The greatest privilege for me is when my work lives in people’s homes: Dayanita Singh

The photographer, who has won the prestigious Hasselblad Award, says it has much to do with the book objects and the museums she has created

April 21, 2022 04:42 pm | Updated April 25, 2022 10:21 am IST

Dayanita Singh

Dayanita Singh | Photo Credit: Illustration by R Rajesh

Dayanita Singh, distinguished artist, recently won the prestigious Hasselblad Award, 2022. In this excerpted interview, she reflects upon the importance of non-Western contexts of image production and reception, new paradigms of aesthetic engagement and how she continually re-defines her own practice by transforming, both conceptually and materially, the form of photography.

How did you respond to receiving one the most important awards for the arts?

When they told me about the award, I thought: it can’t be, why me? And then I realised, it’s all those book objects and the museums that I have been creating. For many years, I had been trying to shift the print from the wall, the book from the bookshelf, to free photography from itself. I like to think the award acknowledges that.

Dayanita Singh at the Hasselblad statue

Dayanita Singh at the Hasselblad statue | Photo Credit: Christina Bäckman, The Hasselblad Foundation

I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I would get the Hasselblad Award because the list of previous awardees goes back to all the ‘masters’ — Ansel Adams to Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank to Daido Moriyama, to last year’s winner Alfredo Jaar — all the people one studied, admires, contradicts and is in conversation with. It is the most prestigious award in photography given to recognise and validate major shifts in the medium.

Apart from the very formal award ceremony, which will be held in Gothenburg in October, the Hasselblad Foundation also commissions an exhibition and a book, inviting a writer to be in conversation with the awardee’s work. They asked Orhan Pamuk and he said yes!

With your ongoing retrospective at Gropius Bau in Berlin, one sees many image horizons and media thresholds constantly being crossed in terms of form. How does it mark your journey as a photographer?

It’s been 13 years since I made Sent a Letter, the box that holds within it seven miniature exhibitions. I was desperate to find another form for photography, and to create a space between the gallery and the publisher. In the exhibition at Gropius Bau, there is a room of silver prints from Go Away Closer, a room with Sent a Letter (Steidl) in vitrines, then another room with the large wooden Museum of Chance. The next room has the Zakir Hussain maquette (Steidl) on the wall. The amazing thing to me, is that each work holds the room, whether it’s the prints on the wall, the book object, or the large mobile museums. All on par with each other. Of course this also has to do with the finest curating by Stephanie Rosenthal.

Museum Bhavan

Museum Bhavan | Photo Credit: Bilal Quereshi, The Hasselblad Foundation

I think between the award and this retrospective, it’s become clear to me that multiple forms can and will coexist in photography. That’s what I love about photography, its endless potential. You point to the two newest directions in my work: the painted photographs on one side, and the architecture montages, but then the Mona [Ahmed] montages also happened, and I don’t know what will happen next. It’s such a privilege to engage with a medium that is so vast and expansive — that’s why I get irritated when people only think of the print on the wall or the book as a catalogue.

What are the broader questions being addressed by the Museum work?

I love the idea of the museum, but there’s a huge difference in the way we think of museums in this part of the world. We’re not so intimidated by museums. I’ve been obsessed with ‘house museums’, all over this country. The MGR museum over the King George museum any day. It’s my way of entering the city. And then I go to these large, quite sterile institutional museums in the West where I can’t touch anything, where there’s no movement. I feel my own works got fossilised behind glass. But when my Museum Bhavan box is in your house, it is alive, you are its curator. What photography has taught me is that art needs to be disseminated and that is the driving force behind my book objects and museums. Of course, to be in MoMA or the Tate [Modern] is a huge privilege, to have large museums acquire my museums. But the greatest privilege for me is when my work lives in people’s homes.

Can you speak to a future young artist / viewership about some of the challenges you have encountered?

The most important thing is to build a voice of one’s own. Obviously it’s developed in relation to other histories, people, conversations, mentors, etc. It takes time but that is the most valuable asset: your own voice. And you have to protect it.

Museum of Chance

Museum of Chance | Photo Credit: Dayanita Singh, The Hasselblad Foundation

To younger people I would say, be very careful about how your identity gets used or misused. Don’t let people define you by your gender or geography. It can only take you so far.

The third thing I would say to younger photographers is, keep thinking about the ‘other aspects’ of photography because that’s where its secrets lie. The image is just one part of it, a starting point. Dissemination is key. Keep questioning the medium, wrestle with it and find your own forms for it. All the questions for me come from photography, but the answers come from different and distant disciplines. Photography is just the medium.

The writer is curator, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, and founder, ASAP Connect App.

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