by Zain Abid ’24, the advocacy chair of Cornell University’s South Asian Council (SAC), with assistance from SAC members Neha Malepati ’24 and Alyssa Kamath ’23. At the Johnson Museum, it was coordinated by Kate Addleman-Frankel, the Gary and Ellen Davis Curator of Photography; Ellen Avril, chief curator and the Judith H. Stoikov Curator of Asian Art; and Ayesha Matthan, PhD student and curatorial assistant for Asian art.

Above: Muhanned Cader (born 1966 in Sri Lanka), Flag I (Unawatuna Beach, Sri Lanka) (detail), 2010. Oil on aluminum. Acquired through the George and Mary Rockwell Fund, 2012.010.001.