Whose gaze is it anyway?

DNA - Anupa Mehta | Sunday, September 4, 2011

Jehangir Sabavala was a distinguished man. His oeuvre was as elegant and understated as his persona. His demise on Friday morning was sudden but not surprising, as he was ailing. He leaves behind a legacy of fabulous works, many styled with an almost European sophistication of palette and application. He is one of few Indian painters to have systematically documented a copious body of work - eponymous publications offer a wealth of insights into his work.

That evening, at the opening of an exhibition titled Staging Selves: Power, Performance and Portraiture curated by Maya Kovskaya at his gallery in Mumbai, artists and others paid respect to the painter by observing a minute's silence. It seemed like a fitting tribute: the show must go on.

And the show in question is a many layered, finely nuanced presentation. Featuring works by several artists from India, China and Iran, who, according to the curator, make it part of their practice to "question, problematise and blur the artificial binary between the staged and the documentary to investigate power relations implicit in the pretension of representation."
On the strength of this strong conceptual ground, the curator seeks to bring together artists with diverse sensibilities and very different areas of concern on the strength of the fact that their work questions the way perceptions are established, and the inequities of power that imbue the gaze with the strength to do so.

Peripatetic lensman and activist Samar Singh Jodha's work, titled, Whose Wealth? Whose Commons? cast light on the lesser known plight of the workers who built the infrastructure required for the games in record time. Jodha says, "An estimated US$80 million was saved by contractors by denying workers the legally mandated wage through a long sub-contractual chain that diminished accountability with every link."

The artist employs a striking visual narrative to reveal a poignant tale. Images are cast on concrete blocks and light boxes. However, as the artist points out, the work transcends its immediate context to become a larger story of a society at odds with itself in that national pride and international recognition is sought at a high cost extracted from its own people. The artist-photographer captures both, the grit and the grime within the games with his planned and staged portraits of those who live on the margins of all that they help to create.For the rest, catch the show online if not in Mumbai.

On another note, coming up in November are two new art fairs that aim to reach out to many more people through their online presence and unusual marketing activities. India Arts Festival and India Art Collective, the new entrants on the Indian art circuit, are all set to give India Art Fair, slated for New Delhi in January, a run for its money.As wonderful as it is to see such initiatives take flight, one can't help but wonder about basic problems of infrastructure and audience development, among key issues assailing the arts sector.

— The author is a published writer and an independent arts consultant
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