‘Outside/In: An Exhibition of Portraits’ is an ongoing exhibition in Vadehra Art Gallery which features a wide range of portraits executed in different styles and forms by Dhruvi Acharya, Atul Dodiya, Suhasini Kejriwal, Riyas Komu, KM Madhusudhanan, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, Varunika Saraf, Mithu Sen, and Thukral & Tagra. The exhibition’s focus is mainly to highlight the contemporary reinvention of the genre of portraiture and also to showcase how artists have politicised this genre by representing the marginalised who were historically kept away from representation. To be represented meant to be remembered and being part of history.
Traditionally, portraiture has served a commemorative or religious function where it has been used mainly by the wealthy to represent themselves, to immortalise religious figures and give visual form to the gods. Epistemologically, the genre of portraiture added to the knowledge production of the dominant class, along with the paraphernalia of power and knowledge. Modernism’s advent and its emphasis on self-reflexivity greatly changed this practise and subsequently artists’ portraits signalled an inward looking, introspective gesture. This was a radical break from the normative role portraiture and the elite classes had historically and very soon the genre allied itself with the struggles of the oppressed. Artists consciously represented beggars, workers, prostitutes and gamblers, the heroes of modern life as Baudelaire had called them. Many artists armed with the inspiring radical energy of modern egalitarian society used portraits as a strong statement by depicting political figures, as well as the non-white, non-European world. One such portrait which comes to mind is Beauford Delaney’s portrait of the American author and playwright James Baldwin. Delaney’s portrait depicts an intense Baldwin staring back, which generates an intimate connection with the viewer.
The ongoing exhibition ‘Outside/In: An Exhibition of Portraits’ too assembles such a wide range of portraits from artists who speak from subaltern, feminist, queer, non-western spaces, who have subverted this genre to speak of the unrepresented. Sudhir Patwardhan, who is widely known as the painter of people, has contributed his ‘People Series’ in the show as a tribute to the ordinary lives around the city and suburbs of Mumbai. Through his repertoire Patwardhan has conceptualised the contemporary public sphere by emphasising on its existing discriminatory social and economic conditions. The works in the exhibition comprises of small portraits of people, who are excluded from structures of contemporary capitalism and its institutions. The contribution of the labour of the lower classes and castes in the building of contemporary cities is usually neglected; they are rendered faceless. Patwardhan subverts this attitude and brings to us the faces of these marginal figures from the peripheries of contemporary cities, with care and sensitivity.
Varunika Saraf’s Untitled is a poignant homage to the extra-ordinary political figures who are no more with us, or those who were taken away from us in the current political climate of hate and intolerance. Referring to the turbulent political past and present of South Asia, Saraf conjures up a constellation of stars, using the portraits of these important political, literary, and artistic figures in the sky. She resurrects some important personalities such as Kandal Pokkudan, Shankar Guha Niyogi, Mahasweta Devi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Mrinalini Sarabhai -- all of them united in their relentless commitment to highlight the plight of the downtrodden and ensure the plurality of this country. The work is very clearly inspired by Rohit Vemula’s haunting suicide note and his allusion to Carl Sagan’s metaphor of “starstuff”. According to Sagan we all share the same essential elements of life, the chemical components which are distributed universally, thus, making us all equal. These ‘stars’ in her work serve as guiding lights for our society, warning us against the impending dangers of fascism. Soumybrata Choudhury while referring to Rohit Vemula’s suicide note and the allusion to “starstuff” in his book Ambekdar and Other Immortals: An Untouchable Research Programme writes that Vemula aspired for an egalitarian, eternal universe by equating us all as the products of similar building blocks. But this radical concept is confined to the sphere of physics textbooks and we fail to apply it to the existential and political domain. Saraf’s painting is a reminder of this harsh disparity.
Thukral and Tagra’s group of paintings from the series Windows of Opportunity reflect upon the struggle to meet aspirations in a globalised world and the unspoken tragedies in achieving them. By focusing on the socio-political issues behind the migration of the Punjabi diaspora and the hardships faced by immigrant families, Thukral and Tagra, highlight how aspirations are turned into windows of opportunities. Opportunity is fetishized and marketed by contemporary capitalism as the catchphrase of our times to abdicate from its own role in creating an unequal world and conceal the exploitative system it has created. The protagonists in their paintings are framed in airplane windows, lost in dream, hoping for redemption, even as these portraits are encased in pinball game machines. The artists hint that this exodus in search of opportunities is a never- ending game with unexpected ups and downs.
Mithu Sen’s visceral Conjoined Twins is a deeply haunting painting in which conjoined twins are rendered as mutilated and disfigured. The grotesqueness is aestheticized by a dream like setting, which disorients the viewer. Sen’s passionate and energetic depiction presents a terrifying vision of reality. Similarly, Gieve Patel’s Mourners appear to be in a state of distress and agony, lamenting a terrible loss. Moving away from the historic conventions of portraits both these artists mobilise a range of new visual and conceptual concerns to push the genre of portraits. Finally Atul Dodiya’s group of ‘Untitled’ paintings from his Egyptian Girlfriends refers the tradition of portraiture in history by drawing influences from the Fayum Mummy Portraits. Finally Dodiya has superimposed the image of his partner and renowned artist Anju Dodiya in these portraits. Through these Dodiya draws our attention to the long history of this genre and instrumentalises it to narrate an intimate tale of love, friendship and an artistic journey.