Photo Essays

The Body as a Political Landscape at a Nepalese Photo Festival

Whose and Whom brings together artists from around the globe who posit the body as a vehicle for performing gender.

Shahria Sharmin, from the series Call Me Heena (image courtesy of the artist)

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Gender is not a performance in some places in the world, but rather a diktat. In Whose and Whom: The Body as a Political Landscape, part of the third edition of Photo Kathmandu, curator Anshika Verma brings together artists from around the globe to challenge this diktat and posit the body as a vehicle for performing gender.

“People confuse masculine and feminine with being male and female and restricting those multiplicities in a single body’s form creates conflict,” Verma told me. “I wanted to ask why something is masculine or feminine so to speak? Which institutions or peoples have got their claim on me and whom do I belong to?”

Lissa Rivera, from the series Beautiful Boy (image courtesy of the artist)

In regions where there is no legal recognition of non-binary people, the physicality of those individuals become imminently political. Transgender, hijra, and non-binary people have always existed in societies throughout the world, but often perform heteronormativity in the public sphere. Whose and Whom recognizes those individuals in their raw moments. The photographs are often intimate and private; other times, they are loud and bare. Some are conceptual; others are theatrical or realist. The images weave narratives that range, geographically, from Dhaka to Calcutta to Brooklyn, and beyond.

The photographs, both print and projected, question the social structures that have laid claim to the represented bodies. The exhibition embraces these marginalized communities as organic parts of their surrounding society and consciously avoids victimizing them. The lives of queer individuals are liminal in many regions, and their visibility is constantly tested. Verma’s curation takes cue from that liminality, redefining the body as open and fluctuating, and magnifies the importance of the body for these individuals.

Lissa Rivera, from the series Beautiful Boy (image courtesy of the artist)
Lissa Rivera, from the series Beautiful Boy (image courtesy of the artist)

In her series Beautiful Boy, Lissa Rivera responds to the traditional power dynamic of the male artist and the female muse, photographing her partner dressed up as characters or emotions. Intimate and colorful, the posed portraits reveal an awareness of one’s gender-fluidity. In dialogue with the rest of the exhibit, the portraits acknowledge a global inequality in which such awareness is privileged in some regions and not in others.

Soumya Sankar Bose’s idyllic “psychological portraits” depict the everyday moments of LGBT and non-binary individuals in Calcutta, India. His scenes of queer folks lounging or chilling at their chosen places of comfort are rarely witnessed in an Indian context.

Soumya Sankar Bose, from the series Full Moon on a Dark Night (image courtesy of the artist)

Bose’s Full Moon on a Dark Night print exhibit is accompanied by a letter box where visitors can share their personal experiences and exploration of gender fluidity. The artist aims to collect these letters over time as his series travels around the globe.

Shahria Sharmin’s Call Me Heena looks at the hijra community, a segregated community in Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia. Categorized under the umbrella term transgender, hijra does not have an exact English translation, but loosely refers to people who are designated as male or inter-sex at birth yet identify with the feminine.

Shahria Sharmin, from the series Call Me Heena (image courtesy of the artist)
Shahria Sharmin, from the series Call Me Heena (image courtesy of the artist)

Sharmin’s black and white portraits celebrate the duality embraced by members of the community residing in Bangladesh and India. The artist photographed individuals identifying as hijra with their loved ones. The box-camera portraits reveal the network of support and acceptance that is integral to the hijras’ livelihood in South Asia.

Soumya Sankar Bose, from the series Full Moon on a Dark Night (image courtesy of the artist)
Soumya Sankar Bose, from the series Full Moon on a Dark Night (image courtesy of the artist)

Whose and Whom: The Body as a Political Landscape, part of Photo Kathmandu 2018, continues in various venues around Kathmandu, Nepal through November 16.

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