Pushpamala N. is a shapeshifter. Starting off as a sculptor, she turned to photography in the mid-1990s and has, since then, portrayed several characters —an acrobat, a yogini, a goddess. By casting herself in these various roles and inserting herself in her works, Pushpamala redefined the medium, often commenting on history and contemporary society.

In her newest role, Pushpamala is the artistic director of the Chennai Photo Biennale, initiated in 2017. The forthcoming second edition, with the theme Fauna Of Mirrors, will have more than 50 works and projections of Indian and international artists, curated by Pushpamala. She is also curating a conference, “Light Writing: The Photographic Image Reloaded", adding to the conversations about her curatorial approach.

Bengaluru-based Pushapamala speaks to Lounge on her curation, and the place of photography today. Edited excerpts:

What would you say was your starting point for the biennale?

I started with the location. It’s not Delhi or Mumbai, but the city of Chennai. You have to address the place you are in. Chennai is an old colonial city, a major industrial hub, the centre of social justice movements, a coastal city and a major film hub in south India.

In what ways have the city and the venues played a role in your curation?

When I came to meet the biennale team in February 2018, they took me around to see the venues. I started thinking of the shows and works in terms of the venues. As an old colonial city, Chennai has the first Western-style institutions, like Madras University, the Government College of Arts and Crafts and the Madras Literary Society. There are several heritage structures in the Indo-Saracenic style where you cannot hang works on the walls, and which have no proper lighting for display. So I avoided building walls in these spaces and used the architecture as it is by having photo installations or video works in those spaces. In the Madras Literary Society, there are three shows which are around books and libraries. The magnificent Senate Hall of the Madras University has photo installations and videos around the idea of the archive. Some of these are “secret" sites no one has seen.

Some of the works play in a tongue-in-cheek way with the historical buildings. There is a large installation about the disappearing fishermen community in the grand Senate Hall, which faces Marina Beach.

Your own art practice draws on a conceptual approach to photography. Did that play a role in your curatorial vision?

As a practising artist and not a photographer in the conventional sense, I do have a different approach for curating the Chennai Photo Biennale. In many ways, it is an extension of my own work and ideas and my subjective vision. The theme, Fauna Of Mirrors, is based on an ancient Chinese myth that behind the mirror, there is an alternate world inhabited by strange creatures that do not exist on earth. I see photography as that parallel mirror universe which is full of images that have a life of their own. It is a conceptual framework which allows me to show how different photographers and artists are using the photographic image, such as with Artificial Intelligence or the camera obscura. The notion of what photography is has come a long way—medical imaging is photography, as is surveillance and the selfie.

I am questioning what photography is. You won’t usually find installations in a photography show, but you will find many at the biennale. There are performance works, political and activist works, and photo essays as well. But all the works use the photographic medium—there are documentary series and portraits and some video works based mainly on still images. I start with the photograph.

A festival is charged by the personality of the curator and her subjective vision. If, in the next edition, the photo biennale has a documentary photographer as a curator, it will have another way of looking at things.

What were your guidelines for selecting artists and planning the layout of the exhibitions?

I have a secret agenda to look for women practitioners and have tried to get in as many as possible. And, of course, I have a selection of well-known names along with young and interesting practitioners... I have selected specific works in each show which resonate with each other, not literally, but to make a complex story.

Sometimes art and photography shows are alienating to audiences because they look cold and distant. Especially with photography, since it is all around us, people think it is banal and ask, why hold a large festival of photography? I think exhibitions should be thought-provoking, entertaining and pleasurable to see. I have tried to show the photographic works in the architecture in such a way that together the experience becomes breathtaking.

There are several practitioners in your curation who work with photography as a fine art medium, unlike photojournalism. What are your thoughts on this?

In recent years, there has been a lot of writing on how all photographs are constructions of reality as even the framing is a subjective choice. So, in fact, all photography is “staged". I think many artists are using the photographic medium in very interesting ways to look at our realities, whether in a documentary “style" or by using found photographs, montage, performance, staging, with text, in algorithms, or going back to early photographic techniques. Their inclusion helps to “expand the field" and enrich our understanding of this image-centric world.

What do you think the difference is between curating a photo biennale and an art biennale?

I haven’t curated an art biennale but I am certain that it would be different from this. For one thing, an art biennale can include many different media and can sometimes go off in different directions. A photography biennale can be seen as more “niche" as it is medium-based. Logistically, overall, I think a photography biennale is easier to organize than an art biennale because you spend less on the production and transportation costs of the artworks. But the way I see this biennale curatorially is that the world is image-centric, and a festival dealing with this idea is not niche, but central to our understanding of life.

In recent years, a number of photography festivals have been initiated in the subcontinent. What are your thoughts on these?

Usually, a festival is run by one or two people with a shoestring budget, and so is the Chennai Photo Biennale. It’s a huge amount of non-stop work, with a crisis a day—where you have to sacrifice your own work and career to do organizational work. It’s difficult to raise funds every time, keep up the energy, maintain a production team.

I was very interested when I visited Chobi Mela in Dhaka 2017. Since Shahidul Alam has set up several institutions, like Pathshaala the Photography School, Drik the picture agency, and so on, the teachers, old and present students, and workers from these related institutions work together to organize the festival. So there’s a constant stream of potential organizers and curators experienced and ready in a way.

The Chennai Photo Biennale will be held from 22 February-24 March. For more details, go to Chennaiphotobiennale.com.

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