Art, through its various forms, has always stressed on the significance of aesthetics and expression. Unlike most mediums, visual forms, including photography, tend to be more direct—impressions received in minutes, and seconds. Visuals often hinge on relevance, arousing emotions, wonder or despair, affection or bitterness, clarity or confusion, joy or horror. In certain cases, the context of a project might not be relevant to the masses at large. However, in other cases, the content becomes the sole basis for the viewer to interact with the piece.
Better Photography introduces 11 diverse artists, set to exhibit at the Chennai Photo Biennale, to take place from 22 February to 24 March. The theme for this edition is Fauna of Mirrors, an ancient Chinese myth, which photography embodies and manifests today. One can’t help but notice that the art in these pages are with purpose, mirroring the world at large.
Some of these works have taken years to develop, with their creators fighting against the odds of time, money, and permissions, in achieving its vision. The stories you see here may offer a glimpse into the seminal works of their makers, but visiting the Biennale will let you experience the expanse of their meaning, the way they are meant to be displayed and viewed.
Nilofer Khan takes you through the works of these 11 artists… Anna Fox, Tejal Shah, Arjun Vijai Mathavan, Archana Hande, Cop Shiva, Catherine Leutenegger, Karthik Subramanian, Chan-Hyo Bae, Arpan Mukherjee, Manjunath Kamat, and Nandini Valli Muthiah.
“Both Alison and I had experienced how Alton was not a particularly comfortable place for young women to grow up, especially those who wanted to be out, to do things on their own. We also heard such stories from other people living around us. Certainly, there was a level of aggression and violence towards women.”
In collaboration with singer and performance artist Alison Goldfrapp, Anna Fox’s Country Girls portrays a dark tale that grew out of concern, after experiencing the serious issue of violence against women in Alton, a town in rural southern England. The series focuses on Goldfrapp’s and Fox’s personal encounters, while they were growing up in the town, as well as the gruesome murder of 8-year-old Fanny Adams. Fanny was chopped into bits by her murderer, a bank clerk, while she was out playing in a local meadow, in 1867. Right after the murder, the Royal Navy introduced tinned meat for the sailors, who absolutely hated it. They began to call it Sweet Fanny Adams, as a macabre joke. The term has stuck around in British parlance, gradually changing to ‘sweet f***all’. In other words, this means ‘absolutely nothing’.
Goldfrapp and Fox were heavily influenced by the story, leading them to create a series of staged images between 1996 to 2001, to narrate how they feel about the attitude of people towards young women in the countryside. Country Girls also draws attention to both the fashion industry and society, in connection to fetishising the female body.
Hysteria: Iconography from the Salpêtrière Series
“It is interesting to see how unruly women have been castigated in history. I am drawn to how hysteria was dealt with in the 1800s, as well as the social and political ramifications of this work, to understand the present better.”
In 2007, during her first international residency in Paris, Tejal Shah was introduced to a book titled Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière by Georges Didi-Huberman. It included photographs of ‘hysterical women’. The images in the book claimed to provide evidence of hysteria, while describing its various nuances. The hospital that enabled this project mapped hysteria only on women’s bodies, emphasising its ‘feminine’ nature, while claiming to create empirical knowledge about it. Moreover, the ‘patients’ consisted of prostitutes, poor women, and those who were considered ‘sexually overactive’.
Shah was drawn to Didi-Huberman’s thesis and his critical and feminist analysis of what had happened at the hospital, along with the history of the invention of photography rooted in the colonial-military expansionist projects. Troubled and fascinated by the disturbing representational practices, Shah produced the Hysteria series, in collaboration with dancer and choreographer Marion Perrin, who helped her choreograph the images, to talk about and question the portrayal of women now, and back then.
Millennia Of Oppression
“I faced some incidents that took a toll on me—mentally and physically. However, I also realised that this is the closest I could ever get to put myself in the shoes of these workers; to be in the same space as them, to undergo the same trauma. That gave me a sense of purpose to move forward, to complete the series.”
The oppression of Dalits dates back to the millennia-old story of Nandanar, the only Dalit saint in the Nayanars. Since then, caste oppression has continued to pervade society, and it has taken various forms. When western medicine was introduced about three centuries ago, it was wholly accepted, without the interference of the caste system. However, this was not true for autopsies. It became the responsibility of Dalits, who were forced to do all the menial jobs.
Arun Vijai Mathavan, through his series, Millennia of Oppression, aims to illustrate the exploitation that the community faces at government hospitals, where their ID cards call them sanitary workers. They are forced to conduct the autopsy, including the opening of the torso with the Y-incision. The need for training apart, the ill-equipped workers, with outmoded refrigerators and crude implements, perform their tasks in abysmal conditions. Due to this, they suffer from several occupational ailments and work-related infections from handling decomposed bodies that are often infested with vermin. Though their task is to endow dignity to the dead, they end up facing social death themselves. Grossly underpaid, they cannot tell their friends and neighbours what they do for a living.
Photographed in Gujarat, what started as Mathavan’s graduation project, eventually extended over the course of a year, and is an important document about caste oppression, as much as it is about the apathetic attitude and ignorance of society.
