Abul Kalam Azad’s latest series of photographs, “Animal,” on display at the brand new Ishka Gallery in Kochi, are shot in the color-filter shades of a computerized twilight. In one, a buffalo looms menacingly in the sinister shadows of a color negative, underneath a sky digitally darkened and pasted with an artificial moon. It stands there in the middle of a road staring at the viewer, only reconfirming a truth that some of us have learned the hard way: buffaloes don’t like to be photographed. The image, printed on a large canvas, effectively evokes a reaction that fires on multiple registers: it is a cranky animal, you tell yourself. An ill-omened creature. No wonder the demon Mahisha disguised himself as a buffalo. And that thing looks ready to charge. Azad’s recent work pursues this sort of honeycombed indexicality, digitally intervening in otherwise straight forward images, interrupting the false photographic promise of simple truth-telling, and casting his animals into the crepuscular space of mysterious and sometimes threatening voodoo.
There is a kind of chiaroscuro to Mattancherry, the rambling historical spice trading district across the water from Ernakulam’s bristling skyline. Its Dutch colonial godowns and storefronts face each other across claustrophobically narrow streets clogged with trucks and handcarts. Lanes and entrances lead back into dark rooms piled with burlap sacks, small roofless open areas tangled in vines and houseplants, old apartments and antique offices cut off from the sun. Its tight corners, palimpsest architecture, and limited vistas nurture a style of localism that borders on introversion: a place of long historical memory, faded cosmopolitanism, local legends, Mattancherry heroes. It is not surprising that the crowded lanes of this unique piece of early modern urban India have attracted artists and galleries, transforming it into a central site for Kerala’s busy art scene.
Abul Kalam Azad’s studio is just down the road from the Mattancherry exhibition space of Kochi’s best known gallery, Kashi, and walking between the two you pass a number of small galleries filled with the art of young Keralans aspiring to emulate the “Bombay boys,” those Kerala-born artists who have made it big in the big city, famous enough to only need one name: Santhosh, Jitish, Shibu, Bose. They might do well to look to the example of Azad instead: he’s been there, with long stints in London and New York, and now he’s back in his hometown with a lesson to impart: “you have to be local to be international.”
He began his career locally enough, learning his trade by apprenticing with a wedding photography studio. It is an important starting point for understanding his work: his preference for large-format cameras, for composed shots, for iconic images that compress multiple levels of information. The wedding photographer doesn’t just passively record and archive local history, he shapes it, providing it with a kind of iconographic structure, a visual grammar that marks its separation from the empty, modernist referentiality of the snapshot. The truth in the wedding photograph is not the truth of a moment captured unawares, a la Cartier-Bresson–a moment that would have happened whether or not the photographer was there–it is more a Mattancherry kind of truth, a man-made truth, one in which the event and the act of transcribing it are inseparably entwined.
This training laid the groundwork for a photographic sensibility that made Azad dissatisfied when, a few years later, he began working as a photojournalist. He realized, he told me, that “not one image is truthful in what you see in the media.” In a sense, his artistic work ever since has been a kind of return to those Mattancherry truths of the wedding studio, to the role of the photographer as an image-maker, not just an image-recorder. Seen in this light, his recent decision to stop shooting photographs and to work instead with images he has shot and assembled over the past twenty-five years makes sense. “Now is not showing,” he told me, “now is work.”
A sun in full digital eclipse looks like a black moon haloed in greenish white light, casting crazy shadows on a stone image of a multi-hooded cobra, shrouded in cloth by a worshiper, and nestled in at the base of a tree. In this, one of the most powerful pieces from the “Animals” series, we see an image of an image. The eclipsed sun is a digital intervention, as is the jade-colored twilight that saturates the scene. This is no more a straightforward representation of a snake shrine than the serpentine murti is a straightforward representation of a cobra. And this is precisely the point: everything we see here is a product of an intervention, an artifice that creates a charged space between representation and abstraction where the biological, social and material cross paths.
The show’s images are formally of a piece with the one described above, digitally manipulated shots of animals that play with mythological references and folklore. At their best, they convey a sense of mysterious complexity that draws the viewer in to an associative exchange among these multiple levels of imagination, history and nature. But Azad is a risk taker, and one in the midst of a process of developing a new and highly idiosyncratic approach to image-making, so the fact that the results are mixed should come as no surprise. Some of the weak points in the show are due to the technical difficulties inherent in printing digital images on canvas: a hog rooting around in muck is done entirely in shades of a sickly green very subtly distinguished. The canvas surface doesn’t do them justice. Without strong contrasts, the image looks nondescript and muddied. Elsewhere, the digitally inserted moons come off as trite rather than provocative: it is a delicate balance that Azad is working with here, and a brave one.