At gallery 8 in Whitechapel Gallery, London, there is a rather lovely image of the Pakistan-based artist Roohi Ahmed opening up her red velvet fabric sculpture, The Mantle. There is a dancer-like poise as she holds up a cloth part, while long strands of red thread fall in front of her. It’s almost like she has been caught in the midst of a performance.
This is a rare glimpse of Ahmed at work, photographed by the Indian artist Manisha Gera Baswani. Over the past 21 years, Baswani has been photographing artists, critics, writers, curators and other personalities from the South Asian art ecosystem as part of her ongoing artistic travelogue, Artists Through The Lens.
Now 140 of these images are being showcased by the Whitechapel Gallery as part of its show A Century Of The Artist’s Studio—a 100-year survey of the studio through the work of artists and image-makers from around the world. “Whether it be an abandoned factory, an attic or kitchen table, it is the artist’s studio where the great art of our time is conceived and created,” states the curatorial note. “In this multimedia exhibition, the wide-ranging possibilities and significance of these crucibles of creativity take centre stage and new art histories around the modern studio emerge through striking juxtapositions of under-recognised artists with celebrated figures in Western art history.”
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Baswani’s archive offers an informal view of the trajectory of South Asian art and the people behind some of its landmark phases. The artists seem at ease, offering a rare glimpse of their creative sanctuaries. So, you have Sonia Khurana, wearing long fake golden nails, smiling directly at the camera; Probir Gupta in a jubilant mood, framed against his work; the late Anjum Singh in a fit of the giggles; Nilima Sheikh at work in the quietude of her space; and Ram Kumar bent over his materials.
It all started with a conversation over lunch with friends Anjum Singh and Sheila Makhijani. Singh mentioned that a gallery wanted a photograph of her mother (Arpita Singh) and Nilima Sheikh when they were young, but she had been unable to find it. “I just joked that if we documented this lunch that we were having, we would be documenting history. And that kick-started the idea. I started this photographic journey with Anjum’s show at Art Inc. in 2001,” says Baswani. Till then, she had only been photographing the artist A. Ramachandran, whom she considers her guru.
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The camera became her Siamese twin, with Baswani carrying it everywhere, to studios, lunches, dinners, art show openings. The archive just happened, though. “Even when I paint, I don’t have a premeditated sketch or diary. I start with a blank piece of paper. That’s what I was doing with my photographic work,” she says. She only showed them to friends after 10 years on the job. “They said, ‘Do you realise what you have archived?’. That’s when it hit me, and I started approaching galleries that if so and so artist is coming, can I photograph them?” she explains.
Initially, some of the artists were not open to the idea. Over the years, however, as they witnessed the evolution of this self-funded project, they started asking her to come over. Today, Baswani finds herself centred and focused. “I am just letting my heart flow. Studios are very private spaces. Often, they are not accessible even to fellow artists. In a way I am giving access to them as well as to myriad working spaces which are spiritual sanctuaries for the creative soul,” she says.
Baswani feels privileged to have been able to view different ways of working at such close quarters. For instance, at Baiju Parthan’s studio, she saw his engagement with the lenticular. “I was thinking of working with it for my photo project but didn’t know how to go about it. Even when I have not been able to incorporate the insights directly into my work, or even if I have not agreed with an artist’s style, I am still learning,” she says.
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Baswani has divided her work into sections: artists from India, from Pakistan, writers and curators, gallerists, and friendships of the art world. “I have nearly 500 photos featuring friends. Those researching art would be interested in the kind of conversations that were happening, where they were taking place, and how they impacted art,” she says.
Artists Through The Lens can be viewed as part of A Century Of The Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020 at Galleries 1, 3, 8 and 9, Whitechapel Gallery, and Zilkha Auditorium, London, till 5 June.