Photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh

An exhibition at the Whitechapel captures the many faces of the subcontinent.

 

A man stands in shorts, facing the camera and arranging his very long hair, arms stretched to display his bare chest. This impressive self-portrait by the Punjabi philosopher and photographer Umrao Singh Sher-Gil is one of over 400 works by 82 artists from the Indian subcontinent on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

"Where Three Dreams Cross" is a landmark exhibition that explores culture and modernity through the lens of a wide range of photographers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

"One of the key things about the show," says Sunil Gupta, the show's co-curator, "is that it looks at native-born photographers.

"We are quite familiar with the history of photography about India as written mostly in Europe and America. But it has never been really about the people there and how they might see themselves, like in a mirror, and interpret their own experiences for their families and their context.

"In this show the focus is just on ideas of self-determination and self-representation."

The works on display range in date from the earliest days of photography in the 19th century to the present day -- from early 19th-century "ruh khitch" photographs (known as "spirit-pulling", because the photographer literally pulled the photographs out from his portable camera, and people thought their own spirits were in this way being abstracted) to Big Bird Retake II, a startling series of video stills representing the dance of an oversized naked body by the Indian-born artist Sonia Khurana.

"My work is about the body, the idea of beauty. It is about flying," she says. "We need to dismantle stereotypes of beauty, as well as to get rid of the stereotyped images that the western world still has of our country."

Khurana's stills are a good example of the way that multiple faces of the subcontinent are explored in this show, ordered according to five themes: portrait; performance; everyday family life; the street and the built environment; and finally the turbulent political history of the region.

 

Pink and blue

Among the most interesting works on display are some finely hand-painted archival images of the maharajas. These are juxtaposed with portraits of the contemporary descendants of royal families, displaced from their original settings and living very different lives from those of their forefathers.

There are other striking juxtapositions: for example, remarkable vintage albums about the "Hijra" community, documenting gatherings of people of the "third sex", are displayed alongside Karachi Lady Boy, a disenchanted examination of the lives of transsexuals in India today.

Some of these photographs are visually compelling. A spectacular blue-skinned Krishna towers over a pink silk background. Elsewhere, we are offered, seated in a bedroom, a domesticated, suburban and somewhat melancholic version of the same character.

The Indian artist Pushpamala N reimagines, to considerable effect, the populist genre of the Bollywood still. The photojournalist Raghu Rai catches Mother Teresa of Calcutta in a stunningly intimate moment. Sunil Janah is present, too, with his heroic pictures of the working class.

In his diptych Twins, the Pakistani artist Rashid Rana places large and small images in a fertile dialogue. The largest of the pictures is a sort of close-up of the façade of the twin towers in New York, while the smaller ones are of homes in Lahore. The message is that vertical cities, such as New York, Hong Kong or Dubai, are built by people living in the horizontal cities, the sprawling masses of the subcontinent.

Rana, incidentally, is among the artists chosen by the Saatchi Gallery to represent contemporary Indian art in the recently opened "Empire Strikes Back" exhibition, which I will blog about next week.

Streets washed by monsoon rains, ancient palaces, the silence of private homes, significant moments in politics -- all these are designed to steer us away from familiar post-colonial imagery and to deliver instead a sense of the sheer complexity and diversity of a huge region.

"This exhibition negates the borders between the three countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh," says the Karachi-based photographer Tapu Javeri, whose work is represented at the Whitechapel in a series of portraits of holy men. "It speaks of the photographic history of the whole subcontinent. I'm proud of being part of this."

"Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh" is at the Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX, until 11 April.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.