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A multifaceted co-published and edited volume visualised and structured as a themed reader, Unframed (co-published by the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and HarperCollins Publishers India) presents the complex dimensions of South Asia-oriented lens-based practices from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. This compilation presents diverse texts in close dialogue with each other and traces the development of the medium of photography in the region through linked aesthetic, socio-historical and national trajectories.
Drawing upon the broader cultural narrative of representation in South Asia, this reader’s five sections address key issues of perennial interest to students, scholars, connoisseurs and arts educators/initiatives/institutions, as well as amateur and professional artists involved in traditional and/or cross-disciplinary, cross-media photographic work. Revised seminal critiques, new commissioned essays and expansive interviews with practitioners and curators explore the subtle entanglements of memory and space; the metaphysics of the image; the reification and rupture of knowledge taxonomies; the bricolage of selfhood; the edicts of the gaze; identity and community; the participatory turn; and the unstable politics of sharing moments in time through more inclusive exhibition and festival formats.
Anoli Perera, Aparna Kumar, Ashmina Ranjit, Aveek Sen, Bakirathi Mani, Christopher Pinney, David Odo, Dechen Roder, Geeta Kapur, Gopesa Paquette, Hammad Nasar, Ismeth Raheem, Mrinalini Venkateswaran, Nancy Adajania, NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, Nathalie Johnston, Omar Khan, Premjish Achari, Rahul Roy, Raqs Media Collective, Sabeena Gadihoke, Sabih Ahmed, Sai Htin Linn Htet, Saloni Mathur, Savitri Sawhney, Shahidul Alam, Sudhir Mahadevan, Sukanya Baskar, Tanzim Wahab, Yu Yu Myint Than
At last we have an anthology of texts that dares to address the full range of photographies produced by and about South Asia. Offering a diverse array of voices and approaches, this welcome collection has been carefully curated to traverse the historical sweep of subcontinental photography, from its inception to the present, and from local practices to global perspectives. Anyone interested in photography is going to have to read this book…”
– Geoffrey Batchen, History of Art, University of Oxford
Book and Cover Design: Ishan Khosla Design LLP, New Delhi, India
Cover image detail: Sanjeev Maharjan, From the series Mark Making, 2013
About the Authors
ANOLI PERERA is an artist and arts writer based in India and Sri Lanka, and a co-founder of Theertha International Artists Collective, Colombo. She studied political science, economics, sociology and international affairs, and began her career as a visual artist during a five-year stay in the US. She is recognized as a pioneering progressive contemporary Sri Lankan woman artist, creating work deeply informed by feminism, and through her practice engaging with complex themes of identity, gender, history, mythology, nationality/nation and colonial/postcolonial anxieties.
APARNA KUMAR is Lecturer in Art and Visual Cultures of the Global South in the History of Art Department at University College, London (UCL). She received her PhD in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2018, and was a Lecturer in Art History at UCLA and a Curatorial Research Assistant at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles before joining UCL in 2020. Her research and teaching span modern and contemporary South Asian art, twentieth-century partition history, museum studies and postcolonial theory.
ASHMINA RANJIT is Nepal’s leading conceptual interdisciplinary artist and social activist. She received her MFA from Columbia University, and has been at the forefront of an ‘Artivism’ (art+activism) movement through provocative installations and performances that seek to interrogate, challenge and confront the political and cultural status quo in Nepal. She consciously positions herself as a Third World ‘artivist’, and her process-driven works embed and explore themes of ‘otherness’ and the subversion of cultural stereotypes within the cultural specificities of South Asia. In 2007 she established LASANAA/NexUs as an alternative art community/hub in Kathmandu, a space for the collective conceptualization of politically inspired projects that promote a creative and critical Nepal.
AVEEK SEN (1965-2021) was an independent scholar, critic and teacher in the fields of photography, cinema, the visual arts, music and literature. He studied English literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and received his MA as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, where he continued his academic career as a Gulbenkian Research Fellow in European history and culture at Wolfson College and as a lecturer in English at St Hilda’s College. He was a senior editor with The Telegraph, Kolkata, for many years. He received the 2009 Infinity Award for Writing on Photography by the International Center for Photography, New York.
