Sunday, September 5, 2010

Black and White: The Femininity of Choice

Between random choices on registering moments within the domestic/private realms and the calculated, informed and alert ways of capturing images using camera, photography as a genre of aesthetic expression has facilitated myriad modes of interpretations in contemporary times. The wielder of a registering device, a camera has never been a person with a pair of ‘innocent’ eyes. His/her class, social status, gender, political affiliation and relationship with other social beings in general determine the kind of camera one uses, the angle one chooses and even the quality and appearance of the resultant image. Technological innovations have further complicated the ‘originality and aesthetic validity’ of images and this has also resulted into the collapse of geographical boundaries, time and the photographer’s ‘qualification’ as a professional or as an amateur.

Madhavi Swarup’s photographic works, seen against the backdrop of the not so simple history of photography, raise a set of questions regarding her aesthetic preferences, her relationship with the image that she chooses to register and the kind of ‘eternity’ that she wants to impart to these images. Like many photography artists as well as the photography enthusiasts, Madhavi too has been using a professional camera with film rolls and has been going through the pains of developing the image ‘chemically’. With the advent of new technology she too has shifted to the digital cameras, which aided by computer software, help her to ‘create’ desired images. This shift, though seems to be quite natural, still poses a problem for the artist as she decides her works to be taken in black and white rather than in colors.

This deliberation in color (which, in fact could be facilitated by the shift of a button in the camera) is an aesthetic choice for Madhavi as she wants the images to be shorn off of all their contemporary spectacular visual embellishments and to be seen in the light of eternity, which is black and white as it has been conventionally decided to be so by the aestheticians since the invention of photographic techniques. Divesting an image of its ‘natural’ colors explains how Madhavi wants to posit her images in the stream of classical images, which up to an extent erases temporality of the image and the specificity of its original location.

By this erasure of time and locality from her works, Madhavi transcends the images to a plane of pure aesthetics, which even hides the gender of the artist. Here Madhavi plays a double role of hiding and revealing (of her gender) thereby pushing these images out of their apparent ‘classical’ looks towards the politicizing of her personal aesthetics. For instance, the artist reveals that all her images are taken from/in different locations as she is fond of traveling. However, these images at times give an impression of an Iranian neighborhood and at times they make the viewer think about Mexican small towns or even certain images evoke the feeling of desert lands and the villages in their vicinities in India.

Interestingly, what the viewer takes for an Iranian landscape in fact comes from Rajasthan in India and what you think as coming from Mexico is right from Delhi. This collapse of time and space facilitates Madhavi to position her works as ‘eternal’ images that function as a medium for sublimated aesthetic contemplation or an entrance to a spiritual path. This artistic intention is further accentuated when she frames all her images in a stark frontal angle, cutting the middle and backgrounds, which could otherwise give an illusion of three-dimensionality to the works. This frontal perspective, which is quite subjective and authorial in Madhavi’s case is a way of giving ‘eternity and respect’ (in Pierre Bourdieu’s book, Photography A Middle-brow Art) to the object.

Unlike in many other photographic images that we see today, in Madhavi’s works we see almost no aggression in terms of perspective (of the camera wielding subject) or image (the object of her eye’s attention). This diluted aggression (provided that theoretically all the camera wielding persons make aggressive move towards the objects of their attention even if it is temporal and momentary) comes from her gender as a woman (which does not however reduce her authority over her medium vis-à-vis her male contemporaries). All her images, even if most of them are static facades of rural and exotic architectures (and of course, the presence of people are implied here and there) are taken with a lot of passion and compassion, which could express her feminine subjectivity.

More than this implied feminine subjectivity, what makes it palpable is Madhavi’s deliberation in the exclusion of what lies outside the frame. Perhaps, when seen in the exhibition context the excluded part is not something that draws the attention of a facile viewer. But theoretically speaking, in any ‘framing’ what is included is often determined by what is excluded (from the frame). A closer look at Madhavi’s works reveals that they are enriched by the inclusion and projection of the ‘feminine’ side of the architecture. There are protrusions, interjections, collusions and juxtapositions of forms, light and shade that emphasize the suppleness of a generic benign woman. The exclusion of all those images that could be severely phallic, traces out the internalized (feminist) political awareness (even if that is nascent, un-vocalized and at times even disputed by the artist herself) that gives more depth to Madhavi’s works than them being just transcendental images.

With this established affinity for the ‘included’ (that is the ‘feminine), Madhavi Swarup delineates her concept and philosophy of a world, which is a conglomeration of nature and culture. Here ‘nature’ is not just ‘woman’ who has to be ‘cultivated’. On the contrary she projects a ‘naturalized culture’ that accepts the feminine principle than the aggression of male politics that pushes the world into destruction day by day. The bright whites and the deep blacks of Madhavi’s images show the sunny side of a world, where loneliness meets happiness and togetherness establishes harmony.

(Madhavi Swaroop's show is currently on at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Center, New Delhi)

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