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Photography and Inherited History in India @ SJMA

Pushpamala N. and Clare Arni, The Native Types (L to R): Returning from the Tank (after a painting by Raja Ravi Varma) and Cracking the Whip (after 1970s Tamil film still of Jayalalithaa), both from the project "Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs," 2000-04, C-print on metallic paper, 22 x 14 3/4 each
 
There was a time not too long ago when photographers actually made pictures. Many still do.  But as a spate of recent museum exhibitions, including one at San Francisco’s Pier 24 suggest, photography is fast becoming the province of aggregators: artist/curators far more interested in making sense of the trillions of images already out there than with adding to the torrent of photos coming at us from television, the Internet and social media.
 
That is the impulse behind a lot of what appears in Postdate: Photography and Inherited History in India.  It’s the fourth India-focused exhibition mounted in as many years by the San Jose Museum of Art.  In this one, organized by the museum’s former curator Jodi Throckmorton, ten artists rip into and re-present that country’s photographic history to assert their view of what it all means.  That their conclusions challenge the intentions of those who originated the photos is hardly surprising.  The global backlash against colonialist thinking is as longstanding as the understanding that the meaning of photos shifts according where you stand.  Yet even at that, fresh provocations set forth in Postdate prove just how malleable and how vulnerable to artistic monkey wrenching photographic traditions can be — even those as long as India’s, which stretch back nearly to the beginning of photography.  
 
Nandan Ghiya: Download Error, DSC01720, 2012, photos, acrylic, wood frames, 20 x 20

Sources employed by the artists in this show range from Colonial-era ethnographic photos and 19th century painting to early 20th century studio portraits and Bollywood films. News images and family snapshots also figure in.  The latter are used to probe and to push forward into the digital era, questions of identity, ethnicity, caste and class. With only a few weak links, nearly all of what’s on view in Postdate is compelling.  Though questions of identity are central, an equivalent virtue is the show’s demonstration of the ways photos can be altered, reinterpreted, reconfigured or re-arranged to reflect back or shift a photo’s original meaning. 

Two artists do so by inserting their own likenesses into images made by others.  Pushpamala N., collaborating with the photographer Clare Arni, created Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs: performative photos in which she casts herself as prisoner, seductress, goddess, action hero, circus performer, worshiper and other roles created for popular consumption. The result is a catalog of appropriated folklore that packs real punch.  Part of the allure has to do with the forensic accuracy of her alterations; another part has to do with the notoriety of the figures she impersonates, the most notable being that of movie star turned politician, Yayalalithaa, famous for, among other things, inspiring an extraordinary level of fanaticism amongst her followers. Just as riveting are pictures in which Pushpamala occupies mythic representations of women made by the 19th century nationalist painter, Raja Ravi Varma.  They, too, show the constructed nature of such roles and the grip they have on the national imagination. 
 
In a similar mode, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, a British-born artist of Indian descent living in the U.S., takes as her jumping off point the 500-year-old confusion that began when Columbus thought he’d landed in India.  Consequently, when South Asians are asked, “Where are you from?” they invariably answer “an Indian from
 
Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Feather/Dot, from the series "An Indian from India — Portfolio II," 2001, archival pigment print, 12 x 16"
 
India.”  Out of that, Matthew created An Indian from India, a series in which she pairs historic portraits of Native Americans (done by Edward S. Curtis and others) with exact replicas in which she appears in identical poses against identical backdrops.  The only discernable differences between the two are the artist’s face and clothes.  This socio-anthropological riposte to the age-old identity question forms the literal and figurative centerpiece of the show.  It asks: What is Indian-ness?    
 
Vivan Sundaram answers with digital collages made from family photos. Wall labels don’t provide much information, but the exhibition catalog does.  From it we learn that the artist’s forbearers include Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), “arguably the best-known woman painter in pre-independence India and a voracious writer,” and the artist’s grandfather, Umrao Singh, “who in the early years of photography relentlessly photographed

Vivan Sundaram, Father-Daughter (Umrao Sign, Simia, mid-1940s; Amrita, Simla, 1937), from the series "Re-Take of Amrita," 2001-02, archival digital pigment print, 19 x 14"

his family and himself.”  It’s from their archives that the artist pulls source images.  What he does with them is exceedingly complex, involving mirrors, double exposures and all-too obvious cut-and-pastes of people in well-furnished rooms. These imaginary family dramas bring to mind spirit photography, the Surrealist photos of Man Ray, the collages of Jess Collins and the famous “hall of mirrors” scene from Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai, wherein the protagonist, played by Welles, sees his image shattered.  Seen sequentially, Sundaram’s competing narratives create a game of who’s who that may leave you similarly disoriented as you try to separate what’s real from what’s not.  

Women, as of late, have loomed large in news coming out of India, and none of that news has been good.  Sexual violence, infanticide, poverty, forced marriages, malnutrition and illiteracy top the list of afflictions.  With those things (perhaps) in mind, Gauri Gill, one artist in this show who doesn’t work with found or appropriated images, took more than 40,000 pictures of girls in the desert of western Rajasthan.  She allowed her subjects to pose as they wanted, the idea being that this would eliminate from her pictures the exoticism historically imposed by Westerners.  This strategy only partially succeeds.. Looking at the brilliant hues of the girls’ clothing – the saffrons, the fuschias, the blood oranges and the electric turquoises, and how they’re offset so stunningly by dark hair and skin, we become just as drunk on color as we do when looking at Bollywood films where the sensuality of the surroundings practically overshadows everything else.  Gill’s pictures – presented on glass plates leaned against a wall and on transparent paper banners hung from the ceiling – accentuate those qualities.  Get past the colors, though, and you see Gill’s real point, which is to set into sharp relief the sorry state into which Indian culture has thrust these girls, visible in their sour faces and stiff interactions, all grip and no grin.  The sole exceptions are three large black-and-white