BAKIRATHI MANI is Professor in the Department of English Literature, and a co- founder of the Tri-College Asian American Studies Program at Swarthmore College. She earned her MA in Modern Indian History from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and her PhD in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University. An interdisciplinary scholar of Asian American studies, postcolonial studies, feminist studies and Queer of Color studies, she works across visual, ethnographic, historical and literary archives to examine how South Asian diasporic identities and communities are formed, embodied and lived. Her scholarship has been widely published, and as a curator of South Asian diasporic visual cultures she regularly collaborates with artists, academics and activists in the US and South Asia.
CHRISTOPHER PINNEY is Professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture at University College, London. He is a widely published authority on the visual cultures of India and South Asia at large, and his seminal research studies include The Coming of Photography in India (2008), Photos of the Gods (2004), and Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs (1998). He has published widely on academic platforms and in scholarly print and online journals. He is currently leading ‘Photodemos/Citizens of Photography’, a longer-term empirical anthropological study project funded by the European Research Council, investigating how local communities use photography to re-consider individual, social and political identities and their relationships with political citizenship.
DAVID ODO is the Director of Academic and Public Programs, Division Head and Research Curator at the Harvard Art Museums. Odo received his DPhil in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Oxford, and is a visual and material anthropologist, with primary research and teaching interests in the anthropology of art, and including early photography (especially of Japan), critical museology, and medical pedagogy in museums. He oversees the Harvard Museums’ academic and public programs, working closely with Museums colleagues and faculty/students from across campus. His current project is a monograph about photography and history in Japan’s Ogasawara Islands, which examines photographs and other visual images related to the Japanese colonisation of the islands and their cosmopolitan population from the 1830s to the present.
DECHEN RODER is a filmmaker from the Kingdom of Bhutan, where media/social media operate under state scrutiny and regulation. Self-trained, she began her career in 2009 making short commercial video assignments through her company Dakinny Productions before turning to documentary and then to fiction films. In 2015 she wrote and directed Lo Sum Choe Sum (‘3 Year 3 Month Retreat’), which competed in the Berlinale Shorts and other festivals around the world. Her debut feature film Honeygiver among the Dogs (recipient of the HANIFF 2014 Project Market award and the ACF 2016 post-production award) premiered at the Busan International Film Festival 2017, had its European premiere at Berlinale 2017 and won three awards at the Fribourg International Film Festival 2017.
GEETA KAPUR is a Delhi-based critic and curator. Her books include Contemporary Indian Artists (New Delhi: Vikas, 1978), When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2020) and Critic’s Compass: Navigating Practice (New Delhi: Tulika Books, forthcoming). Her essays on alternative modernisms and national paradigms, on forms of critical contemporaneity, and on curatorial positioning of artworks in India and the global South have been extensively published. A founder-editor of the Journal of Arts & Ideas, she has served on the advisory board of Third Text and ARTMargins, and as trustee and advisory board member of Marg. Geeta Kapur is a trustee of the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation (SSAF) and series editor of Art Documents, published by SSAF-Tulika Books.
GOPESA PAQUETTE is a visual artist/educator who teaches students with special needs, and develops arts-based projects with marginalised groups. Born of Franco-Canadian parents, he spent his childhood in the North American neo-Hindu communities of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). The experience of transitioning out of this community into wider Canadian society motivated his work on identity and the dynamics of marginalisation. Gopesa’s lens-based practice combines journalism, arts education and research, with a thematic focus on transmission, filiation and transcultural experience, and the interplay between textual and image-based communication.
HAMMAD NASAR is a London-based writer and researcher known for collaborative, research-driven and exhibition-led inquiry. He is presently Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London, and co-curator (with Irene Aristizábal) of the British Art Show 9 (2020–2022). He was the inaugural Executive Director of the Stuart Hall Foundation, London (2018–2019) and Head of Research & Programmes at Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong (2012–2016). He co-founded the pioneering arts organization/gallery Green Cardamom, London (2004-12) with Anita Dawood.
