Priya Kambli's Color Falls Down
To the left, a mid-20th century studio portrait presents her mother in mirrored duplicate – a prophetic reflection of dual identities. Dressed in a decorative Indian sari for everyday wear, Muma stands cautiously, avoiding the photographer’s gaze. On each forehead rests a tilak, a sacred mark of auspiciousness resembling the third eye. To the right exists a contemporary photograph of the jeweled pearl necklace once worn by her mother. A symbolically broken heirloom likely to have been part of her mother’s dowry, the necklace rests atop a worn surface and is circularly sculptured, recollecting its former place. Bisecting the images is a faded brocade of fabric taken from the artist’s wedding dress. Threads of eggplant and gold weave together to form an Indian design inspired by nature.
In Me (Polpat and Turmeric), the artist performs for the camera within a domestic scene. Staged in bold colors evoking India’s palette, she rigidly reposes in barefoot. Her head is partially cropped out of view, as if to suggest an incomplete whole or a story partially untold. Her arms are covered in turmeric, known for its healing and cleansing powers. Positing a deeper complexity of symbols, the still life to the left portrays turmeric spread over a well-used marble slab. Traditionally, the brightly colored paste is applied to a bride’s body (and in some castes to a groom’s body) as part of Hindu marriage rituals. Pairing ingredients and rituals reminiscent of a different place and time with her contemporary American life, she foregrounds the ideas of displacement through storytelling.
Priya Kambli’s photographic language consists of entangled autobiographical artifacts that carry diverse temporal and cultural meanings.[i] Raised in Delhi, the artist and her sister were orphaned in their teens. Kambli spent three years with relatives in Mumbai before moving to the United States to continue her studies. Now an artist, a wife, and a mother, she resides in Missouri. She describes her memories of her parents as ‘mythical’ – distanced the passing of time and her journey to a once foreign country. The loss of her parents and subsequent displacement is what drives Kambli’s creative practice.
Kambli’s love and attachment for her family is expressed through ‘design mixing’, or what could be described as a contemporary incarnation of memorial imagery known as yadgar.[ii] Commonly appearing in the last several decades of vernacular Indian photography, this style of montage seams together keepsakes and collaged portraits of the deceased, disrupting a chronological sequence of events. Kambli’s artistic process is anthropological and interpretive, as it incorporates the additional element of staged self-portraiture.
In front of the camera, Kambli dually performs her ancestors’ histories as well as her own in attempts to journal what it means for her to be bicultural. She shuffles all of these journeyed objects – including her representation of self – to form a family tree of disjointed stories from dual cultures, imbuing the inert possessions contained within the montaged compositions with greater relevance. The juxtapositions of old and new bridge gaps in time and space, transforming the artist’s attachment to the past and present. These photographic diaries are a methodological way of visually ‘writing’ her history, or what Elizabeth Edwards calls, “…an ongoing and developing conceptualization of histories represented.”[iii]
As viewers, we may find ourselves having a somewhat xenophilic experience in interpreting Kambli’s richly colorful yet complexly visual texts. The stylistic attributes and rituals portrayed in her images may carry the mystique of foreignness, while they may hold entirely different sets of cultural meanings for others[iv]. Described by Alfred Gell as a technique to achieve a series of ‘intersubjective understandings’[v], culturally layered constructions such Kambli’s are best approached incrementally. For Kambli and thus we viewers, the images portray the dual richness of distinctly different cultures, yet neither can ever achieve a state of full immersion.
Wendy Watriss, ed. (2012) FotoFest 2012. Amsterdam: Schilt Publishing, pp. 70-71.
[i] Pinney, C. and Peterson, C., eds. 2003. Photography’s Other Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, p 5.
[ii] Pinney, C. 1997. Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs. London: Reaktion Books.
[iii] Edwards, E. "Travels in a New World – Work around a Diasporic Theme by Mohini Chandra" In Schneider, A. and Wright, C., eds. 2006. Contemporary Art and Anthropology. Oxford: Berg, p. 150.
[v] Gell, A. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 156.