Tasveer Online Interview about portraiture and India

Tasveer is a gallery complex in India, and has recently published an online interview about my portrait work from ‘Prayer and Despair‘. This is the first of a two-part interview. … Read the Tasveer article with images…

Nathaniel Gaskell of Tasveer: To begin with, please can you tell us a little bit about the series:

PM: The portraits were all made during a trip to India in 1995. This was part of a larger project that began to push the experience of effacement up against belief (and essentially the thing that gives us our face). the entire series, as you have already noticed, is called ‘Prayer and Despair’. In this case, I equated despair to effacement and prayer to belief. So how do portraits fit into this? In a sense, these are less portraits than they are a way of grasping attention. Our coding and social conditioning requires that we pay attention to the face, to its nuances. When a face is ‘denied’ attention, it creates a fundamental discomfort in our being. At worst, this discomfort can manifest as despair. The series, and it is important that the images are seen as a series for a full consideration of the relationship between effacement and belief, relies on the placement of the ‘portraits’ in relation to the other photographs for this to make sense. I also use the play of shadow and light as form to generate this relationship within each photographic frame.
NG: Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming you’re using the word ‘effacement’ to also mean absolution, as well as more literally to mean the ‘removal of face’, as in to make oneself disappear, blend in, become un-personalised. It seems to me that the first meaning is more tightly related to the overall concept of your Prayer and Despair project, and the latter, more relevant to the portraits presented here.

PM: I think there is a cluster of emotional states that are affiliated to self-ishness (the ‘selfish’ part of ‘self’, if that makes any sense): blame, guilt, and vengefulness being some, and even, with a slight stretch, despair. What exactly pushes us from selfishness to selflessnes, I think, is related to a particular type of absolution or effacement. It is not the kind of absolution that is granted from external forces – the more Catholic version in other words – but absolution that is more autogenerative, more from within oneself. That is why I prefer thinking of my work, especially the portraits, in terms of effacement. My cultural mix of both West and East, somehow associates effacement as something one does to oneself, and absolution as a bestowed act.
NG: To my mind, the way in which the concepts of belief and absolution relate to each other is quite a Christian debate (I remember learning about Paul, and therefore the discussion as to whether one is righteous/absolved through faith/prayer alone, or through one’s deeds and actions). How do these two concepts work in an Indian context? to what extent does the idea of religion as specifically practiced in India inform the concept of the portraits, and the wider series?

PM: I touch on some of this in my response to the question about absolution and effacement. I think this particular question gets to the core difference between Christian — dare I say all monotheistic — belief systems and the ‘rest’. If one takes the liberty of associating the ‘rest’ to the Indian context, then it is simple enough to say that religious practice in India is less cellular by nature that with Christianity. It is more porous, based more on ‘yes, and…’ than ‘either this or that …’. But this is too simple an analysis. Both approaches actually compartmentalize experience, comporatmentalize in a metaphysical sense. The relationship between belief and absolution may be more interestingly compared by looking at how each belief culture, if you will, actually locates these compartments within there cosmologies. With the monotheistic, generally I find that belief defines the compartment, whilst with the ‘rest’ belief tends to either emanate from an association of compartments, or remain as an equal to these compartments. Coming back to the portraits then, and  the rest of this work, I would say that it is, just like the poreceeding sentence, very confusing until one stops trying to make sense of it. The associations between portrait and weathered sandstone sculpture, between light raking across a temple floor and a coconut husk address not so much belief as that which compels us and binds us to belief. I think that Eastern (Indian) metaphysics, in the way it acknowledges our cognitive limits and then tries to address the methods of going beyond this, is much more relevant to my work than Indian religion.
NG: Can you talk a bit about your nationality/cultural identity and how (if at all) this plays a part in your work. Something we’re often confronted with at Tasveer is this idea of ‘Indian Photography’. There are those photographers who live and work in India, those of Indian origin who make work about their native country, and then there are foreigners who make photographic projects in India (where a lot is written and discussed about ‘the gaze’). Where do you fit in and are these distinctions relevant? Is there a need for such a term as ‘Indian photography’?

PM: I was born in East Africa, with both parents also having grown up there as first generation migrants from Gujerat. My current nationality is British and US American, and as far as my cultural identity goes, it is an even more complex mix. I lived in Tanzania until 11 years of age, growing up in a small town that was very cosmopolitan —  my parents and my friends came from a wide range of geographic and cultural zones. From 11 to 15, I studied at St. Paul’s School Darjeeling, then spent two years in Spain, and finished up with A-levels at a Quaker school in England before going to art school. From there, I attended graduate school in Scotland, where I remained for ten years before finally moving to Tennessee, USA. I go into these details because my upbringing and education define what has often been considered as an annoyingly multifarious quality in both my work and my thinking. The matter of identity  is really one about relationships. Just as individuals seem more comfortable forming realtionships with some prior knowledege of who they are dealing with, so it may be with cultures. India is rewriting itself, and this process is on an accelarating trajectory. I believe, and I may be wrong, that much of what distinguishes India from the rest of the world has to do with the way it pulls the ancient into the contemporary, the way it elides these two. Photography seems, in its leanings towards addressing the human condition, aptly suited to imaging this India, Indianess and perhaps most important, to generating civic discourse. I do think that the most important constituents to address in this dynamic complex are the ones who live and work in India. There will always be the tourist artists (I can easily fall into this category) or the remote philosophers or armchair artists (again, drop me in this one too!), no matter the region being considered, but there is a lot to be said for the deep consideration over extended time about specifics, and the way these specifics relate to the global context. I think Indian photography as a term or classifier is most important when considered as a dynamic and engaged manifestation of this transformative period that the nation is in.
NG: Can you elaborate a bit more on the effect of taking the portraits out of the wider context of the series? (When seen as a series of portraits like this, perhaps a natural conclusion for the audience to reach is that this is a bit like a typology. Each person is an individual, yet also representative of a group).

PM: Even in work where the photographic frame is dominated by the face (such as in the series, ‘Looking At God’) I rely heavily on a ‘holographic’ approach — that at all aspects of a body of work or series is alluded to, albeit in coarser resolution, by any part or fragment of that work. I am not interested in typologies however — I realize this seems at odds with the previous sentence, but if one considers that typologies are ultimately about informing comparative approaches, and thus taxonomic in nature, then it makes sense that the holographic approach is about the opposite of systems that classify and categorize. It is more about that which is most fundamental and yet — and this is the most important for me — most constantly referring to the rest of itself. Jings – this is getting deep. All of these portraits are of people I have spent time with, that I know. I mention this not to provide another argument against considering the work as typological but as an indicator of how the entire content of the photogaphic frame informs the portrait. What else is in the image, both its form and its figurativeness, is informed by the person being photographed and the photographer, and this is always a singular conjunction. I hope the result then, is more an individualisation rather than a typological representation.