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Madhavan wanted to know more about Sunil’s involvement with the Black Arts Movement, and Sunil explained that it was formed to counter the absence of coloured and Asian art within established gallery, museum and pedagogic spaces. The movement that happened in the ’70s created a space where Sunil was able to address his identity as a diaspora artist and a queer person.
It was an interesting visit with varied reactions to Sunil’s work and process.
Exhuming the past, we ponder the present
As Rehaab Allana slips on his gloves, we all take a sharp intake of breath, he is about to unveil one of the post precious and historically important original photo-albums, belonging to 1857 and it is an event that calls for much caution and delicate handling, given the aura that surrounds this historic relic of the past.
There, lying in a mundane looking Godrej cupboard is a leather bound album with the original diary of civil surgeon John Nicholas Tressider (also spelt Tresidder) attached to it in a secol sleeve – secol sleeves are acid free and ideal for storing and protecting photographs against the ravages of time. This relic was bought at an auction where Alkazi outbid a member of the British Royalty to bring this piece of history back to India. Tressider was a civil surgeon who lived in Kanpur, (Caunpore) and he witnessed the 1857 Mutiny. Many of the images that we had the privilege of seeing were from that time.
It is Saturday the 16th of October and we are at the Ebrahim Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, in GK-2 and curator of the archive Rehaab Allana has graciously agreed to give us a short tour of the wonders inside the wonderland of Alkazi’s labour of love. The foundation which was formed in 2003, is built on a home owned by an old Sikh couple who sold the property to Alkazi and he then had the building torn down and rebuilt. Rehaab tells us that the collection was first housed in London, but it was very hard for scholars to travel abroad and Alkazi along with Allana decided to move the entire collection back to India. Lucky for us!
The vintage prints that mostly belong to the 19th century, are important because they “document the progress of socio-political life in the subcontinent, through the interdisciplinary fields of architecture, anthropology, topography and archaeology starting from the 1840s and leading up to the rise of Modern India and the Independence Movement of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
In addition the collection holds images that reflect India’s cross-border relationship with Nepal, Burma Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the rest of South East and East Asia.
Prior to the unveiling of the majestic Tressider album, we were also treated to a collection of Matzene’s photographs of the Royal family of Nepal, taken during 1890-95. An artist like Mansi enjoys the portraits form an ethnographic point of view, because she finds a resonance with her own work, we commented on the hairstyles, jewellery, dress and postures of these studio portraits. Edson, Madhavan and Ajay marvelled at the technical excellence of the portraits some of which were platinum prints.” (quoted from the Alkazi Foundation site to read more log on to http://www.acparchives.com/pageone.html)
However the Tressider album kept us enthralled for a longer half of the day given that there is so much history and controversy embedded within it. One of the most controversial and noteworthy photographs was taken by Felice Beato an Italian photographer and it is a large print of an array of skeletons scattered in front of a Grecian looking building.
To quote Rehaab’s article from Tehelka
Felice Beato (1834-c.1907), also known as the first ‘war photographer’, owing in part, to his images of the Crimean War, engages in India in a large venture to record all the significant sites affected by the ravages of 1857, illustrating landscapes of a decaying dynasty, fading away before the onslaught of the British victory. Certain sites, therefore, achieved iconic status through repeated representations that drew on memories of siege: Kashmere Gate in Delhi, the Residency complex in Lucknow, and the Sati Chowra Ghat in Kanpur. Preserved carefully as a memorial to the British, these sites were photographed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Beato first emerged on the Indian scene in February 1858. His collections became easier to circulate as the technique of the albumen print evolved at the end of the 1850s, facilitating the production of multiple copies. When Felice Beato, Samuel Bourne and others laid their images out as albums, they also laid out the potential for resurrecting recollections of the Uprising, both for the participants of the event and the English public. By evoking these memories for families and military men, they were able to satisfy the interests and imagination of the British, recreating for the colonisers a moment of catastrophe but a triumph nonetheless won. (To read more visit //www.tehelka.com/story_main26.asp?filename=hub020307_1857History.asp)
For us what was remarkable about this experience was not only the content but also the condition of the images. One could even see that one of the images had begun to fade with the ravages of time and since some of the chemicals used to print the image could not withstand time. It left us all thoughtful and contemplative….to be continued.
Often the debate around photography, when discussed by a group of enthusiastic photographers, tends to move towards how this image was taken, and ‘why not like this’ and ‘why like that?’. This is unfortunate, given that the act of taking a photograph is a loaded one and it is often more interesting to know why a particular photograph was taken, rather than how. However in this particular instance, where Khoj has invited four very diverse kinds of photographers for their residency, the matter of how the photograph was taken tends to become a very important one.