ISMETH RAHEEM is an architect based in Colombo, who after graduating from the Royal Danish Academy in 1969, worked as an Assistant architect with Geoffrey Bawa between 1963-1978 and collaborated with him on a number of key projects such as the Colombo YWCA, the Serendib Hotel and the Agrarian Research and Training Institute. Recognised as one of Asia’s leading architects, he has not only contributed to architectural design but also worked as an artist with Bawa including his residence. He has extensively written on the history of photography, painting and printmaking in Sri Lanka.
MRINALINI VENKATESWARAN was educated at M.S. University, Baroda (BA) and the Universities of Durham (MA) and Cambridge (PhD). A Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, she is a historian of modern South Asia. Her research has been supported by the Cambridge Trust, Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, J.N. Tata Endowment, Royal Asiatic Society and Royal Historical Society, among others. She currently holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is researching the role of princely patronage of the arts and museums in developing a national imaginary in independent India.
NANCY ADAJANIA is a cultural theorist and curator based in Mumbai. She has written extensively on the works of four generations of Indian women artists, and has proposed several new theoretical models through her extensive writings on media art, public art, the biennial culture, transcultural art practices and collaborative art practices. She was Joint Artistic Director of the 9th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju/South Korea, in 2012, and has curated a number of exhibitions, including, most recently Woman Is as Woman Does (JNAF and PR Gallery, CSMVS Museum, Bombay, 2022). One of Nancy’s key preoccupations is the retrieval of artistic positions that have been marginalized from canonical accounts of Indian art history.
NATHALIE JOHNSTON is an independent curator who specialises in contemporary art from South and Southeast Asia. She was based in Yangon, Myanmar from 2012-2021. In 2016 she founded Myanm/art, an alternative exhibition space, archive and library located in Yangon dedicated to promoting exchange, opportunities, and inclusion for young artists from diverse backgrounds, and to prioritising the aspirations of the new generation of practitioners; she remains co-director of Myanm/art while currently residing in Washington DC. In 2013 she co-founded Myanmar Art Resource Centre and Archive (MARCA), an initiative directed towards becoming the largest bilingual digital resource on the history and current state of the arts in Myanmar.
NAYANTARA GURUNG KAKSHAPATI is a Nepal-based photographer and curator. She studied International Relations and Studio Art at Mt Holyoke College, Massachusetts and documentary photography at the SALT Institute of Documentary Studies, Maine. Her work seeks to embrace themes such as change, identity, gender and history within the context of ‘the New Nepal’. In 2007 NayanTara co-founded photo.circle, a photography collective that has created a vibrant space for emerging and professional photographers in Nepal. In 2010 she co-founded the Nepal Picture Library, a digital photo archive that documents and creates engagement with a public history of the Nepali people. She is Co-founder and Festival Director of Photo Kathmandu. She was awarded the 2020-2022 Jane Lombard Fellowship by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School, New York.
OMAR KHAN grew up in Vienna and Islamabad. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Columbia University and Stanford University, he has researched colonial photography and ephemera of the subcontinent for thirty years. This passion led him to acquire a large collection of early postcards that became the subject of his path-breaking book Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj (Mapin/ACP, 2018). Since 1995 Omar has been managing the website harappa.com, a portal dedicated to the ancient Indus/Harappan Civilization (3500-1700 BCE), that presents research by leading area scholars from around the world. An avid historian, award-winning web designer and aspiring filmmaker, he is currently Chief Technology Officer at Common Sense Media in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.
