Swarthmore students packed into Twelve Gates Arts’ Philadelphia gallery last Friday for a preview of “Ruins and Fabrications,” an exhibition curated by Swarthmore English Literature professor Bakirathi Mani and sponsored by the Lang Center. The preview took place a few hours before the exhibit’s formal debut the same night during Old City’s First Friday art walk. During the preview, students were thoroughly immersed in the gallery experience, getting both a personal tour from Mani as well as a question and answer session with her afterward.
Twelve Gates’ small, intimate space comfortably held around 25 Swarthmore students who happily munched on Tartes cupcakes while taking in the art. The works were laid out along the gallery’s two available walls, with the exception of one piece that was displayed in a case near the front window. The back wall of the gallery was a bit unconventional — in place of a predictable, well-lit white expanse stood a glass window that separated Twelve Gates from an oriental rug company — rugs in full view. The space added to the show a feeling of warmth and a buzz particularly appropriate for an opening night and a young crowd.
Twelve Gates was not only an ideal physical space for the show, it also catered to the ideological undergirding of Mani’s curatorial project. Twelve Gates’ mission is to showcase the work of South Asian, Middle Eastern and diasporic artists in an effort, according to its website, “to create and promote projects in the community that cross geographic and cultural boundaries.”
The art in “Ruins and Fabrications” was by two South Asian artists, Gauri Gill and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, both of whom are internationally regarded and vastly accomplished. Gill’s art also featured a collaboration with Warli artist Rajesh Vangad.
In the show, Mani put Gill and Matthew into conversation. More specifically, she played with the myriad meanings of “ruins” and “fabrications” within the context of Gill and Matthew’s documentary and archival photography. The two artists’ various works, in dialogue, implore viewers to see something new in the “old.”
“Like the documentary photograph, a ruin is a material object that appears to capture the passage of time, only to tell us more about our present moment,” Mani shared in the curatorial statement. “A ruin is also a source of fabrication … The archival family photograph … represents for many of us a story of mythic origin. But such photographs are also a place from which we can imagine narratives of belonging. In this sense fabrication is not simply falsity — it is a means of creating new ways of seeing the photographic image as an archive of ourselves.”
Each piece employed digital or photographic technology to alter different aspects of truth, time and representation. The most obviously “photographic” work on display was Gill’s “Ruined Rainbow Pictures,” a series of “ruined” color photographs in recognizable shades of florescent orange and blue. Each photo was taken by and depicts children from the rural Rajasthani community to which Gill gave cameras in the early 2000’s. The images on display at Twelve Gates, though, were not photos that the children had been especially proud of, or even ones they had intended to produce — they came from a “mistake” film roll. Many years later, Gill found the “ruined” film rolls that the children refused to claim and was moved to re-incorporate them into her work, to play with truth and narrative.
“As with life, the medium of technology introduces its own presence through chance and accidents,” Gill said in the artist’s note, which was available at the gallery. “I played with the prints, and when I looked at them again, the ruined images had formed an unexpected rainbow. A Ruined Rainbow, if you will.”
Gill was able to repurpose an old photograph, Mani explains, to create new significance from that which had been discarded. Through its “ruin,” the image is rendered the exact opposite of disposable — it is, after all, on display in an art gallery. The subjects of the photograph, gathered together, participating in daily life from behind photographic exposure bring our attention to the storied history and the vibrant present of the photos, their subjects and the artists.
“It is these multiple glances within the print that redirect our view from the light of the flare to the shared sense of community inhabited by these youth,” said Mani. To that end, the viewer and the various artists excavate something novel from the ruins.
Like Gill’s art, Matthew’s work also utilized old photos to fashion new meaning through novel modes of representation. In “Re-Generation,” Matthew used archival photographs of people as a base, then digitally added the original subject’s children and grandchildren. In the last image in the series, the three generations of the family can be seen in the same arrangement as in the archival photograph. The final image is hardly the “result,” however, of the evolution of the original photo. The piece is meant to be viewed as a photo animation, the subjects of the photo aging and evolving within the confines of the original image and its rectangular digital frame.
“Her technological interventions counteract the erosion of the photographic archive,” wrote Mani. “Fading in and out of the screen, these animations compress decades while expansively mapping new spaces … Here too we see the afterlife of the image, as Matthew fabricates a vision of the future that far exceeds the time of the archival photograph.”
Matthew recognizes this in her work, too. In the artist statement provided at the show, Matthew explained that, indeed, part of her artistic goal was to “spur a critical reflection on the power of photography and its effect on the perception of memory, family and the warping of cultures over time.”
The other art on display included Matthew’s “Fabricated Memories,” an accordion book printed on handmade paper, which featured fabricated images of Matthew — her father — that she created by reconstructing childhood memories and photos.
Gill also had another piece in the show, “Fields of Sight,” which was put up in the gallery as a projection. The black and white photographs were taken by Gill and depict fellow artist Rajesh Vangad in his home in Maharashtra, which has recently been the site of grave environmental degradation. The photos are then overlaid with Vangad’s drawings to create a multi-dimensional image that tells the story of its many subjects and artists.
“The surface of the image enables us to see not only the time and place of Gill’s documentation, but also Vangad’s own contemporary recollection in these spaces, a memory that takes as its canvas the photographic frame,” Mani wrote. “What has been retrieved here, in these sites of environmental ruin, is a uniquely collaborative relationship between two artists whose joint work excavates the complex history of our present.”
The gallery had over 200 visitors that night after Swarthmore students’ private preview concluded. Mani was especially excited about student participation in not only her exhibit, but the art viewing, gallery-hopping experience as a whole.
“I thought it was really extraordinary that students could not just participate in the show but be the first to view it and to have a chance to bring what we learn in the classroom out into the city of Philadelphia so that the experience is not just about being at Twelve Gates, interacting with what I think is amazing art and artists, but the experience as a larger experience,” she said.
You can see “Ruins and Fabrications” at Twelve Gates Arts through December 15, 2015. Matthew will be speaking at Twelve Gates with Mani on December 4 (December First Friday) and at Swarthmore on Thursday, December 3.