The African Portraits, an exhibition of Mahesh Shantaram’s photographs organised by Tasveer, will kick-start the gallery’s 11th season of exhibitions in Bangalore, and will remain on display from 27th August 2016 to 23rd September 2016. It will then travel across the country, including Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata. To learn more about the exhibition schedule, please click here.
THE INVISIBLE FENCE
Shantaram’s photographic journey into the lives of Africans in India
An excerpt from the original essay, by Caroline Bertram
In early 2016, a female Tanzanian student and her friends were attacked by a mob while passing a deadly hit and run scene that had happened minutes before, in Bangalore. This assault was a defining moment for photographer, Mahesh Shantaram, to start his photographic research into the matter of lived realities of African students in India. The woman in this case had been stripped by the mob and her car set ablaze in an immediate act of revenge for an unrelated deadly accident that had reportedly been caused by an unacquainted black-skinned African.
When details surfaced in the media about the violence and harassment that had unjustly been inflicted on the student, Shantaram read all he could to make sense of the horrendous case. He also found that this was by far not the first racially motivated attack on an African; there had been numerous cases all over India in the preceding years, some of them with fatal outcomes. Shantaram admits that he hadn’t even known about the large number of Africans studying in India in the first place, but now his curiosity had been sparked. Who are the Africans who come to India to study? What were their expectations of living in India prior to leaving their homes? Have their expectations changed in any way since coming here? Strongly affected by this particular event, Shantaram decided to take his camera and dedicate time to explore in depth the widely unknown underbelly of everyday racism against Africans in India.
This was in February. Half a year later, Shantaram has travelled the