PREMJISH ACHARI teaches art history and theory at Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida. A Delhi-based writer and curator, he is the initiator of Future Collaborations, a curatorial platform supporting the development of theoretically and politically informed curation as an essential aspect of contemporary arts practice. He was the recipient of the Pro Helvetia Art Writers’ Award 2021. In 2018 his work in developing new curatorial paradigms was recognised through the Prameya Art Foundation’s Art Scribes Award that included a residency at Château de La Napoule, France. He was co-curator of the Bhubaneswar Art Trail 2018; a Khoj Fellow for Curatorial Intensive South Asia (CISA) 2017; and received the Inlaks/TAKE on Art Travel Grant for Young Critics in 2016.
RAHAAB ALLANA is Curator/Publisher, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi); founding editor of PIX, a digital platform with a themed focus on South Asian lens-based practices and production; and founder of ASAP (Alternative South Asia Photography/ Art; the region’s first app for presentation and discussion of creative/cultural work by young practitioners. A Charles Wallace awardee and Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, he received his MA in Art History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London and was Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Visual Anthropology at University College, London. He was Guest Editor for a Delhi-themed issue of Aperture (Summer 2021). He is the editorial board of Trans Asia Photography, and serves on the advisory committee/jury of various cultural forums.
RAHUL ROY is a Delhi-based independent cinematographer, director and producer. He graduated from the Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi in 1987 with a degree in filmmaking. His work has been shown around the globe and has won international awards. His films Dharmayuddha, Nasoor, Majma, Khel, The Factory, Invisible Hands Unheard Voices, and The City Beautiful focus on issues related to urban modernity, communalism, human rights, social justice, labour, gender and marginalization. His documentary Till We Meet Again (2013), made under a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, explores class-based notions of masculinity in the lives of the four underprivileged youths (now men) featured in his earlier documentary When Four Friends Meet (2001).
RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta) is a Delhi-based practitioner trio who have been working together since 1992. They follow a self-declared imperative of ‘kinetic contemplation’: an aesthetic and conceptual trajectory that is restless in its forms and exacting in its procedures, expressed via technologically-enhanced ‘practices, para-practices, infrapractices’ and meta-categories of ‘devices, gatherings, interferences, interruptions, lexica, loops’. Raqs has exhibited globally, including at Documenta and at the Venice, Istanbul, Taipei, Liverpool, Shanghai, Sydney and São Paulo Biennales.
SABEENA GADIHOKE is Professor, Video and Television Production at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi where she teaches Digital Media Arts, Cinematography and Photography Studies. She has worked as an independent documentary filmmaker and cameraperson, and her book Camera Chronicles (Mapin/Parzor, 2006) is a significant study of Homai Vyarawala, India’s first woman press photographer. Sabeena is also a photo historian and curator, and her recent projects include Twin Sisters with Cameras: An Exhibition of the Works of Debalina Mazumder and Manobina Roy, Centre for Studies of Social Sciences, Kolkata (2021) and Light Works, a retrospective of photographer Jitendra Arya at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai and Bangalore (2017-2018).
SABIH AHMED is a curator steeped in interdisciplinary thought, whose multi-faceted practice bridges languages and technology, geographies and movements, archives and art history. He joined the Ishara Art Foundation, Dubai as Associate Director and Curator in 2020. From 2009-2019 he was a researcher at Asia Art Archive, leading the organization’s research initiatives pertaining to modern and contemporary art in India. His recent curatorial projects include In the Open or in Stealth (2018-19), MACBA, Barcelona, where he served as a Curatorial Collegiate member; and Solarised (2019) at Chobi Mela X in Dhaka where he served as Curatorial Advisor.
SAI HTIN LINN HTET is a curator, artist, documentary photographer and peace activist. His photographic work, infused with the concept of empathy, emerges from his reflections on the human condition. He focuses on difficult subjects: migration, human rights, gender, identity, exclusion, minority struggles, censorship, dictatorship, the aftermath of war. Of mixed ethnic background, he has been providing peace education courses to politicians, civil society organizations, activists and youth from all over Myanmar. He envisions integrating his peace activism and photography in an effort to find ways to resolve the ongoing multidimensional violent conflicts in Myanmar. In 2019 he received a fellowship from Goldsmiths College, University of London, to study curation.
