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INTO SOMETHING RICH AND STRANGE

The title of Hajra Waheed’s inaugural solo exhibition in India, Sea Change, would remind viewers of Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Ariel sings of the magical transformation of the mortal body, the suffering of a “sea-change”, into “something rich and strange”. In The Tempest, magic, symbolic of the deceptive power of art, served as the means to a transformation that is at once natural and artificial. In Sea Change, Waheed’s use of photography serves the same purpose. Her primary material is a collection of photographs of unknown people taken by a traveller in the Thirties and Forties, and later gifted to Waheed as postcards by the original photographer’s grand-daughter. To this personal archive, Waheed’s art lends a kind of immortality to material traces of memory.

Waheed’s photographs thus function as a foggy memoryscape, a mental map that aims to plot the shifting lines that sometimes manage to etch the jagged contours of those who have disappeared without really fading away. This work further builds on Waheed’s earlier explorations of the relationship between photography and memory — a theme that was a central feature of the Swimming Pool Series, for instance.

She seems keen on complicating the process of remembering. Her focus remains the tension between ambiguity and certainty. The series titled The Missed — a panel of framed, miniature faces with deadpan expressions — is, in fact, a celebration of the resistance that is offered to attempts to reclaim the identity of the subjects. The viewer realizes that he too is being scrutinized by these strangers in flesh and blood. Given that he does not know who they are, he fails to fill the gaps in the stories of their lives and death. This results in the creation of a spectral space that is at once rich in truth and fantasy. This dreamscape — how else can one describe a place where the real intermingles freely with what is not real?— is the montage that Waheed presents to pleasure and perplex the viewer simultaneously.

In spite of the inscrutability of the faces, this twilight zone of memory is also charged with emotions. For the act of viewing an archive of absences is seldom divorced from feelings of loss, love and longing. There is also the lurking suspicion that a mocking smile lies behind the facade of expressionlessness. Shorn of identity, location or context — all of which are essential to a sense of specific history — the subjects compel the viewer to create his own stories, further distancing him from the documentary truth.

Yet another panel — called The Missing — comprises photographs of incomplete human figures in a variety of dresses. For instance, the head and the right arm and legs (ankle-downwards) are missing in a figure clad in khaki uniform. This splintering of the human form is perhaps suggestive of the fragmentation of memory, creating gaps in the archive through the material decay that accompanies the passage of time. These images confirm the artist’s desire to transcend the limitations of the “decisive moment” and use photography as a tool to build larger and subtler bodies of work.

Waheed teases the viewer by drawing him into the gaps that lie between and among the texts and images. This is particularly relevant in the case of the tiny pictures that come with captions that appear to be incongruous with what we see. For example, the title, “What to say”, has been given to describe a patch of clouds. But when joined together, text and image combine to weave a tapestry of poetic longing.

Equally playful is Waheed’s treatment of scale. In the Witness series, the artist presents a collection of photographs of natural forms — mountains, trees, clouds, landscapes — that appear peculiarly hemmed in together, apart from being in a reduced scale. This transformation of the vastness of natural forms into something framed and measured helps the viewer establish an intimacy with the sublime, with elements that are meant to remain out of reach.

Admittedly, most of the themes that Waheed works with are central preoccupations with artists who use photography. But in the cultural wilderness that is Calcutta, a work of this calibre possesses enough strength to engage with and beguile the viewer.