Part documentary, part visual poem, Suneil Sanzgiri’s video installation at the Brooklyn Museum examines colonial resistance across India and Africa
Huddled against the west coast of India, Goa is the country’s smallest state, and one of its most prosperous. For over four centuries, it was a Portuguese colony—an enclave among the empire’s handful of South Asian territories until 1961, 14 years after India gained independence from Great Britain. Goa is also the ancestral homeland of the Dallas-born artist Suneil Sanzgiri, whose heritage has served as inspiration for a number of experimental short films, such as At Home But Not At Home, which premiered at Film Festival Rotterdam in 2020.
Today, Sanzgiri opens his first solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Suneil Sanzgiri: Here the Earth Grows Gold continues to explore colonial legacies in Goa, while venturing further afield to Angola—another former Portuguese colony—to compare diasporic experiences. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a new film, Two Refusals (Would We Recognize Ourselves Unbroken?). As in his previous work, Sanzgiri employs a rigorous language of found footage, interviews, and animation with a 16mm flourish.
“Sanzgiri is investigating memory, and the film unfolds like a half-forgotten story, trying to remember itself.”
At 34 minutes, the film is Sanzgiri’s longest to date, and most ambitious in its presentation. Two Refusals calls for two screens—and there’s plenty to see. Across the pair of channels, the artist juxtaposes interviews with elders who lived through Portuguese occupation with found footage from filmmakers like Flora Gomes and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. Elsewhere, he shows us opposing perspectives of the same object; a blurry photograph of an Indian family, for instance, floats in a pond on the adjacent screen. An interview with the Goan freedom fighter Sharada Sawaikar is interspersed throughout the film, in which she describes her imprisonment and torture by the Portuguese authorities. Hints of a character, named Maï, appear in a narration penned by poet Sham-e-Ali Nayeem. Otherwise, the film is uninterested in traditional storytelling devices: It just happens.
The diptych presentation of Two Refusals is attention-grabbing—a smart move on Sanzgiri’s part, considering the film’s non-narrative approach. Despite its sub-60-minute runtime, it takes a circuitous route through history, criss-crossing the globe; footage of Lisbon cable cars follows Mumbai street scenes, before venturing toward the Angolan countryside. Encountering the artist’s experimental techniques feels like parsing through a dense postmodern text. Sanzgiri is investigating memory, and the film unfolds like a half-forgotten story, trying to remember itself.
But the journey is more important than the destination. In Here the Earth Grows Gold, Sanzgiri gives viewers the opportunity to remember, even if that’s something they never knew to begin with.