MELBOURNE, Australia — “It’s a shame that you cannot imagine beyond your silly little flag,” a mellow voice lilts over a cosmic backdrop. As the hypnotic background music speeds up and gently reverberates, space carriers zoom toward an invisible horizon over the snowy peaks of Mount Everest. This is part of Yakthung artist Subash Thebe Limbu’s work in Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ, a group exhibition curated by Bangalore-based Dalit artist Vishal Kumaraswamy, and part of a sustained collaboration between Kumaraswamy and Melbourne arts institution Arts House. Meaning “gathering” in Kannada, Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ was composed of works by 12 artists residing in Australia and South Asia that highlight the atrocities of caste-based discrimination and make a collective statement against colonial power. Standouts included Phuong Ngo’s haunting tableau of Vietnamese displacement, as empty hammocks rock next to blown-up photographs of child refugees, Shareeka Helaluddin’s immersive soundscape in the venue’s clock tower, and Moonis Ahmad’s mourning for disappearance, in which an automated, paperless typewriter typed out the names of the undocumented, as well as Limbu’s above-mentioned sci-fi documentary Ningwasum (2021).
But it’s difficult to single out the “best” work in a show foregrounding notions of collectivism and decoloniality. Like the structures that undergird colonial capitalist power worldwide, the artworks were intertwined; you just had to take it all in and connect the dots. Even if a term such as “decoloniality” may now sound like an empty signifier in the art world, Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ refused to conceptualize the show as an academic object lesson. Neither did it co-opt the politics of decoloniality to aestheticize them. Any skepticism was dispelled upon entry, when visitors realized that the entirety of Arts House, which is known for performance and takes its residence in the austere North Melbourne Town Hall, had been adapted to suit the show, instead of the other way round.
A sense of directness emanated from each work. In the foyer, on the right hand wall and over two columns, was Rahee Punyashloka’s “contextualising the protagonist,” made up of bold black decal letters that proclaim Dalit marginalization. Look down and you’d notice Lara Chamas’s diptych, its parts titled “Pomegranate and Other Ammunition” and “tools that He made, for my mama to feed us” (both 2021), respectively, blurring the line between homely objects and wartime weapons. A black curtain led to another room; as visitors walked through the darkened space into surprising corners, Arts House’s main performance space was transformed into a maze of sorts. Sometimes the works literally spoke to each other, as when Shah’s piece click-clacked against the distorted sounds of Punyashloka’s affecting “Tannerfilm#1” (2023) upstairs. It was not necessarily harmonious, which was the point.
To draw a commonality between Hindu fundamentalist India and settler-colony Australia is not at all far-fetched. From there, we can think of Israel, the United States, South Africa, China, Singapore, and so on. Indigenous and Dalit people everywhere have been subjected to countless depredations, recorded or otherwise. In Australia, a paranoid nation-state still largely wracked by an inward-looking parochial demeanor, Okkoota ಒಕ್ಕೂಟ refreshingly encouraged a globalist view of Indigeneity — despite varying contexts and circumstances, the power structures and immiseration are similar. And it is only through this recognition that we can truly work toward a politics of borderlessness. It’s reminiscent of what the author of the anti-caste urtext Annihilation of Caste, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, once wrote: “This spirit of protecting its own interest is as much a marked feature of the different castes in their isolation from one another as it is of nations in their isolation.”