Review: Where Three Dreams Cross

Where Three Dreams Cross:
150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh
21 January – 11 April 2010
The Whitechapel Gallery

Whitechapel Gallery hosts a large-scale exhibition on photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh under the title Where Three Dreams Cross. The title, taken from Ash Wednesday by T.S. Eliot refers to death, birth and tension in-between while questioning one’s involvement. The exhibition, on this line of thought, marks various tricothomies: from years of significance for the subcontinent (1857, 1947 and 1971), to conditions of the colonialism (before, current and after); from forms of photography (documentary, staged, abstract) to structures of society (family, masses, sub-altern); from social (economic, political, sensuous) to architectural (outside, inside, in-between)…
The exhibition spans one hundred and fifty years, starting from the decade of the invention of photography eventually arriving to current streams of photographic production. The vastness adherent to Where Three Dreams Cross is not only the period taken under its umbrella but also the wide-range of photographic production, and its social implications. In other words, the exhibition provides images from the photography studios in the late 19th century India, to social realist photographs in 40s, from street photography in 70s, to expansion of the variety with contemporary approaches.
The exhibition is composed of five concept-sections: the performance, the body politic, the streets, the family, and the portrait. The performance section deals with the aspect of performance on a wide-scale: from documentation of the staged act to portraits of its actors, from the film sets of Bollywood’s golden era (40s and 50s) to the circuses. Following, the performative is at stake within the contemporary works that the artist as the performer of the notions she recuperates. In other words, while works by Nandini Valli Muthiah depict a contemporary condition for one of the Indian Gods victorious Vishnu, Sayeeda Khanam documents Satyajit Ray in his film set. Hence performance section focuses on the photography, which document the performed act and its stage, where the camera is positioned as the recording gaze rather than performative photography. The portrait section displays mostly classical portraiture, flirting with Barthes’ conceptualisation of punctum. Each image asks for subjective involvement to gazing, whilst leaving gaps for the unspeakable. Mohammad Ali Salim is one of these photographers who prioritise the space of unnamable in his production. As classical examples of documentary photography, his depiction of workers from the mine company or young girls from a carnival posit somewhere beyond where the singledom of gaze is multiplied within its invisible audience. In the section, photography as documentation spans a significant role where not only Salim’s works but also images that depict the display of the first daguerrotype camera (from Alkazi Collection) in the continent from a bare documentary aesthetics. Moreover, the portraits of famous and important figures of the subcontinent bring the exhibition specificity with its history and contemporaneity. The family section depicts the notion of family from its sacred state that of the hierarchical roles in a marriage towards one’s constructed family according to his or her choices such as trans-community or concubines, thus family as a large quantitative concept is depicted and portrayed. The family section is in line with the portraits section where the former could as well be a sub-section of the latter, specifying on a cluster point of the social. One remarkable choice is the title of the section: The streets. Prior to titling, the curators has been through a debate on naming the section as architecture, which would potentially create a stray in the framework in the way in which architecture today in its vast use could blur the content production of the gathered photographs towards an obscurity. While the images focussed on the built environment: the streets, display a social documentary of changing India in its social political and economical states. The body politic follows from what the streets section has for the audience and depicts the political events and happenings with their figures and their alignment in the domain of the social. Colliding with portraiture, the conditions of the body in relation to its built environment is at stake such as cast system, eco-politics, and sexuality which are strongly visible in the photographs of Benizir Bhutto, Pundit Nehru from White Star Archive, of recording the effects of global warming in Bangladesh by Munem Wasif and of female mendicants by Sheba Chhachhi.
The sections provide key-concepts to the works displayed and they are in close relationship to one another. The curators’ choice of concept-sections instead of period-based categorisation provides a light-hearted entry to the exhibition, in general. In other words, the non-linear nature of the exhibition allows audience to develop their narratives and evaluations. Hence it does not appear as an ethnographic survey to the photography from the subcontinent, but an entry to develop knowledge on its visual production further.
The exhibition has a subtle tone of displaying works, which vary in the usage of various techniques such as hand-colouring, photo-montage and extraction of video stills. Hosting mostly black and white photography, Where Three Dreams Cross focuses on a certain historicity, a certain position of displaying the potentiality of the geography through the gaze of its citizens from various time periods.
Collections such as Alkazi Collection in Delhi, the Drik Archive in Dhaka, the Abhishek Poddar Collection in Bangalore, and the White Star Archive in Karachi play an important role for enriching the visual archieve of the exhibition. With over 400 works by 82 artists Where Three Dreams Cross is curated by Sunil Gupta, photographer, writer and curator; Shahidul Alam founder and Director of Drik Archive and Pathshala, Dhaka, Bangladesh; Hammad Nasar, co-founder of the not for-profit arts organisation Green Cardamom, London, UK; Radhika Singh the founder of Fotomedia, Delhi’s first photo library and Kirsty Ogg from the Whitechapel Gallery.
A full colour catalogue accompanies the exhibition, with a curator’s introduction and essays by Sabeena Gadihoke, Geeta Kapur and Christopher Pinney which provide an in-depth knowledge towards the understanding of the artistic production that has been taking place in the subcontinent while focussing on certain streamlines which have been effective and describing the conditions in which photography have emerged from thin lines of mere documentary to a medium to be explored. As the curator Gupta states in his introduction: ‘Of course, by and large the history books still have to be written; photography as an academic discipline is still in its infancy in the subcontinent and virtually everyone who has studied it has had to go abroad. While there have been technical schools and a well-established trade practice of mentoring and learning on the job; there hasn’t been that plethora of academic courses that swept across Europe and America in the 1970s.’
The exhibition tours to the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, 11 June – 22 August 2010.