The Work

Alana Hunt

The sharing of pain is one of the essential preconditions for a refinding of dignity and hope. Much pain is unshareable. But the will to share pain is shareable. And from that inevitably inadequate sharing comes a resistance.

— John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket

C ups of nun chai is a search for meaning in the face of something so brutal it appears absurd. It is an absurd gesture when meaning itself becomes too much to bear. It is also a memorial, grounded in the killing of at least 118 people during protests that roiled Indian-controlled Kashmir during the summer of 2010.

This work is born out of a juncture that is as personal as it is political, as geographically and culturally dislocated as it is grounded.

In early 2010 I glimpsed the way death from political violence becomes normalized in Kashmir, one part of the everyday fabric of life. Men lured to the mountains with the promise of jobs were murdered by soldiers and passed off as militants (for a reward). A cable TV operator was assassinated one evening in his home. A political worker was killed one morning in a market place. Several people, including children, had already been killed in Kashmir by India’s armed forces in 2010, and the region simmered with anger. So when Tufail Ahmad Mattoo was fatally hit by a tear gas canister as the seventeen year-old made his way home from tuition, Kashmir revolted. Hundreds of thousands of people came out on the streets in protests demanding independence from Indian rule. Over 118 people were killed by the state in almost as many days.

In mid 2010 I returned to Australia after almost three years in New Delhi, a time in which I had begun to visit and form friendships with people in Kashmir. Suddenly I found myself in Sydney watching the number of dead in Kashmir rise day by day. I communicated online with friends in Kashmir, caught under conditions of a curfew they knew all too well, and whose experiences were never featured on media broadcasts that counted only the dead. Meanwhile, Australia barely took note; amidst the 24-hour news cycle there was a gaping silence, and other lives simply went on. Indifferent. Unaware. Elsewhere.

Cups of nun chai is a requiem for those who died in Kashmir in 2010. It began as a gesture towards the people of Kashmir who feel and know this loss the most, and an attempt to render tangible what so many outside Kashmir do not know. The work moves against the normalization of violence, in an attempt to mark this loss, and to grasp at what surrounds it. It is an archive of small moments, remembered within a terrain shaped by the persistent violence of colonization and nation making.

Cups of nun chai unfolded over two years of tea and conversation with 118 people, most of them in Australia, some in India and finally back in Kashmir. There were no rules, so long as each person understood their cup of nun chai formed one part of a growing memorial for those who were killed during the summer of 2010 in Kashmir. Navigating the time and space crafted by these cups of tea—at times with complete strangers—each conversation drew on the specific individual, and on its specific location, tracing connections with Kashmir across the shared global heritage of colonial violence, and particularly within South Asia and Australia. Also, and most importantly, forms of resistance to it—from political coups and mass mobilization, to poetry, rap music and journalism, to the vitality of the domestic sphere, and the power of dreams and gesture.

Each cup of tea was photographed and each conversation written about from memory, and these images and words accumulated progressively online, and occasionally in exhibitions. In June 2016, on the anniversary of Tufail Ahmad Mattoo’s killing, Cups of nun chai began to circulate in the Srinagar-based newspaper Kashmir Reader. Like an undercover exhibition slipping within the folds of a newspaper, reaching tens of thousands of people each week over a period of eleven months.

Image by Faisal Khan

Amidst a renewed government crackdown on civil society following the killing of the popular rebel commander Burhan Wani, Kashmir Reader was banned in October 2016 and remained out of circulation for three uncertain months. The newspaper ban is just one of the many and ongoing pressures the Indian state exerts on Kashmir’s fragile, yet determined, media fraternity. When the newspaper ban was lifted, the serialisation of Cups of nun chai continued. In this space Cups of nun chai found itself published amid daily news in the pages of Kashmir Reader, as the events of 2016-17 collided with the memory of 2010, blurring the formal lines between art work and historical document.

In 2017 the 100+ newspapers containing the serialisation of Cups of nun chai were scanned for archival purposes and the original newspapers bound into three volumes with accompanying texts by Hilal Mir, former editor of Kashmir Reader, and writer Arif Ayaz Parrey. The contents of these newspapers have been shaped, in part, by Cups of nun chai, and by world events, by Kashmiri journalists, by the actions of the state and civilians, and by advertisers whose very business enable the production and circulation of the newspaper itself. Together they paint a telling picture.

Like an ever growing memory, Cups of nun chai has brewed into various iterations; tea, conversation, website, newspaper serial, exhibition, archive, reading and discussions, that have circulated through exhibitions and events in Australia, in the United States, in Indonesia, in Kashmir, India and Pakistan.

In 2020 Cups of nun chai was published in full by New Delhi based Yaarbal Books. And reprinted in 2021.

Further Reading

A conversation about Kashmir Alana Hunt and Sanjay Kak for Artlink magazine, 2018

Rethinking the Nation State, Reactivating Art a podcast with The Polis Project, 2019

Political Art and the Forensic Traces of Atrocity, Malay Firoz in un Projects, 2019

Nun chai and conversation: An Australian artist’s stories of Kashmir, by Majid Maqbool, The Wire, 27th October 2016.

The AU Interview: Alana Hunt Western Australia, by Emily Booth in The AU Review, October 2013.

De-normalising the ‘normal’ in Kashmir, by Nawaz Gul Qanungo in Kashmir Reader (24.09.12) and Times of India: Crest Edition (22.09.12)

A Thousand Words (about photography): Ballarat International Foto Biennale, ed. Esther Gyorki, issue 02, December 2013.

History

Cups of nun chai won the 2017 Incinerator Award for Art and Social Change (Melbourne), was nominated for an Infinity Award with the International Centre for Photography (New York), a highly commended finalist in the 2013 Blake Prize (Sydney) and numerous other art awards.

In 2018 the work was the topic of a series of guest lectures Alana gave in the US at Brown, Tufts and Indiana universities, and has been presented at conferences including Project Anywhere’s Everywhere and Elsewhere at Parsons: New School (New York) and AAANZ Aesthetics Politics and Histories: The Social Context of Art at RMIT (Melbourne).

The work has also appeared at the Makassar International Writers Festival (2018), Darwin Fringe Festival, Centre for Stories (Perth), Frontyard Projects (Sydney) and Quantum City an international public arts festival in Karachi (2019). Cups of nun chai has also been featured as an instagram take over with The Polis Project and as part of the Art in Conflict research project with the Australian War Memorial.

The work has been featured in numerous publications including the New Left Review, Aperture, Third Text, The Caravan, Believer among many others accessible here.