The Golden Feral Trail
“When I went to Western Australia for research, and to look at abandoned towns, I began to clearly see the effects of colonisation. In creating this narrative, I realised that I needed to layer it with images of colonial pasts, and the globalised present. It resulted in, and continues to result in a loss of culture and identity for the natives of these lands.”
The Golden Feral Trail records local and oral histories to trace the relationship between South Asia and Western Australia. It is a story of trade and migration between the two regions, from the early 1800s until the present. The trail follows the phantoms of Afghan camels and cameleers—who helped the Britishers to find gold fields and build infrastructures in Western Australia—through the abandoned graves, deserted mining pits, ghost towns, institutional archives, and personal photo albums.
The term Afghan was loosely used by the Britishers. The Afghans were not from Afghanistan but were immigrants belonging to nomadic sects across Sindh, British India, Afghanistan, or Baluchistan. They also belonged to different religions such as Islam, Sikhism, and Hinduism.
In 2013, Hande received an opportunity to follow the trails of Afghan cameleers, during her residency at the International Art Space, Western Australia. She spent six months in Laverton researching and scripting her story. The final photomontage is a result of her own photography, images from family albums, and photographs from institutional archives. With the camels and the cameleers, she narrates the story of the land, of how the trails came to be, and invites viewers to discover how identities were lost. Her final project also includes an animated video, and displays of various objects found at these places, to provide a sense of time and place.
I Love MGR
“My subjects are constantly negotiating between two identities—the self, and the popular. The act of masquerading is indeed a highly paradoxical process. What one forgets is that though the nature of such performance creates a new alternate identity, it often affects the actor’s own true identity, putting him at risk.”
Cop Shiva believes that every person consists of many layers of intertwined personalities. While some are more public, others are invisible. A few remain hidden so deep that there may be no conscious awareness by the person at all. This seems true in Vidyasagar’s case. A Bengaluru resident, he dresses up as Tamil film icon and politician M.G. Ramachandran, each day. Known popularly as MGR, he was an overpowering influence in politics and cinema, in South India. Vidyasagar removed the gap between himself and his favourite personality, and since then, he has become the very image he so adored.
As a documentary photographer, Shiva wants to draw attention to realities that often go unnoticed in society. His focus while shooting I Love MGR was on the manipulation of identity through disguise, and the idea of taking on a new persona. In many ways, the series comments on the prevalent influence of cinema in the socio-cultural context of South India.
Shiva’s portraits show a man dealing with the polarity between reality and fantasy. The intimate portraits, which were shot in Vidyasagar’s home, also captures the vulnerability, warmth and acceptance of Vidyasagar as MGR.
“After dominating the photographic landscape for the better part of the century, the clock seems to have stopped at the factories and offices of the ‘Big Yellow’. There is an indelible sense of past meeting the inevitability of the future, where twenty million square feet of empty buildings give way to the bustle of some of the finest educational institutions of America, which again Kodak had a hand in ensuring.”
In the early 2000s, Catherine Leutenegger, an analogue photographer, felt particularly affected by the upheavals that the digital age brought to traditional photography. To analyse this evolution, she began to investigate the medium and the context surrounding its production. The initial stage of this exploration began at studios and photo labs in western Switzerland, and continued from 2007 to 2012 in New York City and Rochester, NY, where Kodak’s headquarters were established. Over the past century, Kodak has gained worldwide reputation and acclaim, but little attention was paid to Rochester, where the first roll of flexible film was invented. Leutenegger was curious to discover the city behind Kodak’s headquarters and its industrial facilities related to film production.
Kodak City, which is also a book, offers a view of a singular moment in the history of photography. It is a testimony that is both engaging and objective, covering a part of America’s industrial heritage that faces inevitable disappearance. It also pays homage to the father of modern photography, George Eastman, Kodak’s founder, in his hometown Rochester, which he transformed into the cradle of the world’s collective memory, for the entire 20th century. In its time, it was among the world’s leading industrial technology centers. Leutenegger’s images are ‘meta-photographic’, inviting reflection upon photography’s past, present, and future.
I Swear On My Mother
“There is a strong sense of manipulation in the way MGR and Jayalalitha designed and portrayed their personas on screen. Their history and the rise to power have such an uncanny resemblance to other leaders across the world— they used symbols and carefully constructed imagery to convince the masses that they were larger than life.”
Looking back at the history of Tamil Nadu, film and politics have gone hand in hand, since the 1950s. From 1967 until today, the state government has been led by personalities from the film industry. Dr. M.G. Ramachandran, an actor and the founder of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, is the first film star to become the Chief Minister of any state in India. Through his films, he is said to have carefully developed a certain image in the minds of the people, which helped him achieve huge popularity and success in politics, akin to the status of a God.
Following his death, the party was taken over by his co-star and political protégé, the late Dr. J.Jayalalitha, who was also Chief Minister. She acted in over 140 films, 28 of which were alongside MGR.
I Swear On My Mother is primarily a video installation that incorporates videos, films, text, Subramanian’s own photography, as well as found images and objects, that together tell the political history of Tamil Nadu, through its popular Chief Ministers. A collection of several un-truths and truths, when curated as a whole, attempts to reveal the real experience of the people in Tamil Nadu.
