Interview by Kevin Lobo, for Visual Disobedience
- Superheroes ~ Visual Disobedience
- To Whomsoever it May Concern
- Small is Beautiful – II
- Unselfed Extended
- Tasher Desh
- Placebo Singers
- The League of Superheroes
- The Superhero Series
- The Harlequin Series
- Everybody's a Jester
- We are such stuff As dreams are made on
- Goodbye Blue Sky
- Inhale / Exhale
Ali’s work was Visual Disobedience’s pick of the art on display by emerging artists at the India Art Festival this year. We speak to him about how pictures of the poor don’t need to be patronising, the magic of using lenticular and why superheroes are myths of the modern world.
Where did you click the original photographs?
I have been working on this series as an idea since March. I was part of an artist residency [at SPACE 118, in Mazgaon], documenting the vanishing culture of Mazgaon and Wadi Bunder. My documentation was split into three parts – discovering the Site, Stage and Structure of Mazgoan and Wadi Bunder. So Site was the absolute geographical location, the Stage was pictures of the performances of the everyday and Structure was the area’s architecture. The pictures that I have selected are from the Stage part of my documentation.
Where did the superhero concept arise from?
I love the idea of superheroes as a contemporary myth. The pictures are of the working class, beggars and street urchins. I think of them as heroes because of their struggle for survival. It is a way of looking at their lives as heroic, a lionisation of these people. There is a certain amount of nobility in what they do. But there is a duality to this. They don’t really want to be lionised though or recognised as anything special. Conceptually, the work is also about fiction and reality and blurring the lines between the two.
Lenticular has shown this blur between reality and fiction quite literally. How did you come across this medium?
I think lenticular has been part of all of our childhoods. We had those taazos and then these round things we would get in Lays packets. Now lenticular prints of gods and goddesses have become famous. I never thought about it as amaterial for a particular work. But doing this work in video did not seem good enough. I wanted the viewer to see both, the original photograph and the costume. Also a photograph is more tangible, it’s almost a painting. All of this is fascinating.
Lenticular takes the work further. The superhero is one aspect of the composite and the secret identity of the real person is also important. This duality of the myth of superheroes becomes apparent because of lenticular. They are going about in the world doing what they do just like a superhero would. The costume might be fictionalisation, but the work is still asking whether these guys are invisible heroes or not. The trick as an artist is not stating which is which.
Were you conscious of not coming across as just another photographer with a bleeding heart?
I think I was very aware of that becoming a possibility in this series and I have very consciously stayed away from images that would seem condescending, or patronising or even cute. What I’ve ended up with is photographs of people who were involved in their own work. They weren’t pretending to do something else. They were being who they are, no pretence. Using lenticular as a technology, I was able to show the original subject as he or she is, but add my perspective on it too.
How did you select the costumes for the superheroes?
I wanted my intervention to be very minimal. I didn’t want to abandon the style of the golden age of superhero comics of the’50s and ’60s. There is a certain sense of drama, and the language is a little over-the-top and flowery. It has a certain identity. That’s the connect I wanted. The costumes in that sense are flashy at times. What became important for me to look at the image for what it is. There is one guy who is pulling a hand cart. The photograph itself comes across as a Herculean figure pulling a huge load. The photographs gave me clues. This guy needed super strength – so muscle not armour. Colour schemes came out of what they were wearing originally. That simplicity seems fantastic.
What is the response to the show, and where do you go with this?
A lot of the times, people who are observing the work walk past it expecting it to be yet another poor man’s photograph, but stop midway realising there is something special happening. That moment of magic is fabulous. Lenticular became, for me, the right blend of magic and simplicity in this work. In a way, this show ties up with what I have been doing since my first solo show at Tao. I had painted the face of the harlequin on faces of lesser privileged people for the series called Everybody is a Jester. For the India Art Festival, I have completed just seven pieces because of space constraints. But I hope this will be a much larger body of work.
To Whomsoever it May Concern
‘To Whomsoever It May Concern’ is a letter, an appeal, a supplication.
It is a tableaux, an image, a reality that we are all too familiar with.
It is not the first, nor the last… it lays bare the scars of war: fear, trauma and precarious memory.
Small is Beautiful – II
TAO Art Gallery, Mumbai
Unselfed Extended is a mix media body of work that includes a series of drawings/copper plate etchings, prosthetic sculpture/masks and other props/objects. It is an interpretive work based on and furthering the artistic vision of an 80 minute performance of the same name. It is a search for a hybrid form, one which invites the viewer to engage simply with bodies moving in space, with gestures, with objects, movement, images and the spoken word…
Conceptual drawings, text and other visuals are often used to aid the performers to construct a composite work such as a performance. Creating conceptual drawings based on a finished performance is to reverse engineer the process – here, the performance is the seed, the starting point. The drawings circumvent the constraints of a live performance by entering the domain of abstract and surreal imagery.
Within the context of the performance, they are ghosts – mirrors reflecting the performers in a heightened sense of reality as well characters within the performance. The images, the performance and the interaction between them, indicate an imaginative space where the audience/viewer react simultaneously to all three and so further the open ended dialogue that is the aim of the original performance.
Tagore was inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Western opera when he wrote the dance opera Tasher Desh - a satirical portrayal of a society ruled by strict conventions and a veiled criticism of the society he lived in.
Today the Kingdom of cards is not an element of fantasy, but a reality embodied in today’s world; the city, society and the homes we belong to. The intertwined strands of the orthodox and the liberal and our society’s continuing failure to separate the two have created a dual discourse – a conflict between the real and fictional – the visible and invisible – the actual and the aspirational. This work engages with our conflicting dual identities overlapping them, forcing them to coexist, dissolving the barriers between them.
