Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London, E1 7QX

  • W3DX 1Image 3
    Title : W3DX 1Image 3
  • W3DX 2Image 1
    Title : W3DX 2Image 1
  • W3DX 3Image 15
    Title : W3DX 3Image 15
  • W3DX 4Image 8
    Title : W3DX 4Image 8
  • W3DX 5Image 11
    Title : W3DX 5Image 11
  • W3DX 6Image 6
    Title : W3DX 6Image 6
  • W3DX 7Image 13
    Title : W3DX 7Image 13
  • W3DX 8Image 12
    Title : W3DX 8Image 12
  • W3DX 9Image 18
    Title : W3DX 9Image 18
  • W3DX Image 1
    Title : W3DX Image 1
  • W3DX coverImage 9
    Title : W3DX coverImage 9

Review by Gemma Sharpe

‘Where Three Dreams Cross’ is an ambitious exhibition of photography from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, that collects over 400 artworks, documents, photojournalist records, studio images and family photographs. It proposes a certain leveling of its aesthetic field as a curatorial conceit, a leveling achieved by superabundance and fluctuation. The subjects, forms and styles within this exhibition are pitched on an intriguingly egalitarian surface of content and form, despite the occasional curatorial tumble. All chosen works and subjects are conferred with particular significance in themselves, while contributing to the sustenance of the exhibition as a whole.

Principally curated by Indian artist, writer and curator Sunil Gupta, the curatorial team includes Hammad Nasar, working on the Pakistani inclusion, Shahidul Alam on Bangladeshi works and Radhika Singh assisting on the Indian complement. Each of these curators has provided an accompanying text on work from their respective countries for the catalogue. In their joint essay, Gupta and Singh note that in response to the absence of well-documented photographic histories produced within the Indian subcontinent, the curatorial team have worked ‘away from’ selected works by contemporary artists and photographers, placing these works within a network of their precursors, in a bid to ‘excavate their antecedents as far as possible.’ In so doing, the various forms of photography included in the resulting amalgam are no longer delineated by their status as artworks or mere snapshots, documents or commercial activities: a work by a contemporary artist is equally able to say something about a historical moment as a journalist’s document is to be charged with artistic affect.

A striking feature of the exhibition’s arrangement is a tendency towards photographs of people. We see images of ‘the nameless’, of corpses, politicians and movie film stars. There are princely portraits, wedding pictures and photographs of crowds among nudes and hijras,[1] with a scattering of landscape and urban panoramas. The exhibition could be described as an orgiastic arrangement: one might draw lines around it, linking historical moments, media, territories and visual likenesses, watching these lines form a variegated web of association. There is an unrestrained sense of aesthetic and thematic bed-hopping here, that brings the very idea of lineage into question by nature of its complications becoming visible.

This point is encapsulated by a compellingly self-reflexive image from the 1850s by S.B. Syed, the descriptively entitled Young Girl Tinting a Photograph. Paintbrush in hand, a girl is shown hand-colouring a photograph on an easel before her. Yet this particular work by Syed is rendered with the method it describes: the photograph of this girl is itself hand-tinted. Many archive photographs in the show are hand-tinted and more recently, Karachi-based contemporary artist Arif Mahmood - also shown in the exhibition - has reprised the method in his practice. In the dialogue between these works, the ‘problem’ of photographic post-production, frequently posed after the digitalisation of photography, is called to account, just as it is recast against its own lineage.

Rather than forming a chronological, stylistic or territorial arrangement, ‘Where Three Dreams Cross’ is divided into five thematic sections: The Family, The Portrait, The Body Politic, The Performance and The Street. Though a show of this scale might request some division, I find these particular tags banal and even disingenuous. Removing the device of thematic ‘heading’ would have been risky indeed, but it would have at least allowed the internal confusions inherent to the show to ‘breathe’ within it. I am led to wonder then, what this vague and unavailing structure hides and would argue that it covers a shaky idea of sovereign India as a curatorial foundation.

The 150-year timeline of ‘Where Three Dreams Cross’ corresponds to the period after which photography became a widely accessible medium. This timeline also matches the period of colonial rule over the ‘Indian Empire’ by the British Raj. Two thirds of the way through that timeline was Partition in 1947, which eventually led to the (increasingly distinct) states of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. However, I cannot help but sense that ‘Where Three Dreams Cross’ began as an ‘Indian’ curatorial project that folded Bangladesh and Pakistan into its body like latter obligations. There are a number of oversights in the catalogue that reveal in the principal curatorial voice, a sovereign notion of ‘India’ that subtly modifies the exhibition. In their leading text, Gupta and Singh erroneously refer to the South Asian and Middle Eastern tradition of miniature painting as ‘Indian Miniature’ for example, and in its collection of essays a bias towards the Indian contingent of work is unforgivably apparent.

Though the frames around this exhibition appear to have been designed to conceal its inherent political thorns, the actual content of this show is terrific. The contemporary works are potent, intelligent and fittingly placed in a fascinating contextual ground. The sustenance of this ground is the work itself. To divert one’s attention away from blurbs, catalogues and obfuscating thematic titles and to listen instead to the ‘sounds’ of the works themselves, is to hear an excited polyphony of tale-telling, dialogue, musical notes and private internal arguments that forcefully resound about this absorbing space.

[1] South Asian term of Arabic origin meaning ‘third gender’.

It should be noted that although the title of this online magazine was inspired by the 1956 show held at the Whitechapel Gallery, we have no connection or affiliation with the Gallery.

Related Articles

Published on