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'The Observationist At Leisure in a Stolen Garden (on the terrace)' Photo: courtesy Waswo X. Waswo/ Gallery Latitude 28
'The Observationist At Leisure in a Stolen Garden (on the terrace)' Photo: courtesy Waswo X. Waswo/ Gallery Latitude 28

Unlock 4.0 I Waswo X Waswo’s new show opens in Delhi

The exhibition at Gallery Latitude 28 is the first to open in a physical gallery space in the capital after the lockdown

Delhi’s Gallery Latitude 28 has sanitizers and disposable masks at the entrance. The staff, wearing masks and working in shifts, is scattered across the space, following physical distancing norms. Works from a new exhibition, We Are Always Working, adorn the walls, making this the first show in the city to open in the physical space after the pandemic-induced lockdown. It is also the first to have an interactive preview online in the form of a Zoom cocktail evening, with a physical walkthrough by art historian Giles Tillotson.

This solo exhibition by Udaipur-based artist Waswo X. Waswo, in collaboration with artist Rajesh Soni and village potter Shyam Lal Kumhar, looks at the studio as a space of performance where photography is enacted. Locals from the nearby Varda village make an appearance in his photographs, turning these into collaborative theatre performances.

For over a decade, Waswo, who moved from Milwaukee, US, to Udaipur, has been looking at his ever-evolving relationship with his immediate surroundings by placing himself as a “character" in his photographs. The show displays some new works from his ongoing series, The Observationist At Leisure In A Stolen Garden, which features black and white digital photographs, hand-painted by Soni and miniaturist R. Vijay. “The name has changed from an ‘Orientalist’ to an ‘observationist’ as this character is getting accustomed to his surroundings a lot more," says Waswo. “He is now an observer and not a tourist." Eventually, this character will blend in with the local milieu—but not just yet.

The photographs show the transition from being an outsider to fitting in a lot more, while still retaining some of the Orientalist approach. “He still carries his telescope and magnifying glass. One of the photos shows him looking out at the landscape, with his back to the viewer. A butterfly bounces off his left hand while the right hand holds on to a net. He is appreciating the butterfly’s beauty and existence. But then there is also the net. Will he capture this winged creature, classify it and pin it up? This is a moment of decision," explains Waswo. “Will he let it be or stick to old Orientalist ways?" This is why he finds the image conceptually important.

The words “stolen garden" in the title of the series refer to the history of colonialism in India, with Europeans inserting themselves into the land. They also refer to painted backdrops replicated from vintage miniatures hanging in institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “We have literally stolen the gardens from other paintings," he says.

Some of the works in the show reference older photographs, such as one of his assistant, Jay, with a python wrapped around his neck; this was taken in 2006. Or the one of Kashu, a worker who helps at the studio, from 2012, where he can be seen standing on a stack of bricks, proudly brandishing his tools. “The first one looked like Jayhad just walked off stage. The second one again has a performative feel to it. That is the feeling that I have tried to create in these works," says Waswo.

Gallerist Bhavna Kakar, who has curated the show, says each tableau of the artist’s work is akin to a cooperative theatre performance played out in his “quasi-diorama" photo studio sets. “I have come to greatly appreciate the humour and satire in his works, which play with notions of otherness, ethnic stereotyping and Western fetishization of the developing world," she says.

Organizing the show in these times has been both challenging and interesting. The gallery was closed to the managerial staff during repairs and painting. “We have followed all the precautions recommended by the Union ministry of health and family welfare. Besides the sanitizer at the entrance, we have spray sanitizers in the bathroom, kitchen and (on) tables," says Kakar. The gallery floor and surfaces are being sanitized twice a day. “We will be open for visitation by prior appointment only," she adds.

We Are Always Working is on till 28 September (call at 011-46791111).

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