SALONI MATHUR is Professor of Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the New School for Social Research in New York, and brings both art historical and anthropological perspectives to her teaching and research. Her areas of interest include the visual cultures of modern South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, colonial studies and postcolonial criticism, the history of anthropological ideas, museum studies in a global frame, and modern/contemporary South Asian art and its transnational/intersectional arcs.
SAVITRI SAWHNEY is a retired paediatrician and an active essayist, poet and biographer. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico and now based in New Delhi, she is the author of I Shall Never Ask for Pardon: A Memoir of Pandurang Khankhoje (Penguin Books, 2008) that narrates the extraordinary but little-known life of her father, a revolutionary and agronomist. Savitri’s interest in photography comes from her personal collection of photographs around her father’s path-breaking work in plant genetics in Mexico where he developed new varieties of high-yielding, drought- and disease-resistant corn and wheat, his endeavours documented by the renowned Italian-American socialist photographer Tina Modotti.
SHAHIDUL ALAM is a Dhaka-based photojournalist, teacher and social activist. He is the founder of the Pathshala: South Asian Media Institute, Dhaka (1998), Drik Picture Library, Dhaka (1989) and the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, Dhaka (2000). He co-established the international photo agency/digital portal Majority World that focuses on photographers from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Alam’s books include My Journey as a Witness (2011), Best Years of My Life (2016) and The Tide Will Turn (2020). In 2022 he was appointed ‘Explorer at Large’ of the National Geographic Society, a title bestowed on a select few global changemakers and leading thinkers. Along with his compatriots Tanzim Wahab and Munem Wasif, he is an appointed curator of the Bienniale für aktuelle Fotografie 2024 in Mannheim.
SUDHIR MAHADEVAN is Associate Professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, as well as Adjunct Professor in the South Asia Center at the university’s Jackson School of International Studies. A graduate of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, he received his MA and PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University. He is the author of A Very Old Machine: The Many Origins of the Cinema in India (SUNY Press, 2015; Permanent Black, 2018), an innovative study of the interface between Indian colonial/postcolonial modernity and cinema as a developing technology/creative practice that profoundly shaped and expanded Indian popular culture.
SUKANYA BASKAR is an independent curator and researcher whose work focuses on both the still and the moving image. Her practice, involving graphic design, spatial design and curatorial research, has evolved alongside a deep interest in archival collections and structures. She has worked on a number of magazine and book design projects, including Witness: Kashmir 1986–2016/Nine Photographers, featured on the New York Times‘ list of Best Photo Books of 2017. Sukanya was a resident curator at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin in 2022 as a part of the Young Curators Residency Programme. She is a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York.
TANZIM WAHAB is a curator, researcher and lecturer. His practice focuses on themes of contextual modernism and contemporary art in South Asia, ‘vernacular’ photography, arts pedagogy, and the relationship between text and visuality in critical cultural production. Chief Curator at Bengal Foundation, Dhaka, he has headed several major research projects and exhibitions. Tanzim was Vice Principal of Pathshala: South Asian Media Institute from 2013-2015, and co- curator of the 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019 editions of the Chobi Mela photography festival, Dhaka. Along with his compatriots Shahidul Alam and Munem Wasif, he is an appointed curator of the Bienniale für aktuelle Fotografie 2024 in Mannheim.
YU YU MYINT THAN is a documentary photographer from Myanmar, who was based in Yangon till June 2021. She began her career as a press photographer, and shifted her trajectory to personal documentary as a narrative form, with a focus on women’s experience. In 2017 she co-founded Thuma, Myanmar’s first all-woman photography collective that realised several projects, including a cross-border collaboration with Kaali, an all-woman photography collective from Bangladesh, before deciding to go on hiatus in August 2021 due to the political crisis in Myanmar. Yu Yu was a Fellow of the Magnum Foundation’s Photography and Social Justice Program 2017, and in 2021 was selected as Visiting Artist in Residency at the South East Asia Program, Cornell University.