A date with contemporary India in Houston

This edition of the longest running photographic arts festival in the US — Houston’s FotoFest 2018 Biennial focuses on photography and new media art from India

March 09, 2018 08:04 pm | Updated 08:04 pm IST

  Houston calling:  (Clockwise from top) Apoorva Guptay’s ‘A Couple’; Pushpamala N.’s ‘The Slave and her Slave (after Ingres)’; and a still from Sarindar Dhaliwal’s first film/video project  Olive, Almond & Mustard

Houston calling: (Clockwise from top) Apoorva Guptay’s ‘A Couple’; Pushpamala N.’s ‘The Slave and her Slave (after Ingres)’; and a still from Sarindar Dhaliwal’s first film/video project Olive, Almond & Mustard

Stories have a universal appeal in making the mundane intriguing. It’s no wonder then, that storytelling happens to be one of the oldest tools of passing on information in the world. Traditions, customs, laws of the land and events might differ amongst cultures, but as soon as they’re transformed into stories, they become accessible experiences for one and all. One does not however arrive at a story empty handed. We come to new stories with our bags full of old ones and so, it is but natural that we also walk away with both — the newer additions making space within the already existing contents. The emptying of or the piling in of more stuff into our bags happens with our interaction with these new encounters, that vary with context. One that can be geographical, socio-economic or cultural, gender-based or historical. What separates us as people also unites us as citizens of a shared world.

In fact, it is often our most personal and most subjectively narrated experiences that strike a chord with complete strangers. UK-based photographer Mohini Chandra who uses family photographs in her work to “evoke memory and provide a way for people from different communities to ‘tell’ stories about their own experiences” couldn’t agree more. Chandra is one amongst 48 photographic and new media artists of Indian origin, from across the globe, to be showing work at the FotoFest 2018 Biennial in Houston, that commences today in Texas. Being the first and longest running photographic arts festival in the United States started in 1983 with its first ever biennial in 1986, it has been a pioneer in bringing international exposure to the arts from emerging regions. This year’s focus on South Asia is a first for the festival, which has previously turned its lens on Latin America (1992), Korea (2000), China (2008), Russia (2012) and the Arab World (2014).

Spotlighting the unknown

“It’s very important for the medium to stop limiting its history and understanding to Europe and America, it needs to accept difference from other cultures and continents,” explains Sunil Gupta, artist and lead curator for the biennial. “For an American audience, work by Indians both from India and the diaspora is virtually unknown. For them modern photography is a white American idea and that which is outside their knowledge framework does not exist,” he adds. Gupta along with FotoFest executive director and biennial co-curator Steven Evans travelled extensively, both across India and abroad, personally meeting artists and reviewing work that best portrays the various facets that constitute contemporary India.

Partition to present

The work chosen for the fest falls within the time frame of the last 20 years, though viewers familiar with India’s socio-economic and political history would be able to trace these roots back to seeds sown further back when the country went through huge economic and political transformations. Starting from Independence and post-Partition struggles of the 1950s to the more recent liberalisation of the economy in 1991 or insurgency of 1989 in Kashmir, impacts of these events are something which the nation is still grappling with. In addition to these, today’s India also struggles with caste and gender based violence, environmental issues, internal and external terrorism, amongst a host of other things. So if art reflects the society it emerges from, then the country today offers an endless spectrum of subjects to work with.

Personal projects like Chandra’s Kikau Street , where she revisits her father’s childhood house in Suva, Fiji, explores themes like migration, cross-cultural identity through personal history and memory. On a similar note stands Punjab born, Toronto based multi-media artist Sarindar Dhaliwal’s first film/video project Olive, Almond & Mustard , where she draws on her bitter sweet memories from childhood as a migrant to Southall, London in the 1950s-60s, trying to cope and fit into an alien new world. “My mother’s insistence on this grooming ritual (oiling and plaiting hair with almond oil and yoghurt), common in the country of her birth (India), was at odds with my desire to assimilate into the culture of my adopted homeland…,” she shares. Her film, “records this alienating experience, exacerbated by the political and journalistic diatribes against immigrants in England at that time.”

Change is the constant

Closer home, Mumbai-based photographer Apoorva Guptay through his work, Bombay Memorial tries to hold onto the fast fading ‘Bombay’ that he grew up in. His images, which he hopes to soon publish as a book, are a result of numerous walks through the streets and bylanes of the city over the years. Shot on film, Guptay’s Bombay resides in between what’s left of the older order of things and the transformation, as it unfolds. “If at all photography has something to lose, it’s the craft,” he states, referring to the second transformation that he is speculative about – that of the medium itself. With phone photography and Instagram, change is inevitable, but often comes at the consumerist and technological cost of damage to the craft, where ease of shooting and the need to share, throws technique, reasoning and responsibility out of the window.

The biennial also provides a platform to engage with both established and well-known names like Jitish Kallat, Pushpamala N., Shilpa Gupta and Pablo Bartholomew, as well as artists like Guptay, who are showcasing their work internationally for the very first time. To audiences who have perhaps missed out on some important works shown elsewhere at another point, this is a great opportunity to interact with the art over the six weeks of the biennial. To Evans, the biennial is as diverse a mix as the country it represents, where “…studio-based conceptual methodologies meet contemporary photo documentary and journalistic approaches, while poetic strategies dialogue with direct calls to activism and resistance.” Only fair, he reasons for a society as “heterogeneous” as India.

FotoFest 2018 Biennial will be held in Houston, Texas between March 10-April 22; f or more details see www.fotofest.org

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