‘Seeing the Elephant” and “Looking In/ Looking Out: Contemporary Indian Photography From the Gaur Collection,” two lush exhibitions about India at Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Bakalar & Paine Galleries, set up a historically charged counterpoint.
“Seeing the Elephant” features mostly non-Indian artists contemplating India. “Looking In/Looking Out,” drawn from the extensive collection of Umesh and Sunanda Gaur, spotlights works by Indian artists. The elephant in the room is British imperialism. Western outsiders’ gaze shaped perceptions of Indian culture for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, framing it as exotic, alluring, hot, and dirty — as “other” in enticing and off-putting ways.
Contemporary artists bend over backward to be aware of this dialectic, and to correct it. Indeed, the artists in “Seeing the Elephant,” a deep and succinct show organized by Lisa Tung, director of curatorial programs, tackle issues of oppression, historical and present-day, with gusto — among a multiplicity of other themes.
Fazal Sheikh’s “Simram, homeless shelter, Delhi, India,” portrays with tremendous dignity a narrow shouldered girl with her head shaved. Sheikh’s arresting photographic portraits of girls and women call attention to a society that implicitly accepts rape, female infanticide, and forced marriage.
Casting a wary eye back at Western art history’s tendency to portray Asian and Middle Eastern women as smoldering playthings, Güler Ates, for “Eternal Maharana and She (II),” photographed a dancer swathed in local fabrics posing in a 16th-century palace in Rajasthan. The fabrics obscure the woman’s form. She’s more wraith than flesh, yet she holds the space with the same electricity as Eugène Delacroix’s harem girls.
Michael Bühler-Rose’s still-life photographs call back to 17th-century Dutch masters’ still lifes’ emphasis on wealth and transience. As they painted, the Dutch East India Company created wealth and spread Asian goods through Europe. It was the Dutch Golden Age. Bühler-Rose crisply lights on fruit, DVDs, and newspapers purchased in Indian stores in the United States, making parallels to contemporary trade and the Indian diaspora.
“Seeing the Elephant” — the title, which does not refer to imperialism, comes from the parable about blind men describing an elephant by touch — celebrates the tiny details that make up the texture of Indian culture. Local textiles show up again in Khush Nubian’s abstracted digital collages, such as “Fruit Stalls,” which layer images of sari fabrics, local fruits, and more into pulsating, snappy grids that burst off the wall.
Edward Burtynsky, who photographs industry’s impact on the earth, went to India to shoot community wells lined with stairways, sites of socializing and ritual. “Stepwell #5, Nagar Kund Baori, Rajasthan, India” peers straight down into a waterless well with trash glittering at its base. The gorgeous piece looks like an M.C. Escher print, with stairs circling endlessly. The lack of water adds to the sense of futility.
Less taut, more daring
Water recurs as a theme in “Looking In/Looking Out.” Ravi Agarwal, an environmental activist turned artist, takes the Yamuna River, a polluted tributary of the Ganges that provides drinking water to impoverished areas of New Delhi, as his subject. “Riverbank I” depicts a public art project along the dusty banks: Knives thrust angrily into the earth as the water glints in the sun.
“Looking In/Looking Out” is a much more generalized, less taut and lyrical exhibition than “Seeing the Elephant,” with sections on landscape, portraiture, activism, and performance. It nods to Raghubir Singh as the father of contemporary Indian photography. His series “Kerala — the Spice Coast of India,” from 1986, depicts the communist outpost and port city with a compelling mix of immediacy and leisurely scope.
Some of the work crackles, while other pieces feel desultory. There’s a bit of Cindy Sherman in Pushpamala N.’s performance-art series “Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs,” in which she dresses up as archetypal figures from Indian culture, echoing Bollywood roles, Hindu deities, and ethnographic portraits, yet the photos of her (taken by Claire Arni), feel leaden, and compare poorly with Güler Ates’s mystery-laden images of women in “Seeing the Elephant.”
In Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s similar work in the sharper series “An Indian from India,” the artist dresses herself up in diptychs based on portraits and ethnographic images of Native Americans, unpacking the effects of Christopher Columbus’s mistake, calling indigenous people Indians when he landed in the New World. These are crisper, compelling — art photographs, not photographs of performance art.
Then there’s the most daring and hilarious, the least ponderous but utterly on point work in the show, “Between One Shore and Several Others (Potato Eaters After van Gogh),” by Vivek Vilasini. In it, costumed Indian dancers pose around a table to mirror van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters.” They are dressed to perform kathakali, a marathon dance based in religious ritual.
Where van Gogh’s earthy painting is all greens and browns, Vilasini’s characters wear costumes and masks in fiery red and gold. Where van Gogh’s figures are humble farmers eating the fruit of their own labor, Vilasini’s are three demons and a god. Nothing humble about them — they’re outrageous. Rather than grappling with the Western canon, as some of the artists in both shows do, Vilasini claims it and transforms it, triumphantly, to his own purposes.
SEEING THE ELEPHANT
LOOKING IN/LOOKING OUT: Contemporary Indian Photography from the Gaur Collection
At Bakalar & Paine Galleries, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., through Dec. 5.617-879-7339, www.massart.edu/galleries