Navot Altaf's exhibition, “A Place in New York,” at first indicates physical spaces: roads, crossings, waterways, parks, bridges, subways, restaurants, museums. But each photograph of such places is juxtaposed with another identical one, featuring a person of any age, race or class superimposed onto it. The photographs are manifestly ‘digital’, manipulated to effect a ‘negative’: the dualities of night and day, a photograph and a non-photograph, of spaces and of culture, and finally of Mumbai and of New York, these polarities become apparent not only in the artist’s placement and her storytelling, but also in the form of the photograph itself.
“A Place in New York” was the result of a residency that Navjot Altaf completed in New York shortly following an earlier exhibition ‘Bombay Shots’ also at the Guild in 2008. As the titles suggest, the juxtaposed exhibitions force the viewer to compare the two cities.
A former New York resident and a current visitor in Mumbai, these photographs struck a strange chord within me. I found myself in them—I had walked there or sat here—as an uncanny nostalgia fluttered around me.
What drives people to immigrate? How do our bodies create a relationship with the spaces that we inhabit? What does it mean to photograph cities? These photographs, for both participant and viewer, create overlapping layers of memory and historicity. Altaf’s photographs stop both cities for a moment: they capture a split second of movement and freeze it in a frame. She depicts the city as it is, then when superimposed with a person, a culture, she explores the changes-- how a still city gains kinesis through the diaspora that emerges within it. In her own words, “It is an ever evolving dynamic relationship – a culmination of collective forces that gets built up with an individual’s character and aspirations.”
The Guild is on a cobblestone road in Colaba, and I had been strolling the streets on the day I visited. I had walked on Marine Drive and was consciously reflecting on Bombay as a city, on the differences between Delhi and Bombay, and the similarities between my previous life in New York and Bombay. As a Delhi girl, I am standing under the large white warehouse like space of The Guild, reminiscing cities. I am, for a moment, exactly that character that Navjot speaks about.
How do these two island strips invite so many people from around the world, to come and struggle and strive in the tangled roads of north and south? Perhaps it is the water that releases all the tension from the interiors; perhaps it is simply that we like the struggle.
In the end, Altaf’s photos feel like large-scale negatives, with either the city or the people in positive relief. This duality in form, in the end, permeates all the dualities that her subjects bring up, including that of speed and silence, light and dark, biological homes and cultural homes. We make a space what it is. We are constantly, like rays of sunshine, radiating inwards, creating a massive, hot, stunning, ball of power and energy, that stays, whilst all else inconstant, revolves around it. It is only natural then, that we should want to be surrounded by water.
-- Himali Singh Soin
(Images courtesy of Guild Art Gallery and the artist.)