The metaphor for ‘images’ as mentally stored visual representations – the metaphorics of actual pictures carried around in our heads – appear to be most truly illustrated by photographic pictures carried around in our pockets.
~ Ansel Haverkamp
A friend of the artist Hajra Waheed once handed her a set of postcards that had been taken by his grandfather capturing his various travels. These were mere photographs, not ‘postcards’ in the sense of a souvenir. Waheed’s fascination for all things faded and archaic, however, made her see a veritable treasure trove in the bunch. These were mostly photographs of people taken during the 30’s and 40’s, chronicling the subjects in a manner that is distinctly reflective of an Oriental culture. Part of this “orientalising” may have been deliberate by whomever took them, perhaps as de rigueur of the times he inhabited.
In the exhibition titled, ‘Sea Change’ however, it is not these photographs that have been simply mounted after having gone through processes of chemical and technological ‘cleansing’, as it were. But they have, of course been resurrected: in the sense of being given a fresh lease of life. Interestingly, however, this resurrection takes the form of masked identities. All the viewer can see in the exhibition is a series of Polaroids that reveals only parts and portions of these photographs, leaving the rest to be imagined. When depicting individuals, the backgrounds have been done away with, the resultant image resembling studio cut-outs. Needless to say, such half-stories stir the imagination in more ways than what a simplistic projection of the original photographs could ever have. The genders, professions, castes, classes and inter-relations of the subjects in the photographs become, at one and the same time, certain and ambiguous. The protagonists could have been anyone; someone we could have very easily known at a personal level, or a commoner who only too convincingly brought back a sense of the familiar. Either way, the images pull the viewer in, as they try to 'identify' them, even as they are thwarted in this futile game. This was what Waheed wanted to achieve anyway, and she does so in a mesmerisingly brilliant manner, so that one can only ruminate on the infinite number of possibilities and spin stories and narratives in accordance to each of them, without being burdened by the responsibility of accuracy.
Hajra Waheed, The Missing (1-20), 2012, Polaroid Back, Collage & Tape on Paper, 7.5 x 11 in. (each); Courtesy of the Artist and EXPERIMENTER.
The principal idea guiding her aesthetic-political vision was to visually narrate stories of migration – willful or forced – and consequent disappearance and loss. The images themselves, however, do not reek of an ‘obvious’ sense of that migration; except perhaps in the simulation of the conscious sublimation of their selves in the photographs.
A nostalgia that borders on motherly affection for all things that are now exclusively relegated to the realm of memory – the last rolls of an 1980’s square-shooter, for instance – have been stitched lovingly by Waheed to form a film. She doesn’t care much for ultimate or final ‘meanings’; they are redundant. It is the beauty of ‘ars memoire’ that moves her soul towards a preservation of a kind that is not just technical, but poetic.
It is perhaps her long stationing in conservative Saudi Arabia, that prohibits visual archiving, that propelled Waheed to latch onto all things lost or its verge, and save them from a tyrannical, irredeemable annihilation – to form “personal archives” out of the material/s that belonged to different, often unknown ‘persons’, lives, nations or cultures. These are secondary to her concern for aesthetic preservation and continuance. ‘Sea Change’ – her first solo in India – is thus an attempt to transcend losses, both spatial and temporal.
[Image on top: Hajra Waheed, The Missed (1-9) , 2012, Polaroid Back, Collage, & Tape on paper, 10.5 x 12.5 in. (each); Courtesy of the Artist and EXPERIMENTER.]