NAIRA MUSHTAQ: The order of things 30th September – 1st October 2023 MAMA 10 Greatorex Street London E1 5NF
MAMA is pleased to present The order of things, an exhibition of a new body of work by Naira Mushtaq. The artist explores the visceral nuances of power and violence within colonial contexts, drawing on her study of archival materials documenting organized game hunts in colonial India, known as ‘Shikar‘.
The Shikar tradition dates back to the 18th century when East India Company members were invited by Indian princes and maharajas to hunt the now-endangered species as a leisurely past-time. When the Indian Empire was formed in 1857 and the British government overtook Indian administration, the Royal Family continued the Shikar, their hunting escapades having been widely chronicled and published across the British media.
Mushtaq’s fascination with photography stems from her interest in memory and its relationship to the subjective unconscious. Drawn to a photograph’s ability to trigger personal associations – Roland Barthes’ punctum, or the element in an image that pierces the viewer – the artist uses found imagery as a springboard for a painterly re-imagining of social and personal contexts or histories. Mushtaq’s works are characterized by an earthy palette, inspired by the likes of Goya, Toulouse-Lautrec or most recently, Edward Munch. Bold brushstrokes are used to weave together deep browns and ochres with brighter tones of yellow or orange.
The constant teetering between vibrancy and darkness adds an aura of eeriness to the works, a feeling made stronger still by the lushious backdrops that portray the nature of tropical forests.
One of the early inspirations for the show, seen in the work titled 02-12-1927 (II), was an archival image of Queen Elizabeth II, pictured during her visit to India in 1961, standing rifle in hand beside the body of a Bengali tiger. The order of things addresses the complex and complicated legacy of British imperialism, drawing on the symbolic significance of the hunt to think through the processes of objectification and isolation within colonial encounters.
Themes of violence and death are closely inspected, focusing the viewers’ attention on ways in which subjects were separated from their environment to the point of erasure or decimation. ‘It is a process of working through the legacy of the white man in his absence; a legacy of violence – the violence of eradication, genocide, ecological devastation,’ explains Mushtaq Despite being used as documentary material, much of the photographs from the Shikar were actually staged, with subjects positioned in highly performative stances.
Barthes famously described photography as ‘the living image of a dead thing’. With organized hunting having been outlawed in India in 1972, the retrospective viewing of Shikar photographs brings Barthes’ statement to life with intricate complexity, the curated composition of the images appearing intensely grotesque and uncomfortable to contemporary audiences. Mushtaq cleverly reappropriates these scenes as emblems of power dynamics, social stratas, racial prejudices and patriarchal structures, putting them into question on canvas.
The works on show forefront the degree to which gestural elements of bodily postures are tools for performing hierarchies, in a way that suggests something more universal about human nature. The artist’s focus is not just on the violence of killing, but rather on the more visceral violence of the captured stance, the human body, the gaze it imposes: ‘What stood out to me most is the gaze, the patriarchal nature of the gaze as well as the ethnographic nature of the photograph that looks at the animal. It is a gaze that is so distinctly alien – alien to the environment, photographer, even the subject’. In 08-05-1925 for instance, we see no confronting face or body, the focus is on the bottom part of the legs which stand firmly on the ground behind a shot animal. The power of the work lies precisely in its anonymity, where the danger of the human condition is made universal.
NAIRA MUSHTAQ: The order of things is on from 30th September – 1st October 2023 at MAMA, 10 Greatorex Street London E1 5NF
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