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An initial glance around the new contemporary art exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco yields a gigantic pink dinosaur, staggeringly large photographs covering multiple walls, candle messages slowly melting away, tucked-away alcoves screening films, and some curious sculpture that’s not easily decipherable.

Standing in the middle of one of the galleries, I feel slightly disconnected while examining art that at first glance looks like it could exist in any standard, contemporary art exhibit. But I know this exhibit, “The Matter Within: New Contemporary Art of India,” features Indian artists working with a variety of mediums throughout the diaspora, so I take a closer look.

In our multicultural, increasingly interconnected world, is “Indian” still a useful category—especially when we’re looking at contemporary art? Does birth or ancestry tied to an area between a Himalayan mountain range, an Arabian Sea, and a Bay of Bengal, and deserts to the northwest and hills to the northeast still typify something useful? And if contemporary art can be Indian, is that the most obvious way it should be identified?

Betti-Sue Hertz, director of visual arts at the YBCA, believes the distinction is still valid. “Their role as cultural truth-seekers is especially apt at a moment when India is emerging as a more central player on the world stage,” she says.

The contemporary art scene in India has been picking up steam relatively recently, in comparison to the West.

The artists in the exhibit are exploring private spheres, easily recognized public spaces, and carefully exposing how these private and public spaces are mediated by social conditions in India. Although it’s named “New Contemporary Art of India,” India is not what this exhibit is after. Working with bits of the past and pieces of popular culture, these artists are magnifying small corners of India. YBCA has brought together a scattered collection of artists from India and the diaspora who are making art out of slivers of an idea of what India might be.

One of the featured artists, Rina Banerjee, says that she and her colleagues are interested in the process of transformation. They take what they’ve been given, what they see, what they think and feel, and transform it into a new and more personal reality.  It is more accurate to identify their art as personal explorations in an Indian context.

There is plenty of social and sexual commentary in the exhibit, some of it bordering on the political. Sunil Gupta’s photographs subvert a ’60s French film into an exploration of homosexual love between an Indian immigrant and his French partner.  Tejal Shah’s pictures examine the sometimes gritty underside of transgender and transsexual life in India. Ayisha Abraham’s video explores colonialism and contemporary India through both communal and personal stories. Pushpamala N. explores the idea of identity, female and male, in India. And Gauri Gill’s black-and-white images of Rajasthan, an exploration of a family and a village, are some of the most beautiful pictures in the exhibit.

But it is Dhruv Malhotra’s photographs that haunt me. Taken at night in Indian cities, Malhotra captures people sleeping in public landscapes. Sides of roads, abandoned wedding banquet chairs, and rickshaw stands are the setting for his pictures. He explains his process: “It becomes a very interesting dichotomy and interesting play between public and private space and where the intersection of both is.”

“There are little capsules of privacy. Once you’re asleep, it all becomes your personal space anyway,” he says. Each of Malhotra’s subjects, in the private and somewhat vulnerable act of sleeping, has staked out his or her own space in the midst of very public yet deserted places.

Sudarshan Shetty’s sculpture presides over the main lobby. His large golden man in a business suit hovers off-kilter above the visitors below. I first spied the sculpture during the exhibit’s opening, a rather rollicking party with Jimmy Love as DJ and Dholrhythms as entertainment. I watched as a sea of hipsters danced bhangra beneath Shetty’s man in a golden business suit—the entire scene was fittingly off-kilter. That night I also checked out a large horse and rider looming over the rest of the exhibition by Siddhartha Kararwal. On first inspection, it appears to be made of paper mache, but the maharaja of Baroda (Sayajirao Gaekwad III) sculpture is created out of T-shirts donated to India by an American charity, and bought by the artist on the open market.

Rina Banerjee’s sculptures, particularly her sculpture of Durga, are my favorites. She describes her representation of Durga, a mannequin’s body laid out on a base of amber bottles and encapsulated by large black ribs: “Of the deities that are in the whole realm of Hindusm, (they) are rarely resting. A lot of the more violent, courageous, warlike figures that you see in Hinduism are women.  So my Durga is not fighting, she’s finally resting.”  Banerjee’s resting Durga is a mythical reimagination of a Hindu goddess, supported literally by colonial themes, surrounded by sand, and finally in repose.

The YBCA summary of the exhibition states that “stillness is barely restrained as it strives to erupt into the chaos of lives thrown together.” But it is the chaos of those lives that is reinterpreted and transformed by these artists. The exhibit does not define “new contemporary art of India,” or even give a particularly coherent sense of what contemporary Indian art might be. It does, however, explore “the matter within,” as each of the artists from India and the diaspora examine and reinterpret their personal place and historical legacy.

Now through Jan. 29. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco,. $7 general, $5 senior/student/teacher. (415) 978-2787.www.ybca.org.

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