Staging Selves

by Deepika Sorabjee

Installation shot. Image courtesy: Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai & Taipei.

There’s no escaping the gaze as you enter Sakshi gallery for ‘Staging Selves: Power, Performativity and Potraiture’ there are all kinds staring at you. To Walter Benjamin, “it is no accident at all that portrait forms the centerpiece of early photography. In the cult of recalling absent or dead loved ones, the cultic value of the image finds its last refuge.”

In a show that assembles 9 artists, a daunting number given the space, curator Maya Kovskaya traverses a wide spectrum. In that, she ascribes to John Berger’s “every photograph is in fact a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality. Hence the crucial role of photography in ideological struggle.”

From migrant workers to displaced villagers in the documentary, to posed “theatres of the self ” and Udaipur grandeur in a studio, from immigrant lives in foreign lands to personal memories of lost families, it’s one crowded exhibition. Did Kovskaya deliberately add to this crowd with a free hang of fairground pictures (Gauri Gill) in the centre of an already overpowering room?

About the strategic placement of Gauri Gill’s Balika Mela girls, Kovskaya says, “I wanted the viewer to be confronted when they walked in the door. Sometimes you have to make a choice between conceptual impact and aesthetic parsimony.”

Gill’s photographs don’t just document rural girls in a studio at a local fair but empowers them by allowing them to bring or select their own props and invent their own poses. Hung like banners often seen at a mela, their’s is a presence that does confront.

American Waswo X. Waswo, brings his outsider/insider view into his Udaipur studio through people he interacts with – workers, friends and himself dressed up too. Ornately framed, he uses props and actors in the studio to subvert the 19th century “regal” and “ethnographical” recordings; here in one big mash-up he mixes the ordinary and the opulent, the dressed and the sloppy all with attitudes that defy.

Tejal Shah photographs “working class women from the mofussil towns” and plays with her continuing concern, expanding the gendered category of women. She renders them shorn of any accoutrement, they gaze fearlessly back at you confident, butch and unselfconscious, questioning conceived notions of the feminine in a society still ambiguous about gender expressions.

Iranian Malekeh Nayiny reconstructs her parent’s lives through their collectibles. It’s a poignant capture of Iran’s political history through the personal, high fashion and elegance of the Shah of Iran’s era, giving way to orthodoxy, post the Islamic revolution.

The show’s drive is the curation. Creating dialogues Kovskaya brings diverse cultures and classes onto a common platform. Samar S. Jodha documents the unrecorded narratives of the nameless who came to New Delhi to give a city a facelift for the Commonwealth Games. He questions ‘Who’s Wealth, Who’s Commons?’ Transferring the portraits on concrete bricks, forgotten faces stare out at you, and at the adjacent wall, at Chinese workers similarly brought to rebuild Beijing for the Olympic Games.

Installation shot. Image courtesy: Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai & Taipei.

Han Bing’s portraits of a family of workers standing passively, red bricks in their hands, (the weight of a Communist state?) are drenched in melancholia. Blacked out skies give them a timelessness and memories of a left home buried in the darkness, the construction on the ground roots them in the city. In other singular portraits the bricks held like books, are suggestive of a learning yearned for.

Shebha Chhachhi’s staged portraits are powerful in femininity and feminism. She builds a character with the protagonist surrounded by objects that they feel defines themselves. In one portrait a woman sits on the steps in front of an imposing building, law courts of some kind? In front of her are books, weighty of knowledge, and spilling around them cascading softly down is a sari…

Ravi Agarwal documents an increasingly disturbing phenomenon. Villagers callously uprooted as ironically, development comes their way. The pictures capture the life-long construction of simple domestic lives, belongings accrued over the years and juxtaposes them with bewilderment; villagers pouring over maps trying to make sense of it all, capturing the “uncertainty” of their future.

O Zhang’s powerful series of adopted Chinese children posing with their American fathers had colors heightened, the models dressed in clothes of their choice. One is left with a slight unease even as you are confronted with smiles, out in the Californian sunshine.

It’s an overpowering exhibition. Perhaps there could have been economy in the number of pictures selected if not the number of artists. Kovskaya, however, does succeed. One leaves with firmly embedded narratives, visuals that haunt, each distinct, of the marginalized, the long-gone, the innocent, the ordinary – but here, heroes framed in one’s crowded memory.

‘Staging Selves’, Curated by Maya Kovskaya, September 2 – 25, 2011, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai.



Deepika Sorabjee obtained her MBBS degree from the Grant Medical College (Bom Univ) and the Sir J.J. Group of Hospitals, and a diploma in Indian Aesthetics from Jnanapravaha, Mumbai. She is a writer based in Mumbai and is training to be an art conservator.


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