a large 2D work hangs on the left hand gallery wall, and sculptural works on the right wall. The center of the image shows the gallery's gleaming black floor, with floor sculptures in the distance. A window is at the far end, with greenery seen through it.
Installation view, "Unsettled Structures," 2023, Arts Club of Chicago Credit: Michael Tropea

One of the most enduring legacies of colonialism is found in architecture, often built on the basis of separation. Divide-and-rule policies inform social structures in former colonies like India, where the separation of communities on the basis of class, caste, and creed is linked to the separation of laborers from their points of origin. Forming the basis of an imperialist ontology with material presences that persist in architectures where itinerant bodies exchange glances, verbal cues, and formal and informal gestures, the semiotics of Indigenous norms play out against specters of colonial habitus. It is this morphology and hierarchy of spatial segregation in present-day Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) that inform Rathin Barman’s “Unsettled Structures,” where the artist invites the viewer to investigate notions of place/lessness, homeliness, and dis/placement linked to the migrant condition through cast concrete and brass sculptures.

“Unsettled Structures”
Through 12/22: Tue-Fri 11 AM-6 PM, Sat 11 AM-3 PM, Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario, artsclubchicago.org/exhibition/rathin-barman-unsettled-structures

Completing a degree in engineering in Tripura, Barman moved from Kanchanpura to Calcutta, first in the mid-90s, returning later to call it home in 2003. Fulfilling a BFA and MFA from Rabindra Bharati University, he grew intrigued by the fictionalization of migrant stories. “Due to the government’s prioritization of the partition of West Pakistan over that of East Bengal, a large part of a history of violence remains unobserved,” he explains. From the first partition of Bengal in 1905, to its territorial reorganization and repeal of the division, or Banga Bhanga, in 1930, gradually leading up to the Swadeshi movement and partition of India in 1947, the British imposed communal divisions that cemented a largely Hindu population in West Bengal, pushing a large majority of Muslim Indians to the east, or what is now known as Bangladesh. Barman has engaged political and climate refugees from Orissa, Assam, Bihar, and Dhaka for over two decades, working alongside and living near communities settled in what the city’s municipal corporation identifies as “hazardous homes,” old residential structures deemed unfit for habitation.

A large, gridded brass sculpture is installed on the floor in the right side of the frame. It resembles an arched doorway. To the left is another room of the gallery, through which a patron can be seen.
In Unsettled Structure I (2023), Rathin Barman conjures a near-life-sized model of an inner courtyard of a colonial mansion.
Credit: Michael Tropea

In Calcutta’s northern suburbs of Baranagar, Jorasanko Thakur Bari, and Sovabazar Rajbari, colonial mansions once built to accommodate administrative officers of the raj now accommodate 20 to 30 families, cohabitating in a single home. Partially retained by landowners of bygone affluence and power, the remainder of the house accommodates tenants from displaced migrant populations. Vestiges of imperialism persist—ornate gates, wooden Venetian windows, wrought iron balconies, railings, and masonry walls display symbols of a ruling class, disfiguring and de-territorializing native and undocumented citizen spaces and stories.

Growing up in an area where everyone knew each other by name, “home” is a concept navigated by spatial approximation for Barman. Moving to Calcutta, Barman quickly noticed the calculated language of exclusion within the metropolis. Initially, sharing numerous apartments with friends, he came to question the implied permanence of his concrete surroundings. “Back home, the annual, ritualized repair of bamboo and mud homes during the spring informs my perspective on timelines of ‘maintenance,’” he says, benevolently. Adding and removing elements to accommodate the needs of growing family members, the artist began to question the aesthetics of redesign, residues of bodies confined within architectural processes in Calcutta’s forgotten Dutch colonial mansions. In contrast to the living character of homes in rural India, he noticed land developers unceremoniously seizing limestone houses to replace them with multistory apartment buildings, forever altering an embodied repository of prior meaning. Studying part-ruined, part-salvaged colonial structures through drawings, interviews, photographs, and shared family archives and recipes, Barman began to capture the real, psychic subject within the geometries of architecture, leading to his propensity for sculpture using conventional building material.

