Sunday, 13 February 2011

Invocation to India

Last week I went to see a photographic exhibition by the Indian photographer and photojournalist Raghu Rai at the New Art Exchange in Hyson Green.

While I've always enjoyed photos of the family, I've never really appreciated photography as an art form, and as a consequence, have taken little notice of it. It was time I felt to address that deficiency in my education, and to try and grow in knowledge, understanding and appreciation.

New Art Exchange, Hyson Green
In September 2003, The New Art Exchange was formed as a new organisation to steer and manage the development of Nottingham's first dedicated cultural facility for Black contemporary arts. Following the successful award of capital funding, a new building was created and opened in September 2008 at a cost of £3.1 million.

The New Art Exchange is described as "an award winning contemporary art gallery based in the heart of Nottingham. It is the largest facility of its kind outside of London, with a focus on African, African Caribbean and South Asian art. Designed by Hawkins Brown, the striking new building is based in Hyson Green - a multi-cultural city heartland that is home to many artists".

Raghu Rai
Raghu Rai was born in the small village of Jhhang in 1942. He is an Indian photographer and photojournalist, who began his photography career in 1965, and a year later joined the staff of The Statesman, a New Delhi publication. In 1976, he left the paper and became a freelance photographer. From 1982 up until 1992, Rai was the Director of photography for India Today.

He has specialised in extensive coverage of India, and produced more than 18 books. His photo essays have appeared in many of the world's leading magazines and newspapers. His 1984 in-depth documentary for Greenpeace on the Bhopal chemical disaster resulted in a book and three exhibitions that has been touring Europe, America, India and southeast Asia since 2004. In 1971 Rai was awarded one of India's highest civilian accolades - the Padma Shri. He lives in Delhi with his family.

Skinder Hundal, Chief Executive of The New Art Exchange says that "Rai's practice ostensibly focuses on India and its many hues, as we see it in a raw, luminous and beautiful light through Invocation to India".

This is the first time that Rai's photographs have been exhibited in a public gallery in the UK, which includes new work from 2010.

To try and understand where Rai is coming from, I was intrigued by his own words. "Over the centuries, so much has melded into India that it's not really one country, and it's not one culture. It is crowded with crosscurrents of many religions, beliefs, cultures and their practices that may appear incongruous. But India keeps alive the inner spirit of her own civilisation with all its contradictions. Here, several centuries have learnt to live side by side at the same time. And a good photograph is a lasting witness to that: being a multi-lingual, multi-cultured and multi-religious society, the images must speak these complexities through a multi-layered experience".

It is the view of many who have a much better grasp of this art form than I do, that Rai captures the ways in which the past co-exists with the present in India, and on a more subtle level, the visual rhymes and congruities between the different components in his works. They say that his works attest to a multi-layered reality, where people, objects, animals and buildings jostle with each other, where people's own personal space is overlaid and invaded by each other's space.

So, what was the result of my visit to the exhibition? Have I grown in knowledge, understanding and appreciation? Well, I would certainly recommend coffee and cakes in The Art Exchange cafe. As for the exhibition, I would certainly want to strip away the "arty" descriptive prose, as that's just not me, no matter how hard I try. I certainly enjoyed the visit, and fully appreciated the beautiful photographs, and understood through them how "people's own personal space is overlaid and invaded by each other's space". Am I a convert to this art form? I think so, and will definitely attend other photographic exhibitions in the City. I'm conscious of the Chinese proverb that says, "One step at a time is good walking".

[End note: The above photographs have been scanned from the exhibition brochure, but to fully appreciate them you need to see them full size in The New Art Exchange]

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