INDIAN POEMS

Review by Rahul Bhattacharya
January 20, 2013

 

May be Removed at Will
Waswo X. Waswo
Galerie Romain Rolland, Alliance Française de Delhi
November 23- December 14, 2012

 Throwing the 'Book of Said' :
“The images in the series titled "India Poems" were produced between 1999 and 2004. Most were shot with an aging Rolleiflex, though some of the earlier images were made with a Nikon FE2”

‘May be Removed at Will’ could have been a warm harmless compilation of the chemical-process sepia-toned photographs that constituted the series ’India Poems’. It could have been a displaying of Waswo Waswo X’s early journey.  I did not know Waswo when he came to India, stared travelling, taking pictures, falling in love; but the Waswo i know of today has been opening up  notes on orientalism in a manner that  i would love our contemporary academics to. But getting into these questions of culture, power, gaze...has the capacity to take away our power to ‘remove the intervening word/image’.

In these years of the 2000s the art making and viewing culture of contemporary art has changed a lot. Those were the early times of the formation of ‘post colonial’ as an ideological practice, now heavy dose of neo-liberalism has made ideology (as a lived practice) unfashionable and yet in contemporary art,  politics has become as canonical as form was during modernism.  This change is even more dramatic in the context of photography...that has only recently forced the door and arrived on the round table of contemporary art practices in India. What struck me most was that formally these photographs (’India Poems’) was against-the-grain and formally far different from what we know and acknowledge as the mainstream of documentary photography in India (Richard Bartolomeo, Raghu Rai, Ram Rahman, Raghubir Singh, Jyoti Bhatt, Dayanita Singh) Yes, these photographs were definitely not playing to the Cartier Bresson ‘style’ of  the ‘western eye’ (both in the context of documentary and photography), nor was it in the (then) new wave coming in from the Royal College of Art London and New York.

The show has no catalogue, it comes with a booklet, a beautifully written short story by Waswo, which not only anchors the show and captures the changing history of the images.  It also goes a long way in helping us to mock situate-(contextualise) Waswo in the genre of the hundreds who comb the country called India, with cameras around them...clicking its mundane exotica. For a person who has been so sensitive about his location as an outsider...and has been increasingly made conscious about his ‘orientalist’ gaze, this mock/strategic situating works as a mode of subversion against the gaze the artist is himself subjected to. However, it also short story also helps us to understand Waswo’s self-consciousness as a photographer/artist, his personalisation of the picturesque and his strange falling in love with India.

The choice of sepia-tint itself is telling...Waswo was showing ’India Poems’ in the dominant days of black and white photography. The warm brown tints associated with sepia photography give pictures a classic, old-fashioned feel. , adding a sepia tone to a black and white photograph softens the image, giving it a warm, nostalgic feeling. This engagement with nostalgia marks the undercurrent of Waswo’s engagement with art. For most photographers the notion of analogue has been restricted to the medium, and the technical mastery of it. Waswo is one of the very few for whom the analogue is a worldview, precious and political. The love for the process, the journey, time and subjectivity inform the semantics of analogue for him, and this transcends the mode of printing and engulfs the manner in which the artist engages with the subject.

The show ‘May be Removed at Will’ takes this engagement with the gaze and subject matter further and has to be seen in the backdrop of his (exhibition and comic book) ‘Confessions of an Evil Orientalist’. The automated presumptions that the visuals of the India Poems series invoke have been skillfully inverted. We are no longer looking longer looking at photographs, but at etched glass and sepia tinted framed sculptures on the wall. This artistic strategy makes an intriguing and interactive exhibition. Words jumping at your eyes just before they pop in your brain...somehow preempting and stopping the pop...one takes a step back and comes closer again being drawn into the culture infused image text divide.  Waswo forces us to update our encounter with the politics of orientalism, reunderstand the 'western gaze' and bring back the importance of authorship in art theory.

This article first appeared in http://noplacetodie.blogspot.in