efface by Apuva Kulkarni
Ansel Adams famously remarked that there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer. In the case of portrait photography, I daresay there are three or more — the subject/s of the photograph as well. In a way, portraiture involves meeting somebody for the first time, especially when they aren’t public figures or celebrities. That the introduction is a visual and a nonverbal one doesn’t make it any less significant or memorable. The interrelationship between artist and sitter and later that of the viewer in the context of time and space assumes significance for portraiture as an art form. When the sitter is imaged, it quite literally becomes a momentary encounter between photographer and subject. Later with the viewer the encounter can become momentous, timeless even. What was a transitory moment becomes a perpetual one.
Efface is an exhibition where Alok Johri introduces us to four persons including himself. To call it just an exhibition of portraits is an understatement, because it is much more than that, given the history of portraiture and image-making in general. The portrait sits at the centre of a maze which has several entries and exit points: the psychological, the cultural, the ideological and the aesthetic. Defining a portrait as a work of art which represents a unique individual reduces the complexity that portraiture implies.
There is more than just the surface appeal of a sitter’s likeness but also the attempt to convey social position and an inner life. The fundamental approach to the human face hasn’t altered during photography’s short history: the mise-en-scène reveals the sitter’s class, profession and psychology — the evanescent expressions and gestures, the lighting and the decor all contribute to the revelation.
The act of photographing people or otherwise can imply an aggrandisement
as Susan Sontag so eloquently articulated in her essay Photographic Evangels. She stated that the disconcerting ease with which photographs can be taken inspired its leading practitioners to explain time and again about what they are doing and why it is valuable — that virtually every important photographer right up to the present has written manifestoes and credos expounding photography’s moral and aesthetic mission. She observed that for photographers, picture-taking is both a limitless technique for appropriating the objective world and an unavoidably solipsistic expression of the singular self. But many photographers strongly deny that picture-taking is in any way an aggressive act — clearly amplified by the observations made by Ansel Adams (You don’t take a photograph, you make it) and even more strongly emphasised as an act of self-effacement by Robert Frank’s credo (There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment). It is through this lens that we must view Alok Johri’s works. In being fearless and vulnerable at the same time, Alok throws a gauntlet. He gently challenges our presumptions and prejudices and asks us to reposition ourselves and reimagine the world we live in. In a sense his journey has been one of constant confrontation and this body of work reflects it.
A Tango with the Self
Every image he sees, every photograph he takes, becomes in a sense a self-portrait. The portrait is made more meaningful by intimacy — an intimacy shared not only by the photographer with his subject but by the audience — Dorothea Lange
Alok’s images clearly show the trust he has gained from his sitters, they divulge a self they want the world to see. And this world is one of effacement. Of erasing stereotypical attitudes towards gender and sexual orientation; thus all the portraits, of the self or otherwise are about forms of obliteration.
According to Alok, «Kee is an articulate, confident and emotionally strong 24 year old, part-time make-up artist.» Viewed through Alok’s eyes, Kee does come across as remarkably self — assured: he declares who he is and how he wants to be seen. The dialogue begun by Alok and Kee and which now includes us raises questions about gendered representation. About stereotypical attitudes of what constitutes masculinity and femininity. Or as Lange puts it more succinctly: We see not only with our eyes but with all that we are and all that our culture is.
Is gender an intrinsic attribute or is it a social construction?
Can’t it be neither or both?
A genderfuck if you will.
Because that is what a politically conscious gender bender person does and again on the other hand genderfucking need not be political at all. It could be performative or whatever you please. Areas relating to personal identity, gender and ethnicity and its construction have become germane to the post-modern project and are now an integral part of its consciousness and thus there is greater self-awareness on the part of artists. Kee’s androgyny is a tango with the self. It is both passion and performance.
Throughout the series on Kee and later when joined by Beej, one can’t help noticing the overt representation of body as design albeit its androgyny. There is a constant tug of war between the androgynous depiction and formal qualities of light and shadow, depth and surface effects. Alok is interested in both: who his sitters are as well as how they look. He achieves this partly by denuding the figures of props of any kind; only the occasional appearance of accoutrements in the form of a bejewelled choker or a lampshade and bed in a room. Kee’s images are acute psychological portraits and in this show most of them are close-ups. And when they do reveal more of the body it is as if to only set the tone for getting to know Kee better. Because once, you move past the introductory phase, Kee’s facial expressions hold you in their thrall. He alternates between being looked at and looking at you and in one troika of images he actually gestures ambiguously towards you — and the hands are tantalisingly out of focus. Other than that the sheer mobility of his face affords a significant parade of fleeting expressions: looking inward, looking away with a side glance, smiling at you, questioning you, mocking you…all done with a gentle ironic commandment: don’t judge, just be. Because I am being myself.
Unlike Michelangelo’s depiction of male ignudi (Singular: Ignudo; from the Italian adjective nudo, meaning «naked») which serve to bracket the main narrative of the Old Testament on the Sistine ceiling, Alok’s images are gloriously independent. The six images of Viktor, a model from London, represent a powerful series of the articulate body.
Once again, Alok’s images of Viktor tread the fine line between the objectification of the body as motif and the celebration of sensuality. But this time, the scales are clearly tilted in favour of the former. If any evidence was needed of Alok’s mastery of formal and compositional qualities, then this series would be proof enough. However, no image in the exhibition is just a play of light and shadow, there is always at least a hint of «the humanity of the moment».
So while there is an image which depicts Viktor in a yogic posture, with the composition almost being a laterally symmetrical one, the gestures of his hands seem to cradle an invisible infinity.
Because self-portraits conflate the artist and the sitter into one, they have the alchemical power of a personal journal, since the artist is both the object of artistic creation and the subject of self-exploration. While self-portraiture in photography has had a long history as early as the daguerreotype itself, it’s only in recent years that it distinguishes itself by becoming a commentary on the disquietude and alienism that marks contemporary existence. The combination of a personal journal and alienation makes this particular series a powerful and poignant one. It is doubly intensified and amplified by the arrangement of the series as a photo-installation. The fact that the viewer has to personally interact, one-on-one with each of the six pieces serves to make the installation not only a revelatory one but also a point of departure vis-a-vis the other artworks in the exhibition.
Of all the artworks, the self-portraits embody Nietzsche’s quotation most aptly. All of Alok’s photographic endeavours see him as being a witness, of watching as his subjects unfold their true selves to him. The self-portraits are no exception: here too Alok witnesses the self and sees the body as a cocoon, always a step away from becoming something or just becoming…
Using a stark white sheet, which is neither a robe nor a prop, Alok unfurls its whiteness, at times being encased by it, at other times almost inscribing a mandala with it. Throughout he remains an evanescent presence sometimes coming to the fore by a row of gleaming highlights and at other times being darkly silhouetted at the periphery of his self.
It is self-evident that Efface is about Alok’s tango with the self too.
His portraits very perspicuously negotiate and subvert dominant ideas of the representation and reception of gender and sexual orientation. This subversion while being carried out as a self-effacing witness is nevertheless a view from within, that of an insider. It is both subjective and objective at the same time — at crucial points it rises above dualities and completes a full circle by transcending both.
And we are privileged as viewers to be part of this circumambulation of the Self.