Dwelling on the reconfiguration of space within the migrant home, Barman transmits a visceral sense of migratory displacement and rearrangement in Space Counts III-VII (2023). Transporting the viewer to the ever-changing needs of an increasing number of migrants scrambling for “private space” within the city, Barman maps the footprint of internal displacement, animating static concrete tablets by marking X and Y planes in gray-black charcoal stain, indicating moved walls, enclosed balconies, informal aluminum roofing, and sealed windows; here one moment, gone the next. With the home as the primary organ, the artist’s annotative observations are multilayered measurements of time. Inscribed with relief cast and brass inlay detail, wrought from colonial facades, the artist points to terminology that went on to inform legal frameworks on land ownership and occupancy laws, a reminder of the persistence of neocolonial relations within a “new world order” that makes no room for migrant self-determination. 

Two large cast concrete forms sit on the floor of the gallery, a gridded metal form embedded in their bodies. On the wall hang six abstract paintings. A window to the street is seen to the right.
In One, and the Other (2016), the artist addresses the seizure of hazardous homes from their inhabitants.
Credit: Michael Tropea

Retracing steps of redesign, Barman began to count the number of changes he noticed in the multiuse occupancy of colonial homes. In Unsettled Structures I-VI (2023), extrapolated architectural details from former administrative architectural complexes throw stark shadows across high arches and flightless staircases, in a series of wall-mounted cast-concrete and brass sculptures. Interloping profile and plan views, Barman disrupts technical semblance in favor of compositional abstraction, exposing the inflexible semiotics of concrete upon its subjects. With no boundary wall enclosing the inner organs of the imperial body, there is no subject to enact upon, creating a palimpsestic arrangement devoid of domination.

The only unit of control, or the individual “footprint,” appears in the form of three-dimensional brass grids incorporated in sculptures at various scales. In Unsettled Structures I-VI, superimposed, two- to three-inch brass grids form markings of the gestation period between bureaucratic process and erasure that punctuate the emigrant experience. In Unsettled Structure I (2023), Barman conjures a near-life-sized model of an inner courtyard of a colonial mansion. Casting a speculative, monumental brass grid in the Arts Club’s front gallery, the artist performs an act of poiesis, conjuring a space designed for social interaction, recreation, and cross ventilation in colonial India contra Chicago’s Miesian modernism. The dense metal grid renders space once inhabited for pickle-making, craft knowledge exchange, glances between lovers, and naps in the warmth of a winter sun, uninhabitable. With archways overhead, the sculpture seems impenetrable, sparing a single pathway to the rear of the room. The viewer, in this way, must bodily navigate into the heart of the colonial home. Once inside, all single-point perspectives warp and collapse. Archways fold upon each other as vectors of Barman’s navigational allegory close. In the cul-de-sac, all forms of exchange are ruptured in the execution of geometry; there is no reciprocity in the condition of political survival. 

Barman’s use of such haptic phenomena can be seen in earlier installations such as Home, and a Home (2016) at the Singapore Biennale; Defunct Architectural Space III (2018); and Thinking Forest (2019) and Thinking Forest II (2020) at Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata. Framing his viewer by design, he prolongs the realization that we belong in an interconnected network of embodied meaning. 

A trio of floor-seated, iron-oxide tinted, brass-capitular grids find their base in raw, cast meteoric forms in One, and the Other (2016). Addressing the seizure of hazardous homes from their inhabitants, Barman skews the architectural grid, spinning the columnar landscape on a vertice to conjure an evocation of a land grab, as though a singular hand determines the deliberate dislocation of people while new infrastructure is poured atop. No longer cramped with the laughter of children, the hammer of the native laborer tied to Anglo-Indian living, nor overrun by storage spaces, old furniture, and pestilential banyan roots, Barman posits massive ornate European architectures as reread and reimagined, scaled psycho-geographies of those impacted by temporal processes of the legality of migration, co-ownership, and self-governance. Keeping records in and through architectural processes, Barman offers a deeper understanding of intangible traces of the identity of the “alien” resident beyond the detritus of imperial sites of production in contemporary and colonial India.

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