Made in India/ Remade in Russia
Between May 11 and May 17 a selection of photographs and two short films by Delhi-based Assamese contemporary artist Shaheen Ahmed (collectively titled Mirages of Bollywood) were displayed at the Vertical Gallery, St Petersburg making her the first Assamese artist to have a solo exhibition of photographs and short films in Russia. Iaroslov Volovod, the young curator responsible for the exhibition says ‘my intention was to critically position the show in the Russian cultural context and trigger the clichéd pre-conceptions about India. I specifically wanted to display photography (video-art and time based) because these media can effectively eliminate Orientalist, romanticized and ethnographic anticipations that people in Russia occasionally tend to have about India. One of the exhibition’s goals was to nullify the stereotypical perception of Indian art as a generically decorative, applied or folk craft’.
The Vertical Gallery is in itself an interesting artifice in that it comprises of four flights of stairs and an abandoned elevator shaft in what was earlier a manufacturing unit that made hardware for printing machines. It is the hollow elevator that gives the gallery its name. A nondescript building when it was first built during the glory days of the Soviet in the 1960s and even more unremarkable after it was abandoned, the building has now been transformed into a unique art gallery. It is perhaps apt that an unused industrial unit, one of the pillars of Soviet Russia, has played host to Ahmed’s photographs and videos which engage with and critically examine capitalism as an obtrusive, emergent phenomenon in the Indian polity and popular imagination. Take Shaheen’s photograph ironically titled ‘Singularity’ (which was included in the exhibition).
A seemingly ‘female’ mannequin stands behind a ‘male’ mannequin in the dinner jacket section of a fancy showroom. The arrangement of overhead lights and strategically placed mirrors pushes the space before the mannequins into the horizon while other mannequins standing shoulder to shoulder with the ‘female’ create a feeling of cramp and claustrophobia. Shot in black and white, the glam factor of the showroom is subdued and sobered with only the shiny bald heads of the mannequins, staring vacantly (and stiffly) into the distance maintaining some semblance of poise. Another photograph from the exhibition titled ‘The Phallus’ (again in black and white) shows the upper portion of a fancy high rise building against a cloudy grey sky.
A flat, ugly steel-plated wall stands crookedly, balanced by four chimneys on the left and a giant cylindrical pillar (also steel plated) on the right. In grayscale, the four chimneys or phalluses on the left look emaciated, almost comical with small rounded caps on their pinnacles giving an impression of long necked birds engaged in conversation.
Volovod arranged the exhibition of photographs on the wall along the stairs running up adjacent to the elevator shaft so that the ‘visitors could move from level to level and get involved in a polyphonic story of identity seeking. The dramaturgy of the show was built around a spatially literalized metaphor’.
The lower gallery was draped in a burqa, a prop used by Ahmed in her video Refuse/Resist in a way that the piece of cloth could emanate from the video and engulf the ‘real world’. Placed in the elevator shaft were plasma screens on which were frozen scenes from Ahmed’s other video The Missing Project allowing the visitors to view the same scene from different layers of the gallery. As the images got more and more vague with each flight of stairs, unfamiliarity, vertigo and the distorted resonance of the audio track added a new angle to the viewing experience.
The exhibition played with questions concerning identity. Ahmed’s identity as a woman, an Assamese and an Indian were brought to the fore both by her artwork and the posters advertising the exhibition, thus giving the visitors the opportunity to interact with the roundedness of the Devanagari script and the sharp, abrupt geography of the Kutil script. Visitors were also encouraged to write a few words on a small blackboard and pose with them to express what the exhibition made them feel, thus making the whole exercise a participative one.
Coming back to the dissonant title of the exhibition, Volovod born in Murmansk and trained in India, the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia says, ‘I had the idea of making a show for a contemporary India artist in Russia for about two years. Partly my intention was to dispel the stereotype of India as the land of gaudy, Bollywood cinema, which was shaped by the Soviet cultural diplomacy between 1940s and 1960s. At that time the USSR was literally engulfed by Bollywood movies’.
Shaheen Ahmed is a doctoral candidate at the School of Art and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Refuse/Resist was her first video, made in 2011. The Missing Project was made in 2012. The photographs used in Mirages of Bollywood are part of an ongoing urban photography project started in 2012.
Shalim M Hussain
( Shalim M Hussain is a Research Scholar, Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com. )