Picture This: Contemporary Photography and India

By Hilary R. Whitham

Through April 3, 2016

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art 

Picture This: Contemporary Photography and India is an imaginative but ultimately unsatisfying exhibition currently on view in the Julian Levy Gallery of the Perelman Building at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Curated by Nathaniel Stein, Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the museum, Picture This features the work of four photographers: Gauri Gill, Sunil Gupta, Max Pinckers, and Pamela Singh.  The exhibition aims to “connect [the photographers’] personal relationship with India to themes and strategies central to contemporary artists across the globe,” as well as examine the way in which the artists utilize and subvert documentary traditions closely associated with the medium.  While thoughtfully conceived and beautifully installed, the exhibition raises a number of questions which remain unanswered, ultimately leaving the viewer with an incomplete understanding of current photographic practices on the sub-continent.

Gauri Gill’s selection of eight color portraits drawn from the series Balika Mela were indubitably the most compelling works in the exhibition.  The digital photographs printed on glass evoked not only the early history of the medium, but also allegorized its unique potential to tell the truth about the world, now so often dismissed in favor of satire or critique.  Such a positive outlook is part and parcel of Gill’s oeuvre, which emphasizes the way in which photography can be used as a tool for self-fashioning and self-empowerment, particularly for marginalized groups.  The Balika Mela project epitomizes this approach:  invited by the non-profit Urmul Setu Sansthan to a girls’ fair in the rural town of Lunkarasar, Rajasthan in 2003, and again in 2010, Gill offered her subjects heavily subsidized gelatin silver prints of their portraits, as well as training in photography.  The large scale black and white images from the earlier iteration of the project also included in the exhibition evoke the work of 1970s Malian photographers Seïdou Keita and Malick Sidibe, but, despite the slightly “been-there, done-that” quality, achieve their goal of monumentalizing a marginalized segment of India’s population.  Madhu and Rampyari is the most visceral and poignant of Gill’s black-and-white photographs:  two young women stare directly into the camera lens, their arms gently touching as the figure on the left reaches out to softly place two of her fingers on the lens of the camera which confidently hangs from a simple strap around her companion’s neck.

Similarly, Sunil Gupta’s Country: Portrait of an Indian Village, undertaken from 2006 to 2011 and printed for inclusion in the PMA exhibition, successfully instantiates the wide-ranging appeal and “cosmopolitanism” the curator strove to represent in the exhibition.  Focusing on Gupta’s relationship with his father through documentation of the family’s ancestral home of Mundia Panar, Country: Portrait of an Indian Village is powerful, a genuine reflection of the complexities of diasporic identities.  In contrast to the pertinence and poignancy of the series, Gupta’s Gay in India feels trite and outdated.  Current debates within the queer academic and activist communities on the sub-continent have centered on moving beyond the concept of binary sexualities, largely seen as a hangover of European colonialism, towards new modalities of thinking about sex and gender related to indigenous beliefs and practices.

The inclusion of Max Pinkers, a European-born white man, in an exhibition about contemporary India seems odd, at best, and problematic, at worst.  Pinkers’s work, consisting of a mixture of inkjet prints in varying sizes and one light-box drawn from his Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty series, appears weak: there seems to be little connection between the photographer’s stated goal – to represent Indians in love – and a number of the images – a pair of colorful dead parakeets, and a burning pile of wood and ash, to name just two.  Additionally, Pinkers’s photobook, another iteration of the Will They Sing Like Raindrops project, could have been displayed more effectively, perhaps using the digital scanning and redeployment on touchscreens in the gallery similar to those included in the Paul Strand exhibition that took place at the PMA last year.  The off-key tone struck by Pinkers and Gupta is indicative of deeper issues with the exhibition.

Only one of the four photographers (Gill) lives and works full time on the sub-continent, all are extremely well-educated and trained at European or American institutions, and all work in the most affluent and historically powerful northern half of the country.  I find it hard to believe that there are no photographers born, educated, living, and working in India full time that might have been of interest to the curator and the museum, especially given that just in New Delhi alone there are two art fairs – the Delhi Triennial and the annual India Art Fair – from which to cull some fresh blood.  In addition to not accounting for the entire portion of the country south of the capital, non-Hindu communities, including Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians, and Muslims, which are a vibrant part of India’s national life, are not represented in the exhibition at all.

Furthermore, a number of rich connections to Indian aesthetic traditions and wider contemporary artistic and cultural trends remained unaddressed.  For example, the connections of Pamela Singh’s practice to that of Mughal miniature portraiture was not fully developed – despite the fact that the beautiful exhibition, Drawn from Courtly India: The Conley Harris and Howard Truelove Collection, was just steps away in the main gallery of the Perelman building.  Clearly, any lack of knowledge about Indian artistic practices pre-dating the British Raj and the unique idiosyncrasies of the sub-continent’s contemporary art scene could have easily been overcome by collaborating with colleagues in the South Asian Art Department.  The exhibition texts included not only a series of trite comparisons or comments about these and other connections, but also some rather flippant glosses on colonialism, which are perplexing, to say the least.  Finally, exploring the differences between Singh’s self-portraits and the “selfie” phenomenon would have really added a fun dimension to a show professing to be contemporary.  Instead, the show’s reference to selfie photography comes in the form of an invitation to take one’s photo in front of a lushly forested backdrop concluding the exhibition, a feature that seems simplistic, if not gimmicky.

Contemporary art does not exist in a vacuum, nor can it be divorced from the past; so too with photography, which exists in a complex and continually evolving relationship to non-photographic art and its own history as the medium of modernity.  Despite the failure to address these issues responsibly, which should be part of the objective of curators dealing with non-Western art, Picture This succeeds at offering up some beautiful images of life on the sub-continent, and a few glimpses into the ethical possibilities unique to the photographic medium that the curator aimed to represent.

Hilary R. Whitham is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, earning her PhD in the history of art. She previously worked as the director of Amos Eno Gallery in New York City, and served as a graduate curatorial intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art while earning her MA from the City University of New York. Her specialties include modern and contemporary art, the history of photography, and the historic arts of Africa and pre-Colonial Americas.


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