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Dem Ol Bod Ose: Creole Architecture of Sierra Leone, a 2004 series by Tim Hetherington, ©Tim Hetherington, courtesy The British Council.
Dem Ol Bod Ose: Creole Architecture of Sierra Leone, a 2004 series by Tim Hetherington, ©Tim Hetherington, courtesy The British Council.

Photo Essay | My home and me

An exhibition examines what the idea of home means to people transported out of their native cultures

Culled from the British Council Collection of about 8,500 artworks, Homelands presents the idea of home and self in a world of blurring boundaries.

The exhibition, now showing in the Capital, has 80 individual pieces by 28 contemporary artists. Latika Gupta, the curator, says that when she first started looking through the British Council Collection’s online archives, the idea of putting together a show around the concept of indigenous identity and its significance for different people in different countries sort of grew. “After my online research, and the long list I made from that, I spent two weeks in London where this idea sort of worked itself out. While the exhibition is photograph-heavy, there are a few installations, ceramics, paintings, sculptures and video art too."

The title of the exhibition is inspired by Salman Rushdie’s collection of essays Imaginary Homelands and Gupta believes that curating this exhibition has helped her to come closer to the idea of who she is, an idea that is independent of where or which nation she comes from, which is not just about her roots defining her cultural, political and social affiliations. The artists and works chosen highlight this concept.

The list of photographers featured includes Martin Parr, Raymond Moore, Anthony Haughey, Angus Boulton, Suki Dhanda and the late photo-journalist and film-maker Tim Hetherington.

Gupta explains how the images express what she wanted Homelands to represent. Among the displays, for instance, is a series of 20 photographs by Hetherington, who died in Libya in 2011, depicting war in West Africa and West Asia in strikingly individualistic images. Each image in his series, titled Dem Ol Bod Ose: Creole Architecture of Sierra Leone (2004), is about a stitched-up tin and wood shack or home which highlights an amalgamation of cultures prevalent anywhere you go. The homes belong to descendants of slaves who have returned from countries like the UK and West Indies to Sierra Leone to form a culture and identity that is unique.

“Each of these images highlights a return to the country of origin, a homeland, and yet shows us how these people are set apart in a culture that is a part of them. It shows how people choose to hold on to elements from other cultures, adopt them and build on it," explains Gupta. Each of the 20 houses also has windows either sealed tight or with shutters and windowpanes that are hanging loose at odd angles, almost as if left open to let the “outside" in, perhaps somewhat like the lives of the area’s inhabitants.

A set of four images by London-based portrait photographer Suki Dhanda, from the series Shopna, is about a 15-year-old Bangladeshi-British girl who seems as much at home in her hijab next to a billiards table as she is in a neighbourhood café enjoying soda and pizza with friends. According to Gupta, Dhanda photographed Shopna with her friends and relatives over one year as part of the British Council’s Common Ground project, which documented the experiences of British Muslims in East London. Dhanda highlights Shopna’s innocence and her vulnerability beautifully through images which show us both how well this girl has blended in, yet remains out of place, in the only place she knows as “home".

“Suki had photographed Shopna pre-9/11 and the hijab was not really the loaded cultural statement it seems to represent today. How you dress, what you wear tends to fix people into slots—liberal, conservative, not from here," says Gupta, explaining why she chose these images Through Shopna and Dhanda’s images you can see how disparate cultures coexist and intermingle and yet how they can be used to typecast people from a particular homeland or country or religion.

A set of 10 pieces, photo-emulsion on ceramic plates and shallow bowls, by Chinese-born, Europe-based Lisa Cheung are intriguing, evidence of the artist’s attempt to assert a Chinese identity. Some of the images have people smiling, in others their lips are drawn in a thin line, in some fingers are almost at right angles, trying to stretch the eyes in order to look more Oriental. “The artist asserts her identity by exaggerating a gesture which is commonly used as a negative racial slur. She subverts this through a series of posed photographs of her friends which are transferred on to found china plates," says Gupta.

Boulton’s three images, all from The Homeless (London, 1995-2000) series, speak about “rolled up" lives, about people who are not at home in spite of being in their own city, and country.

Finally, the point that Gupta hopes will come across through this exhibition: The idea of roots or home comes through “multiple layers and plurality of meanings", not necessarily from the country of origin.

Homelands is showing in New Delhi till 14 February, from 11am-7pm (closed on Mondays and national holidays), at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, I, CV Mess, Janpath (23388155). It will show at The Harrington Street Arts Center, Kolkata, from 1-14 March; at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai, from 28 April-9 June; and finally in Bangalore, where the venue is yet to be decided, in the last week of June.

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