Not a frozen frame

Cut-out context: The display reframes existing photographs and juxtaposes them with each other to offer rich insights into complex visual narratives   -  JENNIFER KISHAN

An art installation in Kolkata uses The Hindu’s archival images not merely to retell old history but tease out fresh and overlooked narratives

Can archival images be freed from the grip of linear history? Can shifting the focus and edit bring into view subaltern narratives? Do cut-out fragments of an image still preserve its authentic voice that tells a story? A Photogenetic Line, an ongoing art installation exhibition at Kolkata’s Experimenter Gallery, expands the definition of a photo archive and its myriad possibilities.

Put together by an artists’ group that calls itself Studio CAMP, the exhibition engages creatively with news photographs from the archives of The Hindu. Cut-outs of the images are propped on a wooden shelf that’s about 100 feet long and snakes around the gallery. As we move along the shelf, reading the accompanying captions, we can slowly connect the dots. Questions of what constitutes art and whether photography, that too reportage, can be called art, melt away. You find yourself immersed in the many stories they tell, and the many histories from the periphery they record — whether it’s marginalised groups and movements such as the queer community and oppressed castes or the politics of language and regional identities.

As the handout for the exhibition states, the cut-outs seek to “create a new boundary or border for the image. A border, interior or exterior, that leads us to the next image”. Consider this visual line — a large cut-out of a computer keyboard and a screen flashing a digital horoscope, resembling a Pac-Man game. The cut-out next in line has the image of a young boy on a PC alongside CDs marked “Freedom”; the caption tells us he has been rescued from the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir. Up next is an image of the Kashmiri politician Mehbooba Mufti seated on a plastic chair and inaugurating a computer lab in Anantnag (2015). Behind this is a large, sepia image of a chair-weaver at work (1976). Then follows an image by photojournalist Nissar Ahmed showing protesters throwing chairs at the police in Miasuma, Srinagar (2014). The viewer’s eyes next linger on a BSF jawan taking cover under a pile of chairs during a heavy downpour in Humhama, Srinagar (2017). This is followed by a 2007 photograph taken by Kashmir journalist Shujaat Bhukhari, who was gunned down in 2018, of the Aman Setu — a bridge that connects India and Pakistan.

The line of images is non-chronological, yet in just these seven frames we are walked through 41 years of historical images.

CAMP’s description of the work gives us some pointers to decode the sequences — people in the images grow older, or younger; things in the background come to the foreground or vice versa; two photo captions refer to each other. The viewer gains rich insights from complex visual narratives. For instance, Ahmed’s image of a funeral, with a cloud of tear-gas in the background, morphs into another tear-gas cloud in Osmania University, Hyderabad. The next two cut-outs are of napping travellers in parks in Hyderabad (2007) and Chennai (2013), who now appear to be the casualty of this gas.

In another sequence, a frame showing protesting crowds at a 1967 cricket match in Kolkata’s Eden Gardens merges with the next cut-out of a 1980 farmers’ protest around the [anti-caste reformer] Periyar statue at Anna Salai, Madras (now Chennai); this very statue is later an obstruction to traffic in a cut-out from 2017.

The exhibition challenges our perception that archives solely have the role of preserving history. The cut-outs are not just a documentation of history but of art itself: The fragments tell a story that is both authentic and interesting.

The exhibition was first installed at the Chennai Photo Biennale in March 2019. The archive itself is located at the Chennai headquarters of The Hindu. Several iconic political and cultural figures from South India are featured in the installation. These include political stalwarts Periyar, Jayalalithaa and MG Ramachandran, snooker player A Kamala Devi and kalaripayattu artiste Shaji John. It includes places of regional importance such as the Roja Muthaiah Research Library in Chennai, the burnt-down Public Library in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, and a giant boulder on which an inscription in Tamil-Brahmi script from second century BC was discovered.

CAMP’s art installation is a “re-presenting” of photo archives while retaining the medium’s integrity. It is not a construction of new history but, as the handout says, a “reframing of existing photographs as new organisms”. Language politics, science and technological advancements, environmental degradation, people’s movements, and the triumphs and falls of the Indian subcontinent are intricately interwoven here. By changing the scale and size of the images and juxtaposing them in different ways, the exhibition assigns new meanings to these old photographs and changes the way in which the viewer navigates the line of vision. Ergo, A Photogenetic Line prompts the viewer’s eye to move like a camera lens, adjusting and readjusting itself to create complex combinations and view the unknown world of a 140-year-old newspaper’s archive with fresh perception.

On view at Experimenter Gallery, Hindustan Road, Kolkata till July 15

Jennifer Kishan is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in Kolkata

Published on July 05, 2019
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