NORTHAMPTON — Some titles, like “Dislocation/Negotiating Identity: Contemporary Photographs From South and Southeast Asia,” are bigger than others. The show runs at the Smith College Museum of Art through Aug. 14. It’s a title that deserves to be big. The show itself isn’t especially large; it consists of 50 or so photographs. But the ground they cover makes the title seem positively puny by comparison. The show encompasses portions of a vast and highly varied continent, as seen through the work of nine contemporary photographers.
More than one continent, actually. Globalization has affected Asia even more than the West, perhaps. Gauri Gill and her work exemplify the distances traveled. She’s studied at the Delhi College of Art, the Parsons School of Design, and Stanford University. The color photographs in her “Americans” series look at Indian-Americans in the United States. They’re as American as a convenience store in Mississippi — and as Indian as a Bhangra competition in Washington, D.C.
Himself born in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, Pete Pin documents the lives of Cambodian-Americans. Three diptychs from his “Here/There” series juxatpose contemporary portraits (large color close-ups) with a small family photograph or identity card from decades ago. Three other color photographs, from Pin’s “The Longest Shadow” series, offer a different sort of juxtaposition of past and present, as with the image of two tattooed fists, one bearing the word “Killing” and the other “Fields.”
Worlds collide very differently, and quite self-consciously, in Huma Mulji’s pair of large color photographs. Worlds may not be quite the right word. Lahore, Pakistan, in 2004, certainly qualifies. But Ken and Barbie dolls: How to situate them ? That’s Mulji’s point. They’re everywhere and nowhere, and never more so than when located in such a distinct somewhere. The look on the faces of the four traditionally garbed men looking at the dolls, both unclothed, suggests that nowhere has the upper hand over everywhere.
Like Mulji, Bani Abidi is Pakistani and interested in the clash of cultures. In the case of her two lightbox images, the clash is at once gentler and no less arresting than in Mulji’s photographs. Abidi shows non-Muslims at dusk in Karachi during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The way she photographs her subjects from behind further underscores a mood of surpassing quietude and reflection.
Prasiit Sthapit, who’s Nepalese, uses color to powerful effect in six photographs from his “New Silk Road” series. The series focuses on Chinese construction of a highway to Nepal. In one of the images, a man stands among an array of fluttering pennants. They dwarf him, as the mountains and clouds in the background dwarf the pennants. There’s a marvelous sense of being a world away — except that the aim of the highway is to remove that away-ness.
Maika Elan and Nge Lay both present interiors. Elan, who’s Vietnamese, shows gay Southeast Asian couples. Her six photographs balance dailiness and romance, none more charmingly than one showing a couple’s lower legs. Who knew that an adjacency of knees could be so touching?
Lay, who’s Burmese, includes herself in the five photographs here. Lay’s father died when she was 14. In an act that combines sympathy, solidarity, and self-examination, she poses with five families who are missing a father. The absence is not necessarily because of death; it could be that the father has gone in search of work. Lay wears a coat that belonged to her father and a ghost mask. The mask is even more startling than the highly theatrical light, which is pretty startling.
Jyoti Bhatt and Dayanita Singh are Indian. Both work in black and white. The slices of Indian society they show diverge radically. Bhatt shows the past — traditional, impoverished, pre-industrial — surviving into the present, if by no means flourishing there. All but one of Singh’s wealthy subjects dress traditionally, in saris. We see them posing inside in front of their comfortably appointed home. Singh shows the past surviving into the present in a very different way from Bhatt. The high-tech subcontinent of Bangalore seems very distant. Singh’s sitters seem just fine with that. They don’t do dislocation or negotiation, thank you very much, least of all dislocation of identity.
DISLOCATION/NEGOTIATING IDENTITY: Contemporary Photographs From South and Southeast Asia
Smith College Museum of Art, 20 Elm St., Northampton, through Aug. 14, 413-585-2760, www.smith.edu/artmuseum
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.