Bridging gaps between identity and memory: Indian diaspora artist Annu Palakunnathu Matthew at sepiaEYE

“Indelible Memories” by British Indian artist Annu Palakunnathu Matthew explores cultural issues of identity and migration at New York’s sepiaEYE gallery.

A retrospective of the work of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, on view until 16 January 2016 at the New York-based video art and photography gallery, presents her 20-year career in photography while showing intimate memories of a diaspora artist working with cultural overlapping, history and identity.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, '#6 Mansion', 1997-2000.  In "Indellible Memories" 2015, New York, sepiaEYE Gallery. Image courtesy of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and sepiaEYE.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, ‘#6 Mansion’, 1997-2000. Image courtesy the artist and sepiaEYE.

“Indelible Memories” contains eight bodies of work spanning her twenty-year career as a photographer and video artist. The exhibition is an exploration into her triple identity, having been born in England, raised in India and having lived in the United States for the past 25 years. Moreover, it is an attempt to follow the course of her family history across these three places and fill in the gaps in her memory, caused by the death of her father, the family documentarian.

Reconstructing Memories

Anna Palakunnathu Matthew was born in 1964 in England to Indian parents. At age 11, she returned to India with her family, shortly after her father passed away. Her father’s death was a pivotal point in her life and signified a double loss: that of a parent and also of her childhood memories.

Matthew’s attempt to reconstruct the photographic proof of her childhood is represented in her series “Fabricated Memories”, which contains composite photographs of images shot in England and family photographs. The resulting image is not based on actual occurrences, but nevertheless maintains an accurate depiction of her father and her life in England. In tribute to her father, who died of complications from smoking, the photos were compiled into a book bound in paper made from tobacco leaves and stored in a tobacco juice-stained cigarette box. The power of her reconstructed past is reinforced by the look, feel and smell of the tobacco leaf book evoking the memory of her father’s actual cause of death.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, '#11 Dad/Ajit', 1997-2000.  In "Indellible Memories" 2015, New York, sepiaEYE Gallery. Image courtesy of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and sepiaEYE.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, ‘#11 Dad/Ajit’, 1997-2000. Image courtesy the artist and sepiaEYE.

The power of family photographs to convey loss and longing is not lost on Matthew. According to curator Dr. Deepali Dewan of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, however,

The family photograph is the most familiar, ubiquitous and numerous of any genre of photography and yet, despite its popularity, remains notably absent from photo histories. In much of her work, Matthew brings focus on the family photograph, exploring its psychological and emotional dimensions to subvert cultural expectations.

Generative Processes

Building on the output of Fabricated Memories, Matthew’s series Re-Generation is an aesthetic and technical double entendre. This is a digital photo album in which a new generation of Matthew’s family is revealed with each photo. Matthews achieves this effect by using digital animation to make each image flow into each other, starting with the oldest image and gradually progressing to a newer image.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, 'Lavina', (production still) 2010, Digital Animation. In "Indellible Memories" 2015, New York, sepiaEYE Gallery. Image courtesy of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and sepiaEYE.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, ‘Lavina’, 2010, (production still) digital animation. Image courtesy the artist and sepiaEYE.

In Matthew’s own words,

The old images reignite memories and, like a time machine, take us back to a different time. Using digital technology, I reorient the viewer’s connection to time as I collapse the presumed progression of its borders, so the past and present appear here in the same virtual space.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, 'Archana' (production still), 2010, Digital Animation. In "Indellible Memories" 2015, New York, sepiaEYE Gallery. Image courtesy of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and sepiaEYE.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, ‘Archana’, 2010, (production still) digital animation. Image courtesy the artist and sepiaEYE.

The Other Indian

Amongst the most powerful of Matthew’s work is the “An Indian from India” series, which is the artist’s visual response to a question she received repeatedly when she first arrived in the United States: “But where are you really from?” When she would respond that she is Indian, people would often ask if she was Native American. Because she has an English accent that most Americans couldn’t place, it was nearly impossible for people to understand her identity.

The repetitiveness of this inquiry led her to investigate the vast photographic archives of the United States’ Native American population. In these photos, Native American individuals are situated in the stereotypical colonial style of the 19th century, revealing the photographers’ conception of Native American people as the exotified other. For “An Indian from India”Matthews creates diptychs by taking archival photos of Native American individuals and pairing them with images of herself dressed in traditional Indian adornment.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, 'Warpaint', 2008-2009, Orotone. In "Indellible Memories" 2015, New York, sepiaEYE Gallery. Image courtesy of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and sepiaEYE.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, ‘Warpaint’, 2008-2009, Orotone. Image courtesy the artist and sepiaEYE.

In Matthew’s images of herself, she mimics the approach of the archival images of Native Americans. With similarly composed representations of herself, Matthews couples her image with those of Native American men and women, and calls into question the ways in which Indians Native Americans have been considered an exotic other via the colonial gaze projected onto Indians by British photographers during the 19th century and onto Native Americans by early settlers.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, 'Feather Dot', 2008-2009, Orotone. In "Indellible Memories" 2015, New York, sepiaEYE Gallery. Image courtesy of Annu PalakunnathU Matthew and sepiaEYE.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, ‘Feather Dot’, 2008-2009, Orotone. In “Indellible Memories” 2015, New York, sepiaEYE Gallery. Image courtesy of Annu PalakunnathU Matthew and sepiaEYE.

The “An Indian from India” series was initially shown earlier this year at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and is the result of six years of work spanning from 2001 to 2007. Matthew consulted archival sources such as the volume Tribes of India and also photographs in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. As Matthew worked on this series, she became acutely aware of the power imbalance between the portrayed and the viewer. In the June 2015 exhibition review by Scroll she states,

I decided to turn the camera on myself to negate that power relationship and join hands with the Native Americans to challenge the viewers’ gaze.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, 'Noble Savage', 2008-2009, Orotone. In "Indellible Memories" 2015, New York, sepiaEYE Gallery. Image courtesy of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and sepiaEYE.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, ‘Noble Savage’, 2008-2009, Orotone. In “Indellible Memories” 2015, New York, sepiaEYE Gallery. Image courtesy of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and sepiaEYE.

Matthew’s work reveals the challenge of navigating multiple identities while creating meaning and memory. Through technology and her lived experience as an ‘other’, coupled with the imagery of Native American “others” of her adopted country, Matthew reminds us that identity evolves and is as much determined internally as it is externally. Part of the journey is indeed a coming to terms with the past, while creating memories of the present that will serve as a historical record in the future. Matthew, like her father, is a documentarian and as prominent American photographic critic and author Vicki Goldberg relates in her essay Memory’s Kingdom written to accompany Matthew’s series “Memories of India”,

[Matthew’s] sense of self is ambiguously located between England, India, and America, and these images hover ambiguously between dream and reality, document and fantasy, clarity and obscurity, today and long ago.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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Related topics: Indian artistsevents in New Yorkgallery shows, photography, memory, ancestors

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