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At the Menil, an Exhibition Inspired by Gandhi

The show maps depictions of nonviolence in art over 14 centuries

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Some of Gandhi’s earthly possessions. COURTESY JAMES OTIS/GANDHISERVE

Some of Gandhi’s earthly possessions.

COURTESY JAMES OTIS/GANDHISERVE

f Gandhi’s complex life and legacy can’t be tidily summed up by his most famous, and clichéd, maxim—“an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”—it’s at least safe to say that the Menil Collection in Houston is currently seeing everything pretty clearly. A new exhibition there traces the theme of nonviolent change in visual arts, ranging from a 7th-century granite Buddha to a new work by Theaster Gates made from lengths of decommissioned fire hoses.

“The idea for this show really started when I was a teenager and read Gandhi’s autobiography,” says Menil director Josef Helfenstein. “I saw the famous photograph of his last possessions and just never forgot it.” A 1998 encounter with Indian architect Charles Correa, who designed the memorial museum at Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, led Helfenstein to begin developing an exhibition, an idea later encouraged by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma.

The result is “Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence,” organized by Helfenstein in consultation (through years of Skype sessions) with Indian artist Amar Kanwar, whose installation The Sovereign Forest (2010–12) gets a gallery to itself. The show’s nearly 150 works address themes such as Gandhi’s predecessors, nonviolent resistance in action, and related religious traditions.

“The challenge is how everything fits together,” says Helfenstein. Clear linkages—across galleries, centuries, and continents—soon emerge: Matthew Brady’s sepia-toned photos of Abraham Lincoln rhyme with the ink portraits of Nelson Mandela made by Marlene Dumas; the motorized Prayer Wheel (1954) of Jean Tinguely shares a wiry agility with a Zarina woodcut; Barnett Newman’s boldly bisected canvas finds its echo in Gates’s hoses. “It’s not an easy show,” notes Helfenstein, “It’s ambitious but also precise. Every piece by a living artist was carefully selected with that artist, and it creates an intense dialogue.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 44 under the title “Ultra(non)Violence.”

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