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January 24, 2010

Why Whitechapel Art Gallery’s 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is a landmark exhibit.

Whitechapel Art Gallery launched the colossal exhibit Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh on the 21st January. I say colossal as there are three separate floors of photographs, spanning from the early days of photo studios - leading to contemporary work from the last decade. The exhibit has been launched as a ‘landmark’ and I suppose it is; considering it’s the first time such an array of work, from such a diverse time-scale and series of regions has come together.  I can’t claim to have seen any thing similar.

Being a photography exhibit, I expected the usual, crisp white walls – thick black frames, and to some extent – this is what you get in the opening section, a stylised depiction of portraiture – all looking quite chic (subjects with deep set kohl eyes and large plays of shadow etc). Look long enough and you begin to get a deeper understanding of the people and lives behind the frame.

The exhibition is thematically divided into the following four sections: Performance, Portrait, Family and Streets – quite broad themes you might say. I had assumed that it might be too tight to put everything under these labels. However, you soon come to realise the nature of the work is varied enough to adequately match – and the labels themselves do carry a lot. The evolution of ‘Streets’ for example demonstrates a variety of work from everyday life, pollution, housing, construction, political strife and cultural change.

As you move through the ground floor you enter the magical world of Performance. Naturally you’d expect to see a bit of Bollywood here, and the exhibit certainly delivers – without it seeming too gaudy or campishly over-styled.  Intermingled with this are some rather retro styles of photography. Artists have used golden embellishment to bring out certain colours and odd tints to emphasise other features of their work. So the exhibit itself becomes a self-portrait of style through the ages. Contributing to this idea is the fact that all the photographers or artists if you prefer, are themselves Asian.

So if this exhibit is a picture of three dreams through three nations, what does it tell us? The stern erect stance of many of the initial subjects speaks of a time gone by where portraiture would have reflected a stricter regimented society (no smiling please). This fashion seems to have bled through into the forties and fifties – only really breaking with the growth of the film industry – inspiring and encouraging free expression and artistic range, as well as taking on international influence. As the pictures continue – they embrace movement and braver compositions. Only now do you begin to sense the heat, dirt and murmur of the world within.

As such, the newer photographs seem daring, mysterious and occasionally sexual. So, as I went through the different themes on the different floors, I noticed similar adventurous streaks in different arenas. One of my favourite works was Farida Batool’s holographic girl skipping, Nai Reesan Sher Lahore Diyan, 2006. It’s composed of a grimy urban scene as the background, while a girl skips in the foreground. The immediate juxtaposition of the illuminated girl and the darker world behind speaks volumes. These are places where despite pre-existing turmoil and ongoing uncertainty – people simply carry on as normal.

In fact, many artists draw on this theme: the notion of taking glorious snapshots of miniature moments amidst a larger unstable back-drop. Syed Mohamad Adil’s Protest Against Lack of Electricity and Water Shortage at Martin Colony, Karachi, 2008 is perhaps not the snappiest of titles, but it captures an excellent moment as a man leaps over a burning fire. It is the spirit of the subject which becomes the prominent feat of capture.

Ultimately, I suppose this is a landmark exhibit. It draws together the common threads of cultural, social and political change across three nations in a succinct and organic way - and although there is lots more I would included in such a vast period, there’s plenty to get your teeth into with the current offering.

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