On one hand, there is Ajay’s technology-driven photography that uses expensive equipment—a digital camera attached to telescope and mounted on an equatorial tripod that moves counter-clockwise to the earth. This is so that the camera captures not just star trails, which it does when just mounted to a tripod but when it is mounted to an equatorial tripod, it can capture deep sky objects like nebula. As Ajay explained to us during his talk, it takes many hours to prepare and set up his equipment, clear the spot and suite up to sit out in freezing cold for a night of star gazing. All this needs to be done before he can begin to take those photographs. In the 1990s, when he began his astro-photography, he used an SLR camera with a film inside. He would have to wait for days before he could see the results of his efforts and often he would return from a trip in the mountains with no rewards at all, since the film might have gotten exposed or the shots were not well focused and so on. For him technology is a boon and his work is closely associated with the advancement of it, given that the digital camera allows him to view the results of his time lapse photographs immediately and the required alternations can be done immediately. His journey is one that looks into many time zones where he believes his images are a part of history because of the time differences taken for light to travel to earth. The results of a successful photograph depend on how well he understands and masters technology. He firmly believes that his pursuit is of a scientific nature and while one may chose to impute artistic readings into the works or begin to philosophise about how one is but a speck upon the earth in relation to the galaxy, Ajay’s process remains one that is not emotionally driven by the Bressonian decisive moment, but one of deep contemplative observation.
On the other hand is Madhavan and Edson who follow the aesthetics of Arte Povera and create art by using match box and shoe box cameras. Arte Povera is an Italian art movement of the 1960s that dreamed of a revolutionary art, free of convention, the power of structure, and the market place, by using impoverished or even waste materials. While they have been expanding their own body of work by photographing the city with these remarkably low tech cameras, they have also been work-shopping with working class children around the area of Khirkee. This group of kids have literally ‘signed up’ to do various art related activities like nukkad natak (street theatre) and rap and break dance performances, and they have revolutionised the way they are perceived by the upper class families, who also live in the area through these public art acts and interventions.
The questions raised during the FICA talk by photographer and environmentalist Ravi Agarwal, of whether the act of placing a low-tech camera in the hand of a working class child, really dismantle the social hierarchies of the photographer and the photographed, was an interesting one. The debate began to just heat up when time constraints reminded us that this discussion can continue outside the realm of the talk. I am waiting to hear more from you Raviji.
While there will always been the binary of the photographer and the photographed, as Ravi pointed out, one cannot deny the destabilizing effect of an act like making low tech cameras with marginalised children has on our technology driven, privileged society. One cannot either deny the social impact of the images when it is they who document their own lives with this seemingly playful, toy like pin-hole camera.
Some have chosen to photograph their brother’s motorcycle while others have focused on their mother making their favourite dish. Some have chosen to make portraits of themselves or their playmates. The experimental nature of the images also lends them an interesting aesthetics. The fuzzy images remove identity and create a kind of Gaussian blur. It has the ability to transport one to a time when photographers set up portable darkrooms to develop their images while photographing with cameras that were so low tech that somewhere one abdicated control over how the image was going to turn out. When Madhavan showed us images of Politicking, where he photographed Jayalalitha’s political campaign with a pinhole camera, everyone was eager to know which one was Jayalalitha and the fact that she had been reduced to an indistinct blob of colour is something that moves from being mildly amusing to an act of political resistance.
The response to Mansi’s work was conditioned by the fact that she shared a very large body of work, leaving very little time for discussion. Both Ram Rehman and Ravi Agarwal expressed a sense of being a bit overwhelmed by the diversity and heft of the body of work. One of Agarwal’s comments that stuck in my head was that the images all appear to confront the viewer. Mansi responded that it also is a confrontation within herself. The artist expressed that for her, the element of surprise within her performances is very important and that she strives to find a new layer in her work every time she visits it. It would have been interesting to know what those layers are and perhaps we return to this discussion when the artist is ready to share more of her process.
Over her presentation it emerged that Mansi does not intentionally engage with the politics of gender, the beauty myth or even class issues, all of which are present in her work. She would not want to come across as heavy handed or pretentious and that is why her approach is one that plays with the idea of chance. Her public performances thrive on the serendipitous moment and she never knows or plans the outcome of her works. However there are strong political underpinnings that underline the inequalities of class, caste and gender and it is perhaps an overdue discussion where Mansi talks more openly about the intentions behind her work. The work will only be strengthened by it and a larger dialogue can then open out about her work. Also perhaps more discussion on how those photographs were taken, why she chooses to work with a different photographer every time and whether in chasing the notion of the new, fresh experience she is perhaps losing out on the opportunity of building a consistency in her work.
In a lighter vein, Ram Rehman suggested to take an image of the night sky with a pinhole camera and then have Mansi perform her superhero piece in relation to the astro-photographs that Ajay is so excited by.
Perhaps such obvious collaborations may just lead to something farcical, but it would indeed be interesting to see some kind of cross pollination between their works.