The Inner Circle

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A startlingly talented group of photographers explores the theme of self and identity through an intensely personal lens

Indigenous Americans once believed that when a photograph was taken, it stole a piece of the person’s soul. Similar to mirrors, which many cultures regarded as reservoirs of our ‘selves’ and hence felt, if broken, would bring ill luck and disquiet. These beliefs function as powerful metaphors for how images define us—our physical borders, the individual arrangement of our features, and our identity in terms of our differences with others. Recently, Alex Parker, a London-based amateur photographer, took pictures of himself standing with one other person or another—a friend, acquaintance or stranger. He titled the series Me. Tanvi Mishra, a Delhi-based freelance photographer and debut curator, has orchestrated a similarly intimate exhibition, one that gazes at the lives of others, whether it be the artist or his or her subject.

Supported by Exhibit 320 and Nicholas Foo, a Delhi-based Singaporean artist, Postcards from the Interior brings together a group of young, startlingly talented photographers, both from India and Singapore. The broad theme of identity and self is explored through an intensely personal lens. For instance, Lines of Connection, a series of works by Carrie Lam, comprises triptychs—representing the past, present and future—that “connect through a line of perspective”. Each allows the eye to roam across the images in a replay of the passage of time. The landscapes she captures range from the cinematically dreamy, redolent of delicate Impressionist paintings, to the urban and surreal, placing the human figure in quiet, unexplained circumstances. Lam believes photography is “a visual diary” and particularly poignant is a triptych of her gently embracing her mother— braiding together a rich narrative of familial relationships with undercurrents of death and ageing.

Also focused on intricacies of the domestic space is Singapore-based Sean Lee, who sees photography as a “healing device” that works at the basic, sensory level of touch. As he said, “One of the things I do in my work is to make my family members touch each other… photography becomes an excuse to get them to be physically intimate with each other.” The series, Homework, which, he explained, “started off as a way for (him) to organise and to make sense of how (he felt) towards (his) family”, is a collection of black-and-white images taken within the confines of his home. His family members pose in close embraces and surreal costumes, bordering on pantomime and the comedic, each image accompanied by a witty caption or chunk of text. A portrait of his parents holding hands, for example, says ‘clasped hands, knitted hearts’, while, my favourite, one of his father and suspended beer cans says ‘Magneto Lee: After years of drinking my father develops telekinesis, allowing him to float cans of beer through the air using only the power of his mind’. The images, though devoid of colour, are wonderfully warm, bringing out the textures of skin and the intimate feel of touch.

Akshay Mahajan, a Delhi-based documentary photographer, turns the gaze slightly outward, at another family of a non-traditional kind—on LGBT personal histories of a group of friends in Bangalore. Speaking on the origins of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Mahajan explained that on his photographic quest through various cities, he met Joshua Muyiwa, “a half-Nigerian, one- fourth Malayalee, one-fourth Nepalese queer poet and dance writer” and found a subject. Over the years, and

many rolls of film later, he befriended the community, and discarded the simplistic approach of being some sort of purveyor of truth. “Instead I just concentrated on them as people who happen to be queer—in many ways this is how they wanted to be perceived— who want their body politic sewn on to their breast like a badge.” This direct, candid approach has resulted in pictures of startling abandonment and poignancy. They are in turn sensuous, grimy and real; the viewer is thrown into a world that is enticingly immediate. One photograph captures from an aerial view a figure splayed on the floor smoking a cigarette. In another, seemingly alcohol-fuelled and hazy, gay couples make out against an outdoor wall.

While Mahajan’s photographs carry a celebratory, hedonistic air, Ankit Goyal’s work is laced with darker, surrealist undertones. Broken Chapter, which he started shooting three years ago and which forms, he said, “a fragment of a much larger story” comprises a cluster of images that could be stills from a David Lynch movie— the world is not as it seems, and is peopled by complex, inexplicable figures caught in dramatic, unexplained, almost theatrical shots. A nude woman runs through a forest, while another is captured bending over on a bed, submerging herself in a tub of water, or tying up a blindfold. A tiled floor is stained with what looks suspiciously like blood. Puncturing these moments of tension are images of quiet beauty— sun shining through someone’s hair, a whirl of dragonflies flying towards a light, a hand lying suggestively on a rumpled bed. If the images seem somewhat joyously disparate, it’s because as Goyal said, “I shoot the same way I live, without a plan; stumbling, meandering and getting lost, because that’s where I feel the magic lies.”

If the people around us are important in defining ourselves, so is place. Born and based in Singapore, Nguan draws inspiration from the urban landscape in which he is immersed. “Singapore,” which he calls “a poetic depiction of his hometown,” gives us a tender, mutely-coloured look at a city that, like many, is caught in the throes of capitalist modernity. Oddly enough, the people he chooses to capture look slightly awkward and out of place, as though unsure of what they’re doing, within the space and on camera. Some are preoccupied, caught while eating, at work or shopping. Children lounge on a park bench outside a building. In one, a man lies on the floor looking straight into the lens; his gaze is disconcerting, mysterious. Why is he there? Nguan’s images resonate with quiet, pastel colours and seem to have been exhumed from the past.

For Sumit Dayal, a photographer from Kathmandu whose homeland is Kashmir, an attempt to decipher the place’s current political scenario— linked inextricably to his experiences there—required, apart from a selection of photographs titled Going Home, a more intense, involving display. His trio of installations are interactive, urging the viewer to claim their own experiences from them. Anonymous Portraits collects portraits acquired from studios along the LoC in Kashmir; the images, printed on delicate rice paper sheets, are fragile and haunting. Each photograph is lit up by a motion sensor light, bringing them out of the darkness.

Family Album, a kitsch book of old photographs taken by Dayal’s family, is mounted on a wall, allowing viewers to flip through it just as they would a real album. Also startling is Lightbox, an installation that illuminates contact sheets of his time in Kashmir, depicting the political turbulence that has ravaged the place for years. The images work like small windows— offering us fleeting glimpses of scared faces, a desolate landscape and strange violence.

Apart from the rich array of narrative context and imagistic styles that Postcards from the Interior offers, what’s also heartening is the arrival of newer names on the Indian photography scene. The works look at the world through fresh eyes, and, in the process, live up to the promise of the show’s title— to offer us glimpses of journeys on which the artists have just begun.