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The Rubin Museum’s Allegory and Illusion: Early Portrait Photography from South Asia opens an often fantastic, frequently attenuated window to photography’s quick and global sprawl, and the regional and cultural ways it took early root. The show covers a largely unseen body of South Asian portrait photography in its adolescent days, treating the visitor to over a hundred photographs from India, Burma, Nepal, and Sri Lanka (Ceylon in the show) — the eldest hailing from the mid 19th century, the newest from about the middle of the 20th. What could unite so much time and space?
Besides an art exhibition or its attending book—British colonial influence. And colonialism, not surprisingly, plays an unspoken, but hugely omnipresent role in what, why, and by whom these photographers were taken. En masse, perhaps they can be seen as mosaic portrait of colonialism’s leveling but resisted power. While that could make for quite an interesting, if unremarkable approach, the show does not walk that line. It is instead a bit of an embarrassment of riches — just a little too large, broad, and general. The curators’ contention that the photography in this collection, and in this region, “transcends narratives that often define art through colonial encounters with Britain,” feels stretched when viewed across across the four present-day countries. In some regions, this position is undeniably compelling, but in others its a harder sell, and the more examples you see of these two curatorial poles — allegory and illusion — the less it seems like they ought to stand together in such a show.
On their own, the portraits are often quite illuminating. In fact, many of them are remarkable works of augmented art. Similar in some respects to the photographic trends then ongoing in Europe and the United States (adding color or painted embellishments to photographs), Allegory and Illusion nevertheless reveals a distinctly regional, self-defining tradition that emerged amid the growth of photography in South Asia. Drawn from the Alkazi Collection of Photography, an archive of 19th and early 20th century South and Southeast Asian photography, they are an impressive collection.
Many were made (by and) in the European convention while some demonstrated a middle ground, like those of the hybrid Company painting style that in turn influenced some nascent photographic traditions in India. But some were quite different. A royal patron might completely rework a photograph such that it throbs with color and regal distinction. Or a Hindu faithful may add devotional iconography, leaving only the head of one subject from the original painting untouched, as in “Priest and Donor Before Srinathji.”
Such paintings share the walls with royal and aristocratic portraits, ethnographic studies, and some religious works. The majority of identified photographers (many photographers are unknown, unnamed) in this show are Europeans, including noted war photographer of the East, Felice Beato, and firms like Skeen and Co. in Sri Lanka. From them issued a number of familiar, imperial scenes and character types. In the Burma section of the exhibit, this takes the form of anonymous women—and some men—in various studio poses and settings, one even as an odalisque. Photos from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, seemed to be dominated by outdoor snaps of laborers and castes.
Most of the photos in the Nepal section were commissioned and kept by the withdrawn royal family. They capture a gilded edge of its rulers’ hidden world, especially of its females royals, often subject to the seclusive practice of purdah.
Walk the exhibit, however, and it becomes quite clear that the India section is the real fulcrum of the show, accounting for over half of the photos. Moreover, India was host to number of locally-owned and operated studios, plying portraiture to an interested middle-class as well as royalty. Regional styles emerged, particularly in the realm of painted photography, which drew its motifs from established Indian paintings styles, such as those of the Mughal and Rajput dynasty schools.
More than in any other region, Indian photographs are marked by the distinctive use of painted imagery. One photograph curiously limns a meta-portrait of a woman painting a portrait. It is in these painted photos that the vitality of the show’s proposed poles can be appreciated. At least in these example, the taking of a photograph was just the first step in a popular process of regional assimilation and cultural imposition. Photography, a technology imported and imposed from the west, was being cut and claimed with color.
The problem of the show, then, isn’t that it that it’s not good, it’s that it proves its subjects are too good to share the limelight. They demand a deeper investigation into colonialism’s influence vs. local contributions. An easy solution is to spin off the states and focus down on their particularities. With luck, we’ll soon have a “painted portraiture of 19th century India” exhibition in the near future. Until then, Allegory and Illusion will leave you intrigued.