Continuing an investigation of the relationship between seeing and knowing launched with the Gund Gallery’s inaugural exhibitions and programs, Pushpamala N’s (Indian, born 1956) photographs in The Ethnographic Series 2000-2004 produced in collaboration with Clare Arni, frustrate knowledge assumed through visual representation. Her work simultaneously presents playful and politically strategic challenges to colonial era modes of 19th-early 20th century ethnographic photography in India—a form of photography that sought to document types of people, their dress, and even native categories of labor. Placing herself in the role of subject, Pushpamala recreates the colonial sepia-toned gaze and its power relations while looking back at a viewer who must acknowledge that such photography cannot ultimately lead to knowledge of the subject or even a “type” she is meant to represent.
Photo- and video-artist Pushpamala N. explores the documentary nature of photography as a means of understanding culture. Trained in sculpture, she transitioned to photography early in her career. Pushpamala uses her own body to act out stories from pop culture. Often using dramatically staged scenes she creates a cinematic experience for her audience. These culturally-familiar tableaus serve as a humorous way of critiquing contemporary society.
As in her photographic work, the artist dons a stereotypical sari and performs the role of the Indian film naif in “Indian Lady.” Pushpamala coyly enters the frame, tiptoes, smiles, flirts, and dances in a traditional style common to earlier Indian films while seemingly singing, as if sharing a story. The backdrop is a commissioned reproduction of a tourist postcard image of Mumbai looking from the Haji Ali towards the dramatic city skyline. It is meant to evoke the fantasy of a modern metropolis represented often in print and on film throughout Indian popular culture. In “Paris in Autumn,” an experimental short film created from still photographs, the artist tells a story of her stay in Paris in the autumn of 2005. She rents a room in the Marais neigborhood that turns out to be one of the outhouses of a mansion once owned by Gabrielle d’Estrees, Kind Henri IV’s favorite courtier, who likely died from poisoning just as she was about to marry the king. The artist sets out to explore the woman’s tragic history, starting opposite Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller at the Louvre and (re)creating a map of a complex urban landscape.