Monash Gallery of Art

As Australia’s leading public art gallery devoted to the collection and exhibition of photography, the MGA engages local, national and international audiences in arts and cultural experiences. Working on a project with the Museum of Art & Photography in Bengaluru, (and loaning work from their collection), Cara’s director is curating the first major retrospective of photography from India in Australia. The exhibition explores the history of Indian photography from its roots in the colonial era, to how this history informs and encourages contemporary artists in the country to critique and challenge this early history today.
Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, from the series, An Indian from India. ©Annu Palakunnathu Matthew
Curatorial note

The camera arrived in India within the first few months of its invention in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, at the height of British colonial rule. While imperialist propaganda was not always their explicit intent, photographs from the time typically served the colonial purpose and reflected colonial views. Individuals were objectified and exoticised, communities reduced to pseudo-anthropological ‘types’, and landscapes and archaeological sites stripped of their cultural context – resulting in a problematic yet often hauntingly beautiful era of photography. By the 1870s, photography studios (owned by both foreign and Indian proprietors) were also becoming serious commercial operations and making portraits exclusively of the ruling elite and erstwhile royalty. The first room of this exhibition represents this early era of photography through the work of pioneer photographers and studios such as Samuel Bourne, Francis Frith & Co., Felicé Beato, Willoughby Wallace Hooper, Lala Deen Dayal and Maharaja Ram Singh II. 

Following India’s Independence in 1947, photographers continued to project an exotic identity onto their subjects, often for the benefit of Western media, reinforcing an image of India as a land of struggling poverty, faded royal glory and indigenous people in idyllic romanticised landscapes. As with their colonial predecessors, this generation of both foreign and socially elite local photographers were complicit in perpetuating visions and stereotypes about rural and traditional communities. At the same time, a number of Indian photographers, and modern artists using photography, were employing the camera to explore new ways of representing tradition, inequity and modernity in a changing world, revealing counter-narratives of industrialisation and the economic progress that India was making. This period is represented through the the works of mid-century iconic international photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marc Riboud, Norman Parkinson alongside Indian modernists such as Mitter Bedi and Jyoti Bhatt, in the second room of this exhibition.

By the 1990s, India had opened up its markets and a new era of globalisation had swept in and contemporary artists (often trained at art schools abroad) were using the camera to respond, critique and examine the ways in which the country had been represented and misrepresented in the past. This resulted in an exciting period of contemporary photography which tackled subjects of western hegemony, post-colonialism, appropriation, identity politics and the ethics of representation, where photographers often directly responded to or quoted India’s early photographic history. This period is represented in the third room of this exhibition, featuring the work of contemporary practitioners such as Gauri Gill, Karen Knorr, Pushpamala N. and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. 

This contemporary section of the exhibition explores a broader understanding of nationhood and cultural belonging, investigating labels such as ‘Indian photography’ or ‘South Asian photography’ and whether they are relevant within the twenty-first century art world and its more globalised and transcultural context. This is reflected in the often transcultural and diasporic identities of the artists themselves, including Pushpamala N.’s collaborator – the Scottish-born Clare Arni who has lived almost her entire life in India and who re-casts herself as a ‘native’ in her work; Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, who was born in England to Indian parents, grew up in India and lives and works in the United States; the Sri Lankan photographer, Anoli Perers, who lives and works in New Delhi, and Michael Bühler- Rose, a White American ordained Hindu priest who pledges spiritual allegiance to India, whilst working from his studios in both Mysore and New York.
Panchganga Ghat, Benaras. Couresty the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru
Raghu Rai, Amongst the Goddesses. Couresty the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru
Michael Buhler Rose, Matter to Spirit. ©Michael Buhler Rose
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