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.

09.09. from baroda to bahrain and milton keynes; nasreen mohamedi

Arabic Letraset lettering from Nasreen’s studio memorabilia Ph Guy Mannes-Abbott

In September the fullest retrospective (Jan19link) so far of the work of the late Nasreen Mohamedi arrived at Milton Keynes Gallery. Nine years earlier, the curators of this travelling show, Grant Watson and Suman Gopinath, had asked me to write a catalogue essay for their ‘Drawing Space Contemporary Indian Drawing(Jan19link)  in London -which also featured Sheela Gowda and NS Harsha.

In 2000 NM’s work was almost unknown outside India and closely treasured within. It mesmerised me and became another of the endless roads that drew me to Gujarat. There I met her friends, as well as colleagues from Baroda’s Fine Art School where she taught for many years, most memorably the brilliant and beautiful Bhupen Khakhar who died in 2003. Before his death our friendship was sealed by witnessing the state-sponsored pogroms of 2002 [in which Muslims were burnt out and slaughtered across the state of Gujarat] trapped together in his car between burning road blocks and the main road where armed police gave cover to a well-organised ‘mob’.

Extreme close-up NM artwork: grid-ungrid-diagonal-to-curve Ph Guy Mannes-Abbott

MKG drew together two sets of drawings [from her family and the Glenbarra Museum, Japan], the broadest range of photographs yet shown, some diary pages, early collages and several vitrines of memorabilia and working materials. One of these contained photographs of her with family and friends, some of which were taken at Bhupen’s studio-home. One shows her with another artist-friend, Krishen Khanna, long the owner of my great grandfather’s colonial bungala in Simla, where his studio is ‘cut’ in to the mountainside.

NM’s reputation has continued to grow since 2000, especially after she was ‘discovered’ at Documenta 12 in 2007! I expected MKG’s comprehensive exhibition to trigger proper recognition as well as consolidate her art historical place. While the latter is an ongoing process, it was disappointing to see that she remains just a little bit too much to take on board for incurious British minds yet.

Close-up NM photograph of sea water, foam and lines in the sand Ph Guy Mannes-Abbott

However I was happy to be asked by Bidoun to review the exhibition and although it’s only a short piece, no less delighted to see it in the current issue Noise [Winter 09/10] which you can rush out and buy! I’ll post it here eventually but meanwhile here are some other links;

The Drawing Space catalogue remains the best introduction to NM, reproduces some drawings, extracts from her uniquely worked diaries -including a reproduction- and a photograph of her minimal studio. Copies of the elegant little book [which is as good on Gowda and Harsha] are still available for £7 at inIVA here, or Cornerhouse here.

Norway’s OCA originated a smaller version of ‘NM: Notes – Reflections on Indian Modernism [Pt 1]’. Their site has a page linking to a pdf [8.51mb] of a booklet with some reproductions and a text by Grant Watson. A version of Grant’s text is also in Afterall magazine’s Summer 09 Issue, No. 21 here. That issue of Afterall contains the best reproductions of NM’s notoriously difficult to reproduce work currently available.

In NY The Drawing Center produced a good publication for their ‘Lines among lines‘ show in 2005, including Geeta Kapur’s revised essay on her friend, which I once thought eulogistic but now find increasingly resonant. Talwar Gallery in NY has an artist’s page of drawings and the photographic ‘sketches’ which she never intended to show but which are fascinating.

Until a properly thorough monograph exists with suitably high quality reproductions of the work, the best source remains Nasreen in Retrospect Ashraf Mohamedi Trust Bombay 1995.