Welcome to Photo Focus, where I examine a single photograph. These short essay’s will give a greater insight into the individual image beyond its context within a group of photographs. Furthermore, this is inspired by an idea a professor of mine always discussed in graduate school. He would talk about what about the photograph brought the viewer in and kept his or her attention. I discuss what personally draws me to the particular photograph and hope that that gives you an entrance as well.
I love art about art. Art about art falls into the category of conceptual art. Many people do not understand conceptual art because it is more about the idea that the piece of art. I think art about idea’s or about other art is the most thought provoking. It is this reason that drew me to the photograph in this week’s Photo Focus. Here I will examine a photograph by Cop Shiva from his project Retake: A Galaxy of Musicians.
The photograph seen above is a group snapshot style photograph. The central figures is a cut out of eleven women. Two men are squatted down in front of the cut out while one man stands on each side of the cut out. The real men and the cut out women meld together to create a group portrait. The bottom right hand corner of the photograph is filled with yellow rope, this gives a nice contrast to the blue sky that fills the top half of the photograph. The wooden platform that the figures are standing on is visible in the bottom left hand corner of the photograph. Beyond the platform water is visible with green plants growing in it. Behind the figures are Chinese fishing nets that create triangular shapes. In the distance the shoreline is visible.
This photograph was taken in Kochi (formally Cochin), Kerala. To have a better understanding of the photograph at least three things need to be considered in more depth. One, the history of Kochi. Two, the Chinese fishing nets, their history and what purpose they serve. Three, the cut out of the women. First, I will give a brief history of Kochi. Next, I will examine the Chinese fishing nets, then explore the cut out of the women and lastly consider what connections they have and what the photograph might mean.
The city of Kochi has a long history. The village became a major trading post after the nearby port of Kodugallur was destroyed in 1340 (cochin.jbss.in/history.asp, accessed: 10/12/2016). The port became a popular trading post for many of India’s spices including: pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon. The British, Chinese, Dutch, Italians, Portuguese, and Arabs all came to Kochi making it such a popular trade port. In addition to the trade famous traveler’s also visited Kochi, these include, Vasco de Gama, Fa Hein, and Sir Robert Bristow (ibid). Furthermore, Kochi fell under multiple foreign rulers including the Portuguese and the Dutch, however, they fell under British rule in 1814 (ibid).
The Chinese fishing nets first made their appearance in Kochi between 1350 and 1450 (https://www.keralatourism.org/kochi/chinese-fishing-nets-kochi.php, accessed: 10/12/2016). It is believed that Chinese explorer Zheng He, from the court of Emperor Kubla Khan, introduced the nets to Kochi (www.cochin.org.uk/tourist-attractions/chinese-fishing-nets, accessed: 10/12/2016). The fishing nets are about 10 meters high and cover about 20 meters of water (ibid). Furthermore, it takes about six men to operate one net (ibid). The nets are left in the water for about 45 and usually the catch is modest do to the fact that the nets cannot go deep into the water (ibid). Today the Chinese fishing nets are a major attraction in the city.
A Galaxy of Musicians is a painting by well-known artist, Raja Ravi Varma. Varma was born in 1860 in the princely state of Travancore, which is in the present state of Kerala (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raja_Ravi_Varma, accessed: 10/12/2016). While Varma was a prolific painter, he is most famous for bringing the printing press to India. With the press he made poster prints both religious and secular.
Strangely, I cannot find much information on the painting, A Galaxy of Musicians. The painting depicts women from around India with a variety of popular instruments. My educated guess is that the women are dressed in regional dress and the instruments they hold are also popular in their respective regions. The painting is housed in the Sri Jayachama Rajendra Art Gallery in Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore, Karnataka. However, the Palace does not have website, so I cannot get further information. All I can say is the painting is now in public domain, so if you want a copy, one can easily be purchased.
As for Shiva’s photograph above, I have one main question, which I am not sure I can answer. Why did Shiva photograph this blown up cut-out of A Galaxy of Musicians all over Kochi? Is there some connection between the painting and the city or Varma and the city? Varma is from Kerala, but that is a somewhat tenuous connection.
With nowhere else to search, I read Shiva’s statement (which I usually do not do). According to Shiva he was drawn to the painting in part because of the way the women were arranged in the painting, stating, that the male gaze is prominent in the painting (copshiva.com/retake.htm, accessed: 10/13/2016). He also states that, “the painting was part of an imperialist form of group portraiture which excluded the common people” (ibid). Through his photographs he wanted to strip away this view of the painting. This explains why he put the painting cut out with the fishermen, as you can get a more common man.
This photograph is an excellent example of conceptual art. The viewer can have a visual appreciation of the photograph and can enjoy it for its contradictory elements. However, to fully understand the work, one must have a knowledge of the history of painting in India and the history of India itself. As I stated above, many foreign nations came through Kochi or established rule from there. Thus making it an ideal city to question the past.