Indian photographer, women’s rights activist and installation artist Sheba Chhachhi has been awarded the second Prix Thun for Art and Ethics. 

Now in its second year, the Prix Thun award celebrates artists who promote sustainability in their work. The prize will be officially presented in Thun, Switzerland on 25 August 2017.

Sheba Chhachhi. Photo: Photo: Bryan James. Image courtesy of Brewster Gallery.

Sheba Chhachhi. Photo: Bryan James. Image courtesy Brewster Gallery.

Thun is the birthplace of artist George Steinmann, who established the award in 2016. The Prix Thun award was conceived to

promote the innovative strength of artistic strategies for the development of sustainable, ecological and cultural processes and thereby strengthen the Thun region. The focus is on the capacity for dialogue, social responsibility and solidarity.

Steinmann’s work has historically been committed to sustainability, ecological and environmental issues, and the prize was set up to further encourage and emphasise the importance of these values within the visual arts. The inaugural edition of the prize was awarded to Austrian artist and filmmaker Oliver Ressler. The prize awards each winner CHF25,000. The award also leads to an art project, which originates from Steinmann’s own exhibition “Call and Response. A Dialogue with George Steinmann” at Kunstmuseum Thun. 

Alongside Steinmann, the jury includes film director Jürg Neuenschwander, professor Peter Schneemann, sociologist Jean Ziegler, Helen Hirsch, Director of Kunstmuseum Thun and Marianne Flubacher, Head of the Cultural Department of the City of Thun.

Indian photographer, installation artist and women’s rights activist Sheba Chhacchi was selected from among 8 artists from across 8 countries as the winner of the second edition of the prize.

Sheba Chhachhi, Record/Resist: Second Wave, 2012 Record/Resist: Second Wave, 2012 Foto-Videoinstallation 21 digitale Archivdrucke, 9 min Videoloop Courtesy Sheba Chhachhi

Sheba Chhachhi, ‘Record/Resist: Second Wave’, 2012, photo-video installation, 9 minute loop. Image courtesy the artist.

New Delhi-based Sheba Chhachhi’s work investigates contemporary issues such as women, gender, the body, urbanisation, ecology, cultural memory, violence and visual culture. Her practice is concerned with the interplay between the urban and the natural, using mythic or traditional imagery to ask wider questions about women’s roles and representation, and to stress the world’s precarious ecological position. Most recently, she has been preoccupied with the creation of the mechanical light boxes that she is now known for, which see animals and figures move with repeated, steady movements across lit-up miniature spaces.

Born in Harar, Ethiopia in 1958, Chhachhi returned to India three years later. Her father worked for the Indian Army and moved frequently. She recalls how this informed her later work, as throughout her teenage years she spent time with mystics and folksingers. Educated at Delhi University after attending the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, her earlier works were formed during the women’s movement in the 1980s, where Chhachhi was an activist and documentary photographer.

Sathyarani Anti Dowry Demo 1981. Photo: Courtesy of Sheba Chhachhi.

Sheba Chhachhi, ‘Sathyarani Anti Dowry Demo’, 1981. Image courtesy the artist.

Chhachhi chronicled the massive protests in Delhi during this period, galvanised by an infamous rape case from 1978. The protests continued in response to the ongoing violence and murder towards Indian brides who could not meet the extortionate dowry demands. Chhachhi’s images became symbols of this activism, frequently used across posters, pamphlets and as part of the protests themselves. This period resulted in her first international exhibition, “Four Women Photographers”, at Horizon Gallery in London in 1988. 

By the 1990s, Chhachhi was questioning her documentary practice and began to experiment with collaborative staged portraits of her subjects, with works such as Seven Lives in a Dream (1998) encapsulating this change. In an interview with ArtAsiaPacific in 2012, she explained how

after ten years of documenting the women’s movement I began to have questions about the lie of objectivity (in the Western documentary canon) and the politics of representation […]. It shifted my mode of practice, this inter-subjectivity where the subject and photographer create together. In a way, that was my movement towards “art”.

Shahjahan Apa, Staged Portrait, Nangloi, 1991. Photo: Courtesy of Sheba Chhacchi.

Sheba Chhachhi, ‘Shahjahan Apa, Staged Portrait, Nangloi’, 1991. Image courtesy the artist.

