Two teenage boys pass the night picking through the trash. A mother and son peer through a barred door after religious rioting. An artist fascinated by the collision between past and present photographs himself at the center of a 360 degree panoramic photo of a taxi stand. All of these are images from today's India, and all are part of a strong new exhibit at the Newark Museum, India: Public Places/Private Spaces--Contemporary Photography and Video Art.
India is co-curated by Gayatri Sinha, an independent curator and art critic in India, and Paul Sternberger, an associate professor of art history at Rutgers-Newark. I'm a friend and colleague of Paul, so I can't claim complete impartiality on this show. But I can tell you that it is well worth seeing.
Featuring street photography, photojournalism, video art and more, India presents over 100 works by 28 photographers and video artists. The show skillfully navigates the relationships between past and present, public and private, peace and violence, male and female, India and its diaspora.
India is an excellent introduction to a country that Americans once mistakenly saw as an unchanging nation of ancient customs. With the growth of the Indian economy, globalization, and Indian immigration to the U.S., that outdated image can no longer hold. The changes that are transforming the inner and outer worlds of Indians are important, revealing and artfully depicted in this show.
India begins on the ground floor of the museum and jumps to the third for its conclusion. The show is strongly grounded in photojournalism and documentary photography, but goes well beyond these genres. "Rather than using their cameras simply to record the world as they find it," the exhibit states, "these artists construct narratives, play roles and perform for the camera." While these works raise familiar themes in contemporary culture--gender, identity, family history--they are always treated in an Indian context that makes you think anew about the subcontinent.
While exhibit labels identify the artists and their relationship to the works on display, some photographs left me yearning to learn more about the people depicted. Why did the inhabitants of a village in Karela, photographed by Vivek Vilasini, give their children names such as Gramsci, Lenin, Stalin and Soviet Breeze? An identification with marxism and communism, obviously. But how did these set down roots in southern India?
Similarly, I am haunted by the image of a mother and son after religious rioting. But explaining their situation by saying that "the Gujarat riots in Ahmedabad are the gory aftermath of the Godhra train incident" will leave some visitors from the United States confused--and, I hope, curious.
At the same time, the religious and ethnic strife recalled in the exhibit remind us that life and art in India have much to teach us about the challenges of living in a multi-religious democracy. If you want to understand the conflicts, innovations and accommodations that define modern life, India is a good place to start.
India will be at the Newark Museum until January 6, 2008.