Gauri Gill: Urma and Nimli, Luinkaransar, from "Notes in the Desert," 1999-2010, gelatin silver print, 47 x 31" 

prints.  One shows a girl pressing a mirror against her cheek, watching the fog of her own breath as if it were an affirmation of her existence.  Another, Urma and Nimli, Lunkaransar, shows two girls embracing.  One hangs upside down by her legs from a tree, her head cradled in the other’s arms.  The tenderness of it leaps out at you and feels genuine in a way that the color portraits do not.  It’s easily the single strongest image in the show. Gill may not have purged India of superstatured colors and the associations that go with them, but her photos tell the truth.  In 2012, TrustLaw, a news service run by Thomson Reuters, ranked India as the worst G20 country in which to be a woman.  

Surekha makes that point again with an installation of 83 found photos, each measuring 10.5 x 8 inches.  Combined, they occupy about 15 feet of vertical wall space; more, in other words, than you can see without standing on a ladder.  The repetition and the scale are meant to convey that these ceremonial pictures are manufactured en masse to commemorate milestone events in the lives of young women, ranging in age from six to about 18.  Each is dressed, accessorized and posed almost identically with identical props and backdrops, making you wonder: Does a single studio create all of these pictures? A more disturbing sameness is the uniformly glum looks on the girls’ faces.  If Surekha’s finds are representative – and there’s no reason to doubt that they are not — then what we’re seeing is heartbreak on an industrial scale.  So much for “Incredible India.” 
 
Nandan Ghiya also employs a taxonomic approach to the task of decoding Indian history. He collects old studio portraits and frames them singly and in sprawling salon-style ziggurats that stretch across walls.  Most of the pictures date to the 1930s.  Some look older on account of being hand painted to look like miniatures. Had they been presented without modification, they’d have made for an even more fascinating tapestry of Indian manners, fashions and mores.  The problem is that Ghiya attempts push these wonderful pictures into the digital era by painting pixels across the faces, echoing a well-worn trope of John Baldessari's. 
 
Surekha, The Fragrance of Jasmine, 2002 (details), 83 found photos, 10.5. x 8" each
 
Ghiya also inserts into his presentations jagged edges. They’re seen in stair-stepped wood frames and pixelated facial and bodily disfigurations, designed to resemble the patterns that show up on your TV screen when the cable signal runs amok. This, too, is another emerging cliché owing to the fact that what Ghiya calls “download glitches” show up as process artifacts in a lot of digital art these days. That said, I’m guessing these images will likely delight viewers for the exact reasons they irritate me, because they are — let's face it — striking, which is why the curators have seen fit to station one of the more complex and intriguing examples of Ghiya's work, Chairmen, at the beginning of the show, right before you enter the main galleries.  
 
Beyond that, the show starts to slip.  Jitish Kallat’s wall-length, time-lapse image of a Mumbai street and his lenticular photos of other, similar scenes display technological know-how, but deliver no appreciable content.  Shots of a defunct factory made by Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya memorialize a beloved camera company.  They’re meticulously composed and sumptuously lit, but don’t tell us anything we don’t already know about industrial decay.  The real sleeper in Postdate – and its other major highlight — is a nine-minute series of slow-dissolve still photos projected onto a large screen by the Raqs Media Collective.  They come from a 19th century photo series about brutal putdown of an Indian uprising,

 Felice Beato: Interior of Secundrabagh After the Massacre, 1858-62, albumen silver print. One of the source Images used by Raqs Media Collective.

which is neither identified nor described by wall labels.  Thus, we’re left to decipher a montage of vastly overexposed (but extraordinary beautiful) pictures of a decaying Baroque building against which a figure and a horse appear and disappear.  Most visitors will probably give it a quick look and move on.  That would be a mistake.  Again, the catalog provides invaluable details, most important of which is the title of a key source image.  It’s called Interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels by the 93rd Highlanders and the 4th Punjab Regiment.  First Attack of Sir Colin Campbell in November 1857, Lucknow, March or April 1858.  (Other sources, like the J. Paul Getty Museum, which owns a copy of the print seen above, give it different title, but it looks to be the same image employed here.)  "It was," according to the exhibition catalog, "made four months after the actual battle, in 1858, by the itinerant photographer, Felice Beato, as part of an album about the Indian Mutiny of 1857.”  The image above, employed by the artists, depicts the grisly remains of that event – a scattering of skeletons that appear to have been picked clean by animals.  It’s a fake, we are told, because the bones wouldn’t appear as they do given the time that passed between the killings and the date the photograph was made.  So what, exactly, did Beato do?  Rob graves? Rearrange the remains?  (An eyewitness claimed the latter.)  Ultimately, the veracity of the images doesn’t matter nearly as much as how we absorb them and what we take from them. They exist as a waking dream.  They don’t activate or pull from memory, but they create one in the process of asserting historical facts that were never properly documented to begin with. The artists call it “a sustained forensic reflection,” a characterization that describes a lot of what’s on view in Postdate.  

Seen in this light, Postdate might rightly be called evidence tampering.  If so, it’s a collection of photographic lies that bend toward truth: the slippery, shape-shifting kind that so often attach themselves to historical inquiry — and, makes for art that poses far more questions than it answers.   
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Postdate: Photography and Inherited History in India @ the San Jose Museum of Art through August 2, 2015. 

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