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Beyond the borders

  • A trans-media project ‘Look, Stranger!’ curated by Rahaab Allana will be showcased at the upcoming Serendipity Arts Festival
  • The project is a critical platform for lens-based practitioners in South Asia to explore notions of community, migration and belonging

Rahaab Allana, curator of ‘Look, Stranger!’
Rahaab Allana, curator of ‘Look, Stranger!’ (Photo Courtesy Rahaab Allana/Serendipity Arts Foundation)

At first, Sadia Marium’s photographs from the Noise Mapping series look like black and white abstract paintings. When you get closer, you realize they are photograms, which use a special manual printing technique on photo paper. One work, titled Korail And People Of Korail, stands out as a landscape of memory. Punctuated with scratches and stitches sewn on to the print, it signifies the violence and noise of survival faced by residents of one of the largest slums in Bangladesh. As mentioned in her artist statement, Dhaka-based artist Marium, drawn to docu-fiction, repeatedly questions clichés, social codes, public and private memories, and noise in her practice. The series is part of the trans-media project Look, Stranger! curated by Rahaab Allana. The project draws on an aesthetic philosophy inspired by the Bauhaus movement, which is celebrating its centenary year in 2019. And at a time when the world is becoming further fragmented by borders—both physical and metaphorical—Look, Stranger! becomes a critical platform for lens-based practitioners in South Asia to explore notions of community, migration and belonging. In an interview with Lounge, Allana talks about exploring the relationship between the “self" and the “world" in Look, Stranger!. Edited excerpts:

How are you formulating people’s history through photography?

Photography is one medium that undercuts this question of who has the privileged voice and who doesn’t. Because we can all share this medium in some way. Using that, we are trying to show that when people migrate—when they are exiled and words such as the “other" are used to describe them—it has a sociopolitical and sociocultural resonance. I started looking at works and projects—the Dalit photo histories by the Nepal Picture Library and the dissertation archives of the National Institute of Design (NID)—in which the personal, the social and the community have become an important part of the vocabulary. Also, in the past four-five years, there has been a focus on why cultural institutions such as museums can’t be people’s institutions in some way—why can’t they show people’s histories? An intervention is required there, which is why this project is part of the festival.

‘I Could Not Save You’ by Tahia Farhin Haque, to be shown as part of Allana’s project at the Serendipity Arts Festival.
‘I Could Not Save You’ by Tahia Farhin Haque, to be shown as part of Allana’s project at the Serendipity Arts Festival. (Photo Courtesy Rahaab Allana/Serendipity Arts Foundation)

How are you approaching the notion of “borders" in the project?

This year, I was interested in taking the question of “media" a little further, and I decided to approach it in two ways. First, when photography came to India in the 19th century, a lot of the borders didn’t exist the way they do today. These are all modern borders. So, when you are establishing a world history of photography, you can’t view the subcontinent as an isolated entity. You have to factor in South Asia as a region in its entirety. Hence, the effort this year is to look at contemporary practices from across South Asia.

I am also looking at media history. For the first time, film and photography were brought together at an exhibition called Film And Photo in Stuttgart in 1929. This was under the larger umbrella of the Bauhaus school, which has had a huge influence on India through the NID and the JJ School of Art. It has been 90 years since this intervention was made in an “exhibitionary" space. In a commemorative effort, we are looking at interesting stories about where film and photography are headed today.

What is the kind of groundwork that has gone into ‘Look, Stranger!’?

I have an understanding of the lens-based practices in South Asia through my work for PIX, India’s first photography quarterly. But there was a need to learn more, so I started looking at ad hoc photo societies, smaller print journals, design and artist studios. Questions of inclusivity came forth from various conversations. I selected a poem from 1930 by W.H. Auden, titled Look, Stranger!.

It is apt that the exhibition will play out in Goa, which is located on the edge of water. And Auden wrote this poem while gazing upon ships going out to sea. He did not know where they were going or what they will encounter. It is in such a moment that one starts questioning one’s identity and all that one is familiar with. This leads to a moment of estrangement. It seems perfectly apt for the times that we live in today, when the media is so dynamic and diverse. How do you bring to life the moment when the shift in the media mirrors the shift in our identities?

I am suggesting that being estranged is something we should embrace. I want to change this sense that strangers are people we should alienate or be afraid of—rather, we should learn from them. I am delving into various archives to see the global cultural resonances affecting India. I am also looking at the transition from newly-found independence to the post-independence period through films from the Films Division of India.

Are there certain filters that you are viewing the contemporary works through?

I am looking at four subdivisions: the questions of affiliation, alienation and emplacement—which is about embedded histories. Lastly, there is an invocation to something that all media practices ought to do, which is to make us aware of the other worlds and dimensions—virtual or real—that exist outside the bounds of known realities. I am looking at animation, photography and archives. Using filters of history, we can look at the contemporary in a new or recontextualized light. Which is why I think Look, Stranger! is important today, with its questions of transmigration, transnationality, cross-pollination and cross-cultural identities. How do we place ourselves within these? In bringing this exhibition together, we have followed a particular trajectory: We have started with an aesthetic premise and then go on to the ethical questions. And then we move towards taking a position, in that order.

Noise Mapping can be seen at the Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa, from 15-22 December.

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