The League of Superheroes
The guardians of the Multiverse created a vast legion of Heroes called the chosen… A handful of carefully selected mortals – plus one extradimensional being whose place in all this is a mystery. It is because of them we’re here, because of their sacrifice – a sacrifice of everything we know to be normal.
The Superhero Series
The Superhero Series is a suite of digitally painted photographs and made as archival lenticular prints.
The Harlequin Series
The Harlequin appears in Dante’s Inferno “roaming the streets with a band of devils, searching for souls to drag back to Hell”; In Medieval French miracle plays; to more positive and mystical interpretations with a multi-colored diamond-patterned costume that embodies the many-sidedness and richness of life.
The Harlequin - almost Dionysian in the liberating chaos of life is in opposition to the central figure of the canvas works - the Hero of human myth - Apollonian in seeking order and fulfilling his destiny. The Harlequin is a prankster and trickster, intrusive and greedy, always ready to lie, an anarchist reveling in chaos. But he is also witty and carefree, exuding innocence and naiveté. He is nimble and light, made of air, physically and morally flexible. He is an embodiment, simultaneously, of the light and the dark, and the minute infinite layers of gray that make up the composite of human beings.
The Harlequin exists is in a world alien to ours; a surreal world of chaos, dreams and constant flux. A virtual world, a world without texture, plastic, strange. The world of the Hero even though stripped of cultural markers and non-specific to any culture is still within the physical known realm. The physical medium, therefore, of oil on canvas of the Hero, becomes inadequate for the Harlequin. The polarity of the ‘Noble’ and self sacrificing Hero and the Harlequin is reflected in the polarity of the two worlds, and the two mediums. The organic and the physical world of the hero, and the synthetic, artificial and virtual world of the Harlequin. The non-destructive easily malleable easily changeable nature of virtual world of the computer becomes in fact the ideal medium for creating this world of the Harlequin.
Chaos in the physical world exists at a level not perceived by human senses. The nature of human consciousness is one that seeks to impose order and patterns into seemingly random events. The computer as a tool provides a non-human intervention in bringing a degree of controlled randomness. It creates a parallel universe and space-time continuum
Everybody's a Jester
![Series: Everybody’s a Jester 1-10, 2010-2011, Archival print on Hahnemuhle paper, 61 x 45.7 cm / 45.7x61 cm](/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_01.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_02.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_03.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_04.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_05.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_06.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_07.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_08.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_09.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_10.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_11.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_12.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_13.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_14.jpg) !(/static/img/Everybodys%20a%20Jester%20Series_15.jpg)
![The Great Mother Re-Construct(ed), 2011, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 182 x 152 cm](/static/img/Ali%20Akbar%20Mehta_The%20Great%20Mother%20Re-Construct-ed%20-%202011%20-%20Oil%20and%20acrylic%20on%20canvas%20-%20182%20x%20152%20cm.jpg)
![The Identity of Violence Series: Sacrifice and Redemption, 2010, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 182 x 121 cm](/static/img/Ali%20Akbar%20Mehta_The%20Identity%20of%20Violence%20Series%20-%20Sacrifice%20and%20Redemption%20-%202010%20-%20Oil%20and%20acrylic%20on%20canvas%20-%20182%20x%20121%20cm.jpg)
![The Identity of Violence Series: Suffering and Rapture, 2010, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 182 x 152 cm](/static/img/Ali%20Akbar%20Mehta_The%20Identity%20of%20Violence%20Series%20-%20Suffering%20and%20Rapture%20-%202010%20-%20Oil%20and%20acrylic%20on%20canvas%20-%20182%20x%20152%20cm.jpg)
![The Identity of Violence Series: The Last Dream, 2010, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 182 x 121 cm](/static/img/The%20Identity%20of%20Violence%20Series%20-%20The%20Last%20Dream%20-%202010%20-%20Oil%20and%20Acrylic%20on%20canvas%20-%20182%20x%20121%20cm.jpg)
![Triptych, 2007, oil and acrylic on canvas, 91.5 x 271 cm](/static/img/Triptych%20-%202007%20-%20oil%20and%20acrylic%20on%20canvas%20-%2091.5%20x%20271%20cm.jpg)
![Xanadu, 2008, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 121 x 121 cm](/static/img/Xanadu%20-%202008%20-%20Oil%20and%20Acrylic%20on%20Canvas%20-%20121%20x%20121%20cm.jpg)
![Shwait, 2006, Oil, acrylic and enamel on canvas, 182 x 152 cm](/static/img/Shwait%20-%202006%20-%20Oil%20acrylic%20and%20enamel%20on%20canvas%20-%20182%20x%20152%20cm.jpg)
![War, 2011, Graphite on Paper, 152 x 213 cm.](/static/img/Ali%20Akbar%20Mehta_War%20-%202011%20-%20Graphite%20on%20Paper%20-%20152%20x%20213%20cm.jpg) ![Xanadu, 2011, Graphite on paper 107 x 137 cm](/static/img/Xanadu%20-%202011%20-%20Graphite%20on%20paper%20-%20107%20x%20137%20cm.jpg) ![Stillborn, 2011, Graphite on paper, 107 x 137 cm](/static/img/Ali%20Akbar%20Mehta_Stillborn%20-%202011%20-%20Graphite%20on%20paper%20-%20107%20x%20137%20cm.jpg)
We are such stuff As dreams are made on
Part of the Harlequin Series (2010 – 2011)
![Rebirth, 2009, oil and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 in.](/static/img/Ali%20Akbar%20Mehta_Rebirth_2009.jpg)