Performance photography from India

Pushpamala N, Sunhere Sapne (Golden Dreams), 1998, hand-tinted black and white photograph | Photo courtesy of Shumita and Arani Bose Collection, NY

major exhibition of Indian photography exploring gender, religion, and sexual identity will open at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Apr. 19. And will run till Sept. 2.

Moving Still: Performative Photography in India has been three years in the making, with Diana Freundl, associate curator of Asian Art at Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) meeting Critical Collective’s Gayatri Sinha while in Delhi, India. Sinha’s renowned group does work to build knowledge of the arts in India. Both curators share an interest in photographic art, which led to them talking about co-curating an exhibition together.

“…photography can explore dimensions that other media cannot because it allows the artist to appear as auteur, narrator, and actor, who can subvert the image or the icon, and render it in an entirely different context and time frame,” says Sinha.

One hundred and fifty years of photography

Tejal Shah, Between the Waves Outer, 2013, mixed media collage, digital prints on archival rag paper | Photo courtesy of Tejal Shahah

Both curators also share the view that photography has an important place in Indian art and its history.

“A lot of self-taught photographers embraced the camera from very early on in India,” says Freundl. “These artists were reading, studying, and establishing photographic societies soon after the invention of the camera and their work took on a very local vernacular.”

The art they have included in the exhibition is self-consciously performative. The images are staged and the people featured know they are being photographed. How they choose to present themselves and their surroundings says a lot about how they see themselves in the world around them.

“Very early in its history, the photograph demonstrated the ability to ‘perform’ and create contexts of wish fulfilment,” says Sinha. “People turned to the photograph in popular studios to create identities of who they aspired to be, rendering the photograph as a document removed from the quotidian.”

The exhibition shows the different forms this performance has taken during over 150 years of photography in India. Some of the earliest works include never before displayed pieces from the ‘Photographer Prince’, Sawai Ram Singh II, the Maharaja of Jaipur from 1835 to 1880, who photographed his staff and visitors against elaborate backdrops.

Timeless issues

Gauri Gill, Untitled from Acts of Appearance series, 2015–ongoing, archival pigment print. | Photo courtesy of Gauri Gill

Later works are more pronounced in using performance to explore difficult areas of identity.

Sunil Gupta’s exploration of gay life and immigration is shown in Sun City (2011), whilst nostalgic, hand-tinted photographs are used by Pushpamala N to examine family, class, and fantasy inSunhere Sapne (Golden Dreams) (1998).

“The photographs on view mark explorations of identity that are gendered and sexual, as well as in the realm of religion and sectarian affiliation,” says Sinha. “They use the tropes of popular culture, Bollywood, and performance to affect gender swaps, role play, and identity formation for a viewership that knows the contextual references.”

Freundl feels that the works are all tied together by “timeless issues that in many ways are all the more relevant today”.

“Sexual politics and gender identity are issues that have been contested or perceived politically and socially for centuries. The difference now is that artists who self-identify with LGBTQIA communities are not just being given a platform to exhibit their work,” she says “but platforms also allow viewers to explore more progressive themes.”

VAG is making sure that these platforms extends beyond the existing artworks. It is running a series of curator and artist talks, along with commissioning local artist Sandeep Johal to create new artwork installations in the niches of the gallery building.

“One of the things we’re very aware of is that it’s not just about the India that’s there,“ says Freundl, “but the intercultural connections with South Asian visual culture that’s here in Vancouver.”

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