“Fauna of Mirrors”: A Selection from the Second Edition of Chennai Photo Biennale

I recently discovered Chennai Photo Biennale, India’s largest photography event showcasing both Indian and international artists, the second edition of which ran from February 22 to March 24, 2019. Co-organised by the Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation, a non-profit trust, and Goethe-Institut Chennai, the exhibitions were held at some of the most architecturally beautiful venues in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, south India, including Senate House – the University of Madras, Government College of Fine Arts, Government Museum, Madras Literary Society, Southern Railway: Chennai Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS), Cholamandal Artists’ Village and Art Houz Gallery.

The Biennale was directed by Bangalore-based Pushpamala N.. Often known as “the most entertaining artist-iconoclast of contemporary Indian art”, she is one of the pioneers of conceptual art in India and a renowned photo and video-performance artist, sculptor, writer, curator and provocateur. She is known especially for her sharp feminist work, her rejection of authenticity and embracing of multiple realities. In her collaborations with writers, theatre directors and filmmakers, she seeks to subvert the dominant discourse.

Each venue included a theme of its own under the larger theme of the Biennale titled “Fauna of Mirrors”, whereby the artistic director explored the old Chinese myth that talks about an alternate universe that exists behind the mirror to see if the practice of photography is a reflection of modern life, creating a parallel world of images. The curatorial concept used the ancient fable to ruminate in a philosophical and poetic way around photography today.

The other individual titles of some of the key venues included, “An Unbearable Lightness of Being” – a sense of dystopia, unease, maybe even giggly laughter, hysteria, melancholy, or even pictures of unnoticed; “The Face of Another” – where faces and bodies may transmogrify into other things, or stare at you boldly; “Fractured” – where broken up and incomplete images communicate in a loose and ever-changing universe; “Hidden Lily: Social Weavers” – where storytelling with images and live performance tells the stories of handloom weavers; “Labyrinths” – and the world is a complicated irregular network of images and texts in passages and paths; “The Library of Babel” – here there are innumerable old books and books within books and travelling libraries; “I Love Cinema” – it’s all about Cinephilia; “Why Look at Animals” – where camels, giraffes, elephants and innumerable creatures invade our world; “Material Evidence” – where faces and places are markers of histories.

Below are samples from a few of the photographers who exhibited: Arpan Mukherjee, Atul Bhalla, Cop Shiva, Gauri Gill, Indu Anthony, Manit Sriwanichpoom, Manjunath Kamath, Rabih Mroue and Vijay Jodha.

Links: Website (chennaiphotobiennale.com) | Instagram (@chennaiphotobiennale, @cpbphotocamps) | Facebook (www.facebook.com/ChennaiPhotoBiennale) | Twitter (twitter.com/chnpb)


By Arpan Mukherjee. From a discussion initiated among a group of dark complexioned boys. The argument started with the fact that, in 2012, the fairness cream market was valued at Rs. 3000 crore in India. The artist and the boys talked about discrimination on the basis of skin colour and its possible reasons. Apart from the general thought that it was derived from the colonial past, they also thought that in their society it has a role in terms of power demonstration, the equation being fairer people = beautiful people = powerful people. It is true that this bunch of people has suffered because they were black. As a result at times, they all tried to be fairer using fairness cream. The artist used wet plate collodion and albumen print process to make their portrait, which has an established connection to anthropological photographic documentation process of the Indian race and tribes by British photographers.


By Atul Bhalla. Atul Bhalla, in his engagement with the eco-politics of water, has been pushing for various thematic links through his multifaceted practice. Primarily using photography, the artist explores histories and associative meanings of sites of everyday living, building narratives through performance and many times using text as well. His own body becomes a vessel in these explorations, as he photographs himself standing, sitting, lying or immersed in these spaces. He is particularly interested in the juncture where history makes itself visible in the present, not in a direct narrative manner but almost sublimely, where history is taken for granted despite its many implications which are in contrast to today’s world view.


By Cop Shiva. This series is a result of the photographer’s interactions with Vidyasagar – a Bangalore resident who each day dresses up as Tamil film icon and politician MG. Ramachandran; who had an overpowering influence on the politics and cinema of Southern India. This work negotiates a lived reality and questions masquerade. The manipulation of identity through disguise and the idea of taking on a new persona is in many ways a comment on the prevalent influence of cinema in the socio-cultural context of South India. The artist captures the dichotomy of a split personality and the duality of man by photographing a man who spends his life masquerading as someone other than his true self. The series therefore looks at the idea of the polarity between reality and fantasy. These intimate portraits are located in Vidyasagar’s home, a private space invaded by Cop Shiva. It was here that the artist began to feel, and hopefully capture, the vulnerability, warmth and acceptance of Vidyasagar aka MGR.