Comprising 19 black and white photographs, the series now forms part of the Tate Collection. These works merged traditional portraiture with Chhachhi’s documentary style, characterised by an intimate intensity due to Chhachhi’s determination to form a relationship with her subjects. It was important to Chhachhi to give her sitter’s their own creative agency – something she calls “an invitation to perform the self”. In this sense, these photographs contribute to her confrontation of the challenges that women face, in terms of identity politics and their own representation.

Whilst photography remains a crucial part of her practice, Chhachhi then moved on to create her sensorial large scale installation works, which stress the importance of lingering on the photographic image within the exhibition space. These innovative multimedia exhibitions include her animated moving image light boxes, which further reinforce the importance of taking the time to view the photographic image. Key to the light boxes is their sense of repetition. Specific forms, often birds such as peacocks or parrots, populate the screen repeatedly, moving across it on a mechanical loop, which according to Chhachhi suggests neither movement nor stillness. As Prix Thun explains,

These mobile palimpsests work with a series of translucent and transparent layers where the mythic and the social conjoin to reflect on key concerns of our times. 

Kaja-Bird, Moving Image Lightbox from ‘Winged Pilgrims: A Chronicle from Asia’ 40 x 20. Digital Prints S on Duratrans/Clear Film, 3 layers. Photo: Courtesy of Sheba Chhachhi,

Sheba Chhachhi, ‘Kaja-Bird, Moving Image Lightbox’, 2007, digital prints on Duratrans/Clear film, 40 x 20 cm. In “Winged Pilgrims: A Chronicle from Asia”, 2007, Bose Pacia Gallery, New York City. Image courtesy the artist.

One of these works is Winged Pilgrims: A Chronicle, which was exhibited in 2007 in New York at Bose Pacia gallery, and reveals Chhacchi’s preference for weaving together both modern and traditional iconography to form her imagined landscapes. A stage-set of birds, robed figures and desolate landscapes move mechanically: a comment on migration and globalisation, whilst referencing more traditional art forms. These digital tapestries include inferences to Indian sculpture, Mughal miniatures and Chinese brush painting, whilst imitating common, cheaply made Chinese-made toys sold at many small Indian shops. The artist sees the work as

a metaphor for current forms of globalized exchange, which enact mediated shifts from the artisanal to the inexpensive electronic assembly.

Other notable works include her video installation The Water Diviner (2008), which investigates globalisation and its effects on the urban landscape. Described by Chhachhi as being her favourite work to date, it was exhibited at Volte, New Delhi. Following an invitation in 2008 to take part in a public project, Chhachhi was asked to work with certain sights within Delhi. In a video interview with Regarding India, Chhachhi explains:

I was walking with these architects in several sites that interested me, mostly in Old Delhi, and as we were passing I noticed this plaque saying swimming pool. And this is the very noisy crowded road in front of the railway station – a chaotic, crazy road. I thought, swimming pool? I looked up and it was the Delhi Public Library. So I went in immediately and asked about the swimming pool. They said, obviously there is no swimming pool anymore, it is basement storage. And I went down to this place and was amazed by what I saw. The ex swimming pool had been turning into a dump.

The combination of books, the swimming pool’s disused fountains and the new knowledge that the busy roads in front of Delhi Station were actually waterways and water canals until recently inspired Chhachhi to create this project. Chhachhi explains how with this piece she had “this sense of wanting to really recover the memories of water that lay just beneath the surface of the city”. The piece tackles issues such as cultural memory and recovery, as well as water consumption and consumerism. 

Sheba Chhachhi, The water diviner, 2008. Photo: Courtesy of Sheba Chhachhi.

Sheba Chhachhi, ‘The Water Diviner’, installation view, 2008. Image courtesy the artist.

In 2011, Chhachhi was awarded the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize. She publishes writings, gives talks and workshops and continues to create and research projects on women and their challenges within society, as well as visual culture and urban ecologies, in both institutional and non-formal contexts. Recent exhibitions include her large-scale kinetic sculpture “Temporal Twist” at Bikaner House in New Delhi. Her work has also been exhibited at various Biennales including Gwangju, Taipei, Singapore, Havana, Los Angeles, Jogia and Moscow, and her works are held in several major public and private collections around the world.

Anna Jamieson


Related topics: Indian artists, photographypolitical art, installationvideo

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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