[Review] Hawala, Paradise Row Projects — Connie Sjödin

There’s one week left to visit Hawala, a group exhibition featuring artists of South Asian descent, working across sculpture, sound, painting and photography. It’s the first exhibition since the relaunch of Paradise Row Projects, which previously lived on the eponymous street in East London from 2006–2014.

Paradise Row is no longer a commercial gallery, but a Community Interest Company (CIC), whose profits are split between exhibiting artists and curators, with 50% set aside for social and environmental charities. Visiting the exhibition recently, a word I kept hearing to describe the project was “grassroots”.

The word conjures visions of earth, growth and local ecologies. “Grassroots” denotes action that seeds in a specific location, in response to a specific need. Only compare “grassroots” activism to “blue-sky” thinking and the earthy, material impulse becomes clear. 

Having moved to 2 Bourdon St, Paradise Row is an attempt to re-turf the marble parquets of the Mayfair gallery district with a new action every two months or so, inviting different curators, artists and audiences to take root in the space. Starting in September 2021, the project will last one year.

The current exhibition Hawala is a fitting opener, taking as its name the grassroots ledger- and honour-based money system that has existed in South Asia and its diasporic communities since the eighth century. Spreading along the Silk Road, hawala responded to the need to move large amounts of money over enormous distances without the danger of carrying actual wads of cash. 

Paradise Row Projects | top left: Sunil Gupta, Priya, Savitri Cinema (2007)

Like a ledger-book, the exhibition swaps pieces in and out over its month-and-a-half hanging. Guarded out front by the head-tilted stare of Sunil Gupta’s Priya, Savitri Cinema (2007), the small exhibition space currently features textural paintings by the show’s curator, Shezad Dawood, and a variety of work by his chosen artists. A melting, curling pair of hands by Anousha Payne hang under a similarly crumpled face / mask – all ceramics, wood and metal toggles in an elastic constellation / supplication.

From left to right: Shezad Dawood, Mating Tigers, 2021, acrylic and vintage textile on canvas; Sunil Gupta, Lodhi Gardens, 1987, archival inkjet print

Two paintings by Haroun Hayward contain his abstract spin on early Mughal miniatures, rhythmic abstract shapes and what looks like a textile intervention – but is actually the result of a painstaking process of laying threads of oil pastel down on the canvas to create a glossy tapestry, harking back to the artist’s textile-filled childhood home. With other artists including Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Haroon Mirza, Jasleen Kaur, and Rithika Pandey, the exhibition provides a quick glimpse into some of today’s prominent artists examining diaspora identities, mythology, rhythm and ecologies.

From left to right: Haroun Hayward, Tainted Love (Entrance to a Lane), 2021, and A Painting for Graham Sutherland and Frankie Knuckles, 2021, both oil paint, oil stick, oil pastel and gesso on wood panel; Rithika Pandey, The Visitation Dream, 2021, acrylic on canvas

Notably, in the corner of the room sits a VR headset, where the visitor can jump from the IRL exhibition to its metaverse simulation, the fictional Mangrove Institute of Contemporary Art (MICA), nested in a mangrove swamp and hosted by Somnium Space VR. The virtual MICA is being sold as a single NFT, with 50% of profits paid forward to Dawood’s chosen charities: Conservation Action Trust, India, and WWF Pakistan. 

Tying blockchain back to hawala, the sale is an intervention into the murky NFT world, experimenting with ‘community-driven applications that enable us to resist the formation of blockchain giants’, as an accompanying essay on the project website states. Despite their potential for a new, grassroots art market, NFTs have received ongoing criticism from environmentalists, with estimates equating an 100-work NFT edition sold with Ethereum (the same blockchain hosting Somnium Space) to the same carbon footprint as someone living in the EU for an entire year, according to A guide to ecofriendly CryptoArt (NFTs) by the artist Memo Akten. However, the Hawala application, with a part of proceeds returning directly to the same mangroves threatened by current environmental collapse, shows an imaginative attempt to steer the speeding NFT wagon onto a more positive path.

Like a little green shoot sprouting through the grey, bland concrete art world, it will be fascinating to see what Paradise Row Projects grows into. The next collective to take root at the Mayfair space will be curated by Indigenous Brazilian curator Sandra Benites, with assistance from Anita Ekman, 11 November 2021 – 15 January 2022.

Hawala, curated by Shezad Dawood, is On until 29 October 2021.

Paradise Row Projects
2 Bourdon Street
London, W1K 3PA

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Connie Sjödin is Connie is an art writer living in Oxford. She is also researching a PhD on Algerian art in the 1960s.