Existing in Costume
“My interest in cultural prejudice is caused by the difference between Eastern and Western culture. When I arrived in the UK, I had a variety of unpleasant experiences that made me think about the social position of an Asian man in Western society. Later, I began to take self-portraits, to express myself.”
Chan-Hyo Bae always admired western culture. However, upon reaching the UK, he realised that a large part of everything he conceived existed only in his imagination.
He discovered that historical oil paintings and western architecture interested him tremendously. He eventually turned to them in the creation of his own series, Existing in Costume, in which he portrays the fantasies of Asian men within a Western reality. It was also a study of his own feeling of alienation. Despite using near identical styles, the presence of an eastern man in western imagery always appears strangely odd, and it’s difficult for people to accept this change.
He began to further explore the complexities related to stereotypes, gender issues, social class structures, and the problems of legitimising violence on minority groups by dominant groups, and how it is transmitted from generation to generation through social conventions. For this, he looked at popular fairy tales, which he believes share a common point with history, leading readers to accept a fixed conclusion or thought.
Existing in Costume explores his experience from a first person’s perspective. In his later series, Bae looks at himself through the eyes of others in society, in more detail manner.
Fairer People = Beautiful People = Powerful People
“Our obsession with fairness is ridiculous. I am interested in defining the deeper issues related to fairness—How do you define beauty? How does beauty and power work in society? How can the colour of one’s skin be a criteria to judge people?”
Back in 2012, the Economic Times published a report which stated that the market value of a popular bleaching cream, Fair and Lovely, was Rs. 3000 crores. When Arpan Mukherjee saw the alarming statistics, he decided to launch an investigation into the issue. He began to look into the matter when he came across two books, which provided a basis for his work—The Oriental Races and Tribes (1863) and People of India: The Races and Tribes of Hindustan (1868). The most fascinating part was the use of wet plate collodion, the photographic process of that era, which is sensitive to blue. When employing this process to photograph Indians, whose skin tone tends toward yellow, it caused the final photograph to show a much darker skin tone than reality.
Later, he shared his findings with his students, to begin a discussion. Coming from various parts of India, the students shared their stories of discrimination, on the basis of their skin. They also mentioned how complexion plays a significant role in terms of power demonstration. Eventually, his students actively participated in the project, where Mukherjee used the collodion process to mock the age-old norm of beauty.
“My interest lies in studying the gradual evolution and changes in traditional and contemporary iconographies, which are a byproduct of beliefs and rituals. Through my work, I attempt to bridge the gap between cultures, question their hegemony, and the need to build walls for preserving and isolating one’s culture. ”
Manjunath Kamat has always held a fascination towards collecting photographs—old prints from different eras, genres, found images, as well as staged photographs shot by him. Later in life, this influenced him greatly, and had led him to work across several mediums. In one of them, he digitally cut, stitched and layered images for newspaper illustrations.
When he began working on photomontages, his approach towards digital print was from the point of view of a painter. He built his images, layer by layer, moulding each image to develop the characters you see here. They are actors, enacting in a play directed by him, thereby becoming an extension of him. Humour is one of its many facets.
Viewers will notice that everyday mundane images from the streets, as well as from Kamat’s immediate environment, popular culture, fashion, and advertisements, play a vital role in his montages. Though the pictures are devoid of context, they do comment on how globalisation has led to a certain kind of homogeneity. In a way, it is similar to morphing cultural identities and indigenousness, while the characters in the photographs search for their own identity in the global mishmash.
“For me, the anonymity of the people lends a beauty to the portraits. I think it allows viewers to create their own narratives about the person within the frame. In a way, they end up building a bond with the image, and with the person too. I hope to shoot more devotees, to have a bigger pool of images for people to look at, and study.”
Every year, an estimate of 17 to 50 million devotees visit the Sabarimala temple. Located on a hilltop in Kerala, the temple is dedicated to the Hindu celibate deity Ayyappana, the son of Shiva and Mohini, and feminine incarnation of Vishnu. The temple has a unique way of functioning. Here, devotees are mostly men. Girls who have not yet attained puberty, and women who have reached menopause can visit too. However, before embarking on a journey to visit the temple, devotees must undertake the 40 days penance, including abstaining from worldly pleasures and wearing certain colours, such as black.
Despite the gender-related issues and its politicisation, Nandini Valli Muthiah’s series is meant purely as an anthropological study, and is not a socio-political comment. Her portraits offer a sensitive look at these devotees who are on the final leg of their journey to meet their God. Their clothing, articles of worship, offerings and mannerisms are insightful, especially if you consider that over a lakh of similarly clad devotees visit the shrine on a daily basis.
Tags: better photography, interviews, Karthik Subramanian, Arpan Mukherjee, Cop Shiva, February 2019, Chennai Photo Biennale 2019, Anna Fox, Tejal Shah, Arjun Vijai Mathavan, Archana Hande, Catherine Leutenegger, Chan-Hyo Bae, Manjunath Kamat, and Nandini Valli Muthiah, Cover Story