By Nathaniel M. Stein
I write to offer a brief response to a recently-posted review of Picture This: Contemporary Photography and India (Philadelphia Museum of Art, on view through April 3, 2016).
Picture This is not a survey of contemporary Indian photography. Nor is it a show exclusively about the work of photographers who are Indian by birth or nationality. The exhibition presents a focused selection of works by four contemporary photographers whose careers are international in scope. All of the work in the exhibition reflects upon India in some way, and all of the artists explore concepts and strategies fundamental to post-conceptual photography as currently practiced across the globe. Importantly, each artist’s sensibility is shaped by a complex, sometimes transitory sense of belonging in many places — a salient position in the sphere of contemporary art, and in the present moment more broadly speaking. Curatorial texts that accompany the exhibition make this framework clear.
In contemporary life, artists, scholars, and members of the general public frequently negotiate social and cultural intersections in their own communities and beyond. A unique confluence of history, politics, and personal experience shapes every one of these encounters, and indeed, every work of art. The four photographers featured in Picture This are shaped by broad experience of the world. From four distinct, but similarly complex perspectives, they look across social boundaries relating to India. Some of the artists featured in the exhibition are Indian by both birth and nationality, others are not.
Museums have an important responsibility to serve as spaces for discussion, including debates about the representation of non-western contemporary art in western institutions. In recent years, several such institutions have presented both thematic and survey exhibitions of contemporary and historical South Asian photography. These projects are needed and productive. Yet, if an exhibition of contemporary artwork that engages with South Asia must always and only include artists of South Asian descent and/or residence, then the parameters of the discussion will be in some way artificial.
We live in a world in which points of view, cultural texts, and some individuals circulate to an unprecedented extent. The borders of an insider or outsider point of view are not always obvious or simple. This is indeed an unsettling and risk-laden situation. It raises questions about the politics of artistic expression in a post-colonial context, and it may also be productive of new ideas and perspectives. I believe we have a responsibility to grapple with that possibility.
I hope members of the arts and academic communities will visit the exhibition and form their own opinions about the tone of curatorial texts, the ideas implicit in the selection and installation of works, and most importantly, about the artwork on view.
Nathaniel M. Stein, Ph.D., is the Horace W. Goldsmith Fellow in Photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is the curator of Picture This: Contemporary Photography and India.