By Gauri Gill. Acts of Appearance assumed its form within a village of Adivasi paper mache artists from the Kokna tribe in Jawhar district. Further inland from Dahanu, it is one of the most impoverished districts in Maharashtra. In Rajasthan, among her Jogi friends during Holi, Gill had first encountered people wearing store-bought masks to play-act various personas as part of the fun of the festival. In Maharashtra, she learned of the Bahora procession, held once a year in many Adivasi villages, in which the entire community participates in a ritual performance over several nights, to enact a mythological tale. The performers are chosen from among the residents and wear elaborate masks made by artists to represent different gods, demons, and ancillary figures. The Bahora masks take weeks to make, are sacred and consecrated, and constitute a moral and imaginative universe, but also conform to strict rules of creation as they represent powerful archetypes refined over generations of storytelling. In the course of dialogue, animals were naturally understood to be a part of this universe. Later, precious objects entered the frame, as they are believed have sentience too. Inhabiting these masks, a cast of ‘actor’ volunteers (including the artists) would later improvise and enact different ‘real’ scenarios, ‘across dreaming and waking states’, in and around the village.


By Indu Antony. When asked what she wanted to dress up as, she screamed excitedly, “PILOT!” They said, rather surprised, “Don’t you want to be a princess? You’d look so pretty!” Since then it’s been a constant struggle to get out of these gender boxes. Queer or straight, women perform their femaleness both within and against societal gender rules that dictate what women should be. In a patriarchal society, they work harder to establish their womanhood against norms that trap us in limited boxes of “feminine” self-expression. This is the story of how thirteen queer women aimed to capture the raw masculine energy and style in them and sneaked out of their female bodies. They dreamed drag to bend gender. Being drag kings was of course a pleasurable pursuit, but to them, it was more about erasing restrictive gender boxes.


By Manit Sriwanichpoom. Q: What did they die for? A: So we can go shopping. How shocking when, last year, more than a million voters elected Samak Sundaravej their new governor of Bangkok. Sriwanichpoom was flabbergasted. Was not this the same Samak who back in October 1976 went on radio to urge that brute force be used against pro-democracy protesters, in the events that culminated in the most horrifying massacre in Bangkok history? The artist asked himself: Has everyone forgotten? Does ‘October 6’ mean nothing to us now? Do we even care? Have we learned nothing from history? He writes: “Because of this, I don’t think it would be too much for me to hold that ‘Pink Man’ stands for present day Thailand. While out shopping, the man in the obscene pink satin suit with a matching obscene pink shopping cart – a soulless man without a conscience to trouble him – amuses himself by joining the ogling crowd in news photographs of unimaginable cruelty from the May Massacre and events of 14 and 6 October. My, he’s really getting his rocks off. How he enjoys himself.” Note: 14 October 1973, 6 October 1976 and May 1992 massacre are blood-soaked milestones in the long Thai struggle for democracy.


By Manjunath Kamath. The artist writes: “Through my works I attempt to bridge the gap between cultures, questioning their hegemony and the need to build walls for preserving and isolating one’s culture. At times, advocating for humor, absurdity and nonsensical behavior in daily life as the only response to the dilemmas of the conflict ridden world. The images are often informed by historical and classical cultural iconographies, which are a byproduct of beliefs and rituals. I am particularly interested in studying the gradual evolution/changes in the iconographies both traditional and contemporary, according to time and diverse influences.I create images which are an amalgamation of different cultures and faiths, yet not belonging to any one in particular, in an attempt to subvert them and free them from their historical purpose. Questioning the authenticity of history as what we perceive as history is most often an incomplete narrative, recorded by the victorious or the ones in power at the given point in time, so is history in reality not fiction?”


By Rabih Mroue. The artist writes: “Pixelated Revolution is a lecture-performance about the usage of mobile phones during the Syrian revolution. This lecture aims to study the advices and directions regarding the taking of photographs during the events of the Syrian revolution, as these advices were shared via the medium of Facebook and other virtual communication tools. What is the relationship of this act of photographic documentation, when seen through the prism of Dogma 95, the cinematographic manifesto of Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg? In which manner can we envisage the photographic traces broadcast by the Syrians in the vast universe of the Internet? A universe that is loose and ever-changing, that regenerates itself constantly, that is subject to viruses and other phenomena of deterioration, a universe that is framed by incomplete downloads, pixelated images, and ruptured modes of communication. Are the broken-up and incomplete images sent by the Syrians an extension of their physical experience? Is the mobile phone an extension of their brains, of their body, of their being? In this lecture-performance, my aim is to investigate and read into these matters, and present my personal interpretation of this phenomenon.”


By Vijay Jodha. India’s agrarian crisis has claimed over 300,000 lives by way of farmer suicides since 1995. The survivors, predominantly widows, are both victims and the first witnesses in this on-going tragedy. This photography project is produced in collaboration with a few such witnesses. It puts faces to some of the grim facts with the intent of humanising this on-going tragedy rather than keep it distant and abstract, especially in cities where all policies affecting farmers get framed. The large-sized presentation makes the people and the issue loom over the viewer. The image scale also subverts visual culture in India where such large hoardings are a monopoly of the famous and the powerful. Accompanying almost every image here are names and relationship of the living with the departed, the size and location of their farmland, the quantum of unpaid loan on the day that farmer chose to end his life – details that restore some immediacy, individuality and a measure of dignity to the people appearing in the photo frame. In doing so, this project seeks to contribute towards ensuring that eventually no farmer is left without means or dignity. In that sense this project is driven by hope rather than despair.