Eight paintings connected together, depicting war times at 'One Tiger or Another' exhibition
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A story about stories: One Tiger or Another

17 January 2023

By Aiman Rizvi

One Tiger or Another, on view at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art until 21 January 2023, navigates the shifting nature of historical truths.

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Walking into the exhibition One Tiger or Another, I found myself thinking of Edouard Glissant. In his book Poetics of Relation (1990), Glissant argues for a right to opacity for everyone — against the rigidity and reductiveness of the illusion of absolute understanding. He argues that even when we accommodate for difference amongst people and cultures, we still attempt to reduce things to make them transparent, a function of our desire to ‘understand’ difference. But this reduction depends on an inherent hierarchy, since it measures difference against a scale — a notion of a norm — which can then be used to make judgements. What is needed instead, Glissant writes, is opacity: the opaque is not the obscure, it is that which cannot be reduced.

One Tiger or Another, curated by Tom Eccles and Mark Rohan Rappolt, is an exhibition that navigates histories that refuse to be reduced or immobilised, constantly shifting and reinventing themselves. Conceptualised as part of the inaugural edition of Rubaiyat, a quadrennial exhibition series that takes a multidisciplinary approach to ‘overlapping realities and truths and the ways in which those who are muted or without a voice make their truths heard’— One Tiger or Another is a story about how stories can be retold, and how they shape our shifting histories. The exhibition takes us into the world of two tigers. We encounter Tipu Sultan (Sultan Fateh Ali Sahab Tipu, 1751–1799), celebrated across history as the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, brought to life in the exhibition space through a combination of historical and contemporary objects that map the shifting narrativisations of him as either a hero or a villain.

Tipu Sultan’s legacy is subject to immense debate and political contestation — some describe him as India’s first freedom fighter, others would label him a despot. Leftists hail his resistance against colonial rule, Hindu nationalists declare him to be a tyrant. The shifts in the stories about him have mirrored shifts in history and power. One Tiger or Another archives these dynamics in material terms – and transforms them into a spatial experience that you can step into and navigate.

Image of a man fighting a tiger.

This widely available souvenir postcard, showing Tipu battling a tiger by hand, wearing a suit of Western, medieval-looking armour demonstrates how the mythology surrounding the young ruler evolved into a curious fusion of Eastern and Western traditions.

The second tiger we encounter is brought to life by a two-channel video by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen (b. 1976). The work draws from what the curators describe as a ‘19th-century print by Heinrich Leutemann titled Interrupted Road Surveying in Singapore, which, based on an event from 1835, captures (the imagined) moment in which a road survey is interrupted by a tiger attack.’ Ho’s interpretation of that moment provides broader commentary on the shifting nature of how colonial encounters have been narrativized over the course of history. For some, the road surveyor once represented modernity, taming the wild topographies housing the ‘other,’ while for some others, the tiger might represent the indigenous forms of resistance fighting back against colonising missions. The video explores the shifting shape of the tiger in national mythmaking, and the opposing mythologies to come out of colonial encounters.

A tiger leaps across a burning sun.

Ho Tzu Nyen (Singapore, b. 1976). Still image from One or Several Tigers, 2018. Two-channel video. Image courtesy of the artist.

The tales of both tigers are deeply embedded in the boundary between the coloniser and the colonised, and the shifting conceptualisations of each as either righteous and brave, or barbaric and violent. Tipu Sultan is especially emblematic of this precarity, narrativized as both the coloniser and the colonised depending on the vantage of the storyteller. By directing us to the tensions between a range of material objects and visual art — historical artefacts, contemporary art, posters and objects from popular culture — the exhibition questions the notion of the world being made up of centres and peripheries, and an understanding of art that involves fixed or stable perspectives. It asks: How do truths around culture and history develop? And how long do they remain ‘truths’? These questions are even more interesting when applied to Glissant’s concept of the right to opacity. Certain histories are perhaps irreducible, and the lens of historical truth and transparency too reductive to contain them.

Rubaiyat’s curatorial vision creates the conditions for such questions to be raised in evocative ways. The thematic framing is inspired by Qatar’s geographical positioning as a crossroads for cultural discourse and exchange, drawing from the process of pearl formation as a metaphor for the development of culture. Rubaiyat examines the introduction of irritants into a system, such as sand into an oyster, that are then absorbed by the host, turning into something new. The exhibition aims to uncover how that which appears to be a whole is in fact a coming together of different materials and realities over time.

In 2024, Rubaiyat will come alive as a multisite exhibition across Qatarincluding heritage sites, sites of ecological and environmental interest, shopping malls and markets, and conventional exhibition spaces.

Aiman Rizvi is an Editorial Specialist at Qatar Museums.