‘The wall of conflicts’ display at the Conflictorium, 2018, image by Shubhsadhwani, licensed under the Creative Commons
MA Curating Collections and Heritage student Preksha Kothari reviews the Conflictorium in Ahmedabad, praising its politically engaged role in Indian political life.
Time and again, conflict and dissent have been viewed through the lens of caution, and commonly, as concepts that are dangerous to society. The museum setting is often uncomfortable in addressing notions of politics and activism. However, a unique museum in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India has sprung up with these very ideas at its core.
Nestled in an old suburb of Ahmedabad, the Conflictorium is the brainchild of Avni Sethi and is supported by three social organisations, Janvikas, the Centre for Social Justice and Navsarjan. Housed in the Gool Lodge, the museum strives to be a place where one can be introspective and come face to face with conflict in the inner self and their environment. The museum encourages its audiences to engage with and express discord rather than ignore it.
The Conflictorium attempts to trace the violent history of the state of Gujarat, which in popular memory is often perceived as a peace-loving region. The 2002 Gujarat riots, which are considered the bloodiest clash between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India, are seen as an anomaly. However, Sethi aims to bring people into confrontation with the oppressive and brutal past of the state and show how it has been largely ignored in Indian society. The museum sits in the vicinity of places of worship for different religious faiths and is located close to residents of underrepresented communities. One glance at the Gool Lodge and it is clear that the museum team has deliberately not gentrified the space and kept it open to everyone. This is in tandem with the core belief of the Conflictorium. The exhibits are not kept in vitrines and rope barriers are not present either. This allows visitors to touch each object and craft their own conversation with it.
The museum comprises both permanent and temporary displays. The permanent exhibits include the ‘Conflict Timeline’, ‘Empathy Alley’, and ‘Moral Compass’ among others. The Conflict Timeline portrays the history of clashes since the making of Gujarat. The Empathy Alley contains silhouettes of important political and cultural figures in the making of the country, including M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, representing how different ideologies were expressed in pre- and post-independent India. Moral Compass is a room where an authentic copy of the Indian Constitution is placed, openly accessible to any visitor. While the world’s longest-written constitution is often mistaken for a religious text, the museum hopes to make people aware of their rights through Moral Compass and make them conscious citizens.
Apart from these displays, there are poignant community exhibits that invite audiences to participate while visiting the museum. The Memory Lab acts as a path for visitors to leave their deepest feelings inside empty glass jars, offering a safe space where they can write without judgment. The Sorry Tree is a sacred fig, called peepul ka ped in Hindi. It is located in the museum premise and visitors can hang “I am sorry” notes on the branches, based on the belief that forgiveness is a powerful feeling. Recently, the museum has hosted temporary exhibitions such as “Death and Disease,” which explores the issues of the caste system in India with an allegory to the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides exhibitions, the museum invites artists, poets and writers to host talks and workshops on themes ranging from gender binaries to forests and wildlife.
What started as a college project for Avni Sethi has transformed into an internationally recognised institution that is spearheading a movement for society. Sethi was awarded the Jane Lombard Prize for Art and Social Justice 2020-2022 by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. Also, the Conflictorium recently opened another space in the city of Raipur, serving as a medium for difficult conversations to be had in that city. Here’s to hoping that the many more such Conflictoriums find their inception in different parts of India, and maybe the world.