The Poppy Retake – some background (early text)

Wars. Empires. Colonies. Betrayal. Games. Resources. The ‘Great’ War. The rebellion. The repeat loop.

video art installation by Kooj Chuhan
Connecting World War I, colonialism and computer games with an ongoing systematic war culture

Original presentation at Z-Arts Gallery, 19-28 April 2017 – Details below.

In partnership with ‘From the Shadows of War and Empire‘ documentary history exhibition by Southern Voices, also on show at Z-Arts. Narrates how European powers brought colonies into the war, took resources from these countries and took the war to ‘fronts’ outside Europe. All told from the colonies’ point of view.

Will wars ever end? Was World War One’s ‘Lest We Forget’ a deluded slogan by Europeans who endured enormous suffering yet ignored even greater calamities for their colonies? Is war in fact the default future human addiction as global economics, culture and inequality spell more conflict forever?

The Poppy Retake is a new piece of video installation art by Kooj Chuhan which poses these questions. The artist Kooj uses dramatic sequences of imagery that mix aspects of culture today and recent conflicts with World War I and the historical realities for people in previous colonies such as India, East Africa, The West Indies and Nigeria.

The Poppy Retake.Who knows that the first and last shots of World War One were fired not in Europe, but in Africa? Or that 1.5 million soldiers from India fought for the British? The installation will be exhibited together with an extensive series of documentary history panels created by Southern Voices, titled ‘From the Shadows of War and Empire’. In all this will present a unique exhibition taking an African and South Asian perspective on World War I, colonialism and the role of the British colonies within it.

Artistic support team:
Actor – Tracey Zengeni
Interview appearance by Sikh elder – Maluk Singh Chuhan
Sound Recordist and Second Production Assistant – Jaydev Mistry
First Production Assistant – Aidan Jolly
Event co-manager – Rosalind Sandhu-Cartlich
Creative social media – Maya Chowdhry
Video Documentation – Mazaher R
Southern Voices partnership coordinator – Kirit Patel

Original presentation at Z-Arts Gallery, 19-28 April 2017
335 Stretford Road Manchester M15 5ZA 0161 226 1912
Open daily 9am-9pm except Saturday 9am-5pm and Sunday closed

PREVIEW: Tues 18th April 6pm
Speakers: Susan Chieni, Kirit Patel / Poetry: Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi / Music: Serge Tebu & Emmanuela Yogolelo.
FREE ENTRY but booking is strongly advised:

WORKSHOP + ARTIST’S TALK: Sat 22nd April 2pm – with Southern voices members, and the artist Kooj Chuhan
FREE ENTRY but booking is strongly advised:

World War One and European colonies

Since the centenary for World War I began in 2014, digital artist Kooj Chuhan has been working with the group Southern Voices in Manchester researching how the British colonies were involved in this war and how they were affected. This work has informed and developed The Poppy Retake installation. The Great War of 1914-1918 is usually seen as a ‘European war’ fought on the European mainland with 16 million Europeans being killed. This is well recorded and most commemoration activities focus on this. Who knows that the first and last shots were fired not in Europe but in Africa? Britain could not have survived the First World War without an incredible scale of recruitment from the colonies: 1.5 million soldiers came from India alone, over a quarter of the number from Britain. Millions more worked for the war including in the official Labour Corps.

The fact that this war was fought between European countries who brought their colonies into the war, who took people, food, animals, commodities and finance from their empires to support this inter-European conflict is more-or-less invisible. Where there is recognition, it is framed as a praiseworthy contribution of colonial subjects to the war effort, yet in reality this was a massive enforced contribution. It involved 4 million non-European, non-white people who fought for Britain, France, Germany and their allies, as well as millions of civilians who laboured at war work or whose communities and economies were disrupted or torn apart by the hardships of the war. Their stories have remained in the shadows.

The Poppy Retake – Art that can re-interpret and re-situate

Kooj hopes to get people to shift from the usual and massive stereotypical icons of ww1 and understand its part in the ongoing process that has got us where we are today, and how young people are influenced and co-opted into cynical acceptance of conflict yet remain oblivious to colonial histories and geopolitical power interests. This war was fuelled by rivalry based much on competing colonial portfolios between European countries, and colonies were enormously affected in critical ways during and after the war.

However, Kooj is quick to point out that, “As an artist my job is not to stuff a load of history down people’s throats, but to draw out a human experience in simple and metaphoric ways that bring people closer to the underlying meanings and hidden agendas of the war.”

