Misogyny and Racism as Spectacle and Performance: A Critique of Mahesh Shantaram’s ‘The African Portraits’ and ‘Forbidden Love’

Suchitra Vijayan: A culture that elevates the storyteller above the story and uses the banality of bearing witness as an excuse to produce extractive work needs to be challenged and torn down.

[…] I was immediately struck by the aesthetic—the lighting, the rendering in these images of Africans living in India, and the texturization done to make their skin appear darker. A series that was meant to engage with Africans living in India, their struggle to find a place in a profoundly xenophobic society seemed lost in the drama of lighting and staging these images. I had concerns about how these men and women were staged in potentially disturbing ways on landscapes marked by violence. While the work briefly referred to violence, there was no context, history, engagement, or articulation of how their presence in this space affected their lives. The images portrayed members of the African diaspora in India in poses with distant empty gazes. However, India and its visceral racism remained absent. These images could have been photographed anywhere: Delhi, Bombay, Accra, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, or Kinshasa. While the descriptions of the work regularly referred to racism, the photographs themselves did not articulate this message. The images were repeatedly described as an “intimate,” “visual reckoning of this minority community” that “paint a picture of loneliness, placelessness and a sense of hostility” and were “emotionally resonant.” There was a disparity between what was described and attributed to the photographs and the photographs themselves.

[…] When a project is constructed around nudity and equated with freedom, does a woman who chooses not to disrobe for any reason then live in permanent unfreedom? How does one photograph women naked and interpret that as “power” when women in India, especially Dalit and Adivasi, are regularly stripped as punishment? How can one interpret “forbidden love” to mean photographing urban, upper-class naked “powerful” women when love or desire for someone from a different caste or religion in India is often awarded with a death sentence? This method, gaze, request, and process remain deeply implicated within the conceptions of neoliberal feminism, constituting links to grants, commissions, and visibility. This is not storytelling; this is orchestrating a spectacle to enhance a career built on the bodies of others.

[…] Here the visuals and perfecting a lighting technique took precedence over people and their history. In this tired and tested formula, “seeing and showing” was offered as the solution for all forms of discrimination, oppression, violence, and racism.

[…] This fetishised use of naked bodies of black and brown people, especially women, has a long orientalist, colonial history. Shantaram’s work fits into a long history of photographing and projecting black bodies as sites of victimhood. It represents a culture of image making that enables people coming into spaces they don’t have relationships with—to sensationalise and cannibalise stories, miseries, and bodies and produce value for themselves. More here.

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