subcon survey two/ whitechapel’s where three dreams cross & dayanita singh

The Whitechapel Gallery’s Where Three Dreams Cross [more info/artist list here] is another attempt to make up for long neglect. It’s sweepingly broad, with photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh ranging across 150 years and grouped thematically; Family, Portrait, Body Politic, etc. These bundle together anonymous studio portraits, family snaps, publicity cards and photojournalism; images historic and incidental, urban and rural, plus work from artists born in 1870 through to the 1970s -including Bani Abidi for example.

I have as many curatorial queries if not criticisms as there are images and they thematise around the question of who this is aimed at? But Where Three Dreams Cross is essential viewing. It’s a pay show, but admission is free for under 18s and all on Sunday mornings from 11-1 a.m. You’ll need hours or more than one visit and can’t rely on the catalogue which has useful texts but is a frustratingly incomplete record.

Quartet & Doppleganger [Two Amritas] fromRe-Take of Amrita 2001 Vivan Sundaram

Amongst the multitudes are famous people and princes, rare images of poets and musicians, familiar ones by the A.S.I., Lala Deen Dayal, Raghubir Singh and Ragu Rai, for example. What makes it work are the glimpsed treasures; a set of hand-tinted [or miniaturised, popular-style, peacocks and all] family portraits staged before temples, another of Sufi Pir Baba by Tapu Zaveri, selections from Jyoti Bhatt, Gauri Gill [see Bidoun’s Noise] and Aasim Akhtar, as well as the brilliant Unknown and Anonymous.

Then there are the peculiarly subcontinental linkages/lineages; Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s mesmerising self-portraits downstairs, as well as Vivan Sundaram‘s photo-montages of Umrao and his daughter Amrita Sher-Gil [aunt of VS, who is married to art critic Geeta Kapur who supplies a catalogue essay] upstairs. Then there are Nony Singh’s photographs of her family, including ‘Nixi’s’ young life up until she leaves for college in Ahmedabad, Gujarat…

Dayanita Singh: Nixi on Foot at the Dream Villa

Dream Villa 16 2007-08 Dayanita Singh

‘Nixi’ is Dayanita Singh, represented here by recent Dream Villa photographs in colour and her project of 7 fold-out booklets, Sent a Letter, which include Nony’s photographs with her own of Allahabad, Calcutta, Varanasi, etc. I’m torn between choosing one of DS’s poems -as she calls them- from Dream Villa and one of her mother’s family snaps.

Nony took photographs of her family obsessively, some of the evidence is on the wall, more of it is on Nixi’s face here. In the exhibition this image comes with vital additional notes; “Nixi on her way to study at the National Institute of Design. I just knew she was talented as an artist and fought with my protective husband to let her go. It was expensive. I had no idea what she would become one day”.

I was admiring too but a bit sceptical of what DS did in her early [intimate, ambivalent] tableaux of variously located privilege and desolate or evacuated grandeur. However, in parallel with her brilliant Myself Mona Ahmed [Scalo 2001] project -published with emails from subject to publisher- they promised much and have arrived at something very special. A few pages of MMA and Privacy [Steidl 2004] occupy a vitrine here.

Dream Villa‘s images of nocturnal street lights exemplify this specialness for me [see current Delhi show]; the familiarly angled, bolted-onto-anything lights of urban back streets and the edges of connected-up villages. I loved them when she showed them first in London [2008], recognising their airs -the times and spaces they illuminate- but wondered momentarily if that recognition was necessary for them to ‘work’. In fact, Dream Villa represents a clarified art that needs no referent -even if they can be found. It is what it is.

Nony’s image of Nixi about to set foot free is quietly exquisite. It reminds me of a letter of Emily Dickinson’s which asks; “How is your little Byron? Hope he gains his foot without losing his genius. Have heard it ably argued that the poet’s genius lay in his foot -as the bee’s prong and song are concomitant.” Nony’s image is of her own Byron gaining her foot, impatiently patient in shades of possessive release.

Where Three Dreams Cross is full of little moments of this kind. Little moments of layered resonance. Here Nixi in the eyes of Nony echoes the work of Vivan with his aunt and grandfather -minus self-consciousness and compelling perversity. Moments that insist upon further exploratory exhibitions of  depth, substance, context and celebration beyond this prefatory survey.

One thought on “subcon survey two/ whitechapel’s where three dreams cross & dayanita singh

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