The Poppy Retake installation depicts a never ending loop which we can’t get out of, played out through a current character with a refugee connection from today. The work is inspired by resistance to wars and colonialism in history especially the WWI period focusing on narratives that have often been suppressed such as schoolteacher John MacLean from Scotland who was instrumental in the Clyde revolts during and after WWI, or Indian revolutionaries such as Kartar Singh Sarabha, or the many women from East Africa whose families died from a famine made worse by European demands for resources to support the war. Within the installation we encounter hints of these people and events but we remain stuck in a continual loop of wars, games and colonialism which appears to have no end, driven along by a background tempo and video loops which play with ideas of nationalism, patriotism, dissidence, loss and war game videos.

Remembrance art is not enough

Much of the art produced around the centenary focuses on trying ‘to take us there’ to what it was like in a kind of re-enactment manner, or plays with elements of narratives from the time. It is a struggle to see anything which addresses the enormous colonial experience and involvement in the war, or anything which really tries to connect it up with ongoing and related narratives to be able to begin to ask more fundamental and geopolitical questions. There is a sense of these art works focusing simply on what happened and almost entirely from a European prism, but not what it really meant or has further evolved into.

The Poppy Retake tries to address this appalling gap and give us some critical layers with which we might grasp some of the depth of what such wars mean now. While Kooj touches on difficult issues which have been going for some time, such as the red vs white Poppy and the Flanders poem, he importantly includes the rarely visible issues of the suppression of colonial subjects and of contemporary militaristic culture, combining them to compelling effect. His artistic approach has a particular interest in combining documentary footage with semi fictional creative metaphors and characters.

The exhibition will appeal to lovers of socially conscious art and people interested in history alike. It will have a particular resonance for communities whose ancestry stems from countries which were previously British colonies, especially India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the West Indies, Nigeria and the East Africa region.

About the artist

Kooj Chuhan has worked as an artist and creative producer based in Manchester for over 30 years, specialising in digital media and film making. He was the first artist in residence at Manchester United FC, and won an award for a project connecting refugees, climate change and digital art. Being born in India has given Kooj a particular interest in a range of migrant experience as well as a variety of global issues. His work has been exhibited across the UK in galleries including the ICA in London, the Arnolfini in Bristol and Castlefield Gallery in Manchester. Kooj has also shown work internationally including the USA, France, Canada and India.

Kooj has worked with Southern Voices among other groups for many years, and was very taken by the proposal to work on World War One from such an important point of view which has remained mostly invisible to the wider public. Coming from a Sikh background, Kooj also has direct memories passed down to him via his parents of the kind of problematic engagements with army recruitment they recall taking place during such wartime. As a result Kooj has developed The Poppy Retake art installation project to emerge from the research with Southern Voices and resonating with his personal connection.

Historical Documentary Exhibition ‘From The Shadows Of War And Empire’ by Southern Voices

Alongside The Poppy Retake installation will be a set of educational panels titled ‘From The Shadows Of War And Empire’ created by Southern Voices about the issues around World War I, colonialism and the perspectives of the colonies.

2014 marked 100 years since the start of the World War One (WWI). In a very real way, this was the first global conflict, with war between the European Empires drawing in well over 100 countries.

This project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, examines the involvement of the British colonies (India, West Indies, Nigeria and East Africa) in WWI and the impact the war had on those countries. Southern Voices look at European imperialism, the devastating losses on the colonies’ own ‘home fronts’ and subsequent strengthening movements for self-rule and independence.

The impact and views of the people in the ‘colonised countries’ are either neglected or absent in commemorative events. This exhibition provides a more balanced account of this global war than is commonly available or known.

“It’s absolutely brilliant Southern Voices are contributing towards the building of a much needed hub of critical community learning that helps to re-balance the dominant historical narrative, where the contributions made by peoples of colour have been wilfully omitted.”
– Dr Ornette D Clennon, The Research Centre for Social Change and Community Wellbeing, Manchester Metropolitan University.

“As far as possible, we’ve tried to let the facts and the people tell their story. It’s surprising how different World War One looks through another perspective.”
– Deyika Nzeribe, Southern Voices Management Committee.

More information about ‘From the Shadows of War and Empire’ exhibition at

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The artist Kooj dedicates ‘The Poppy Retake’ to the memory of his son Naseeb Chuhan, a young man who sadly passed away before his time.

The Poppy Retake - British West Indies regiment

The British West Indies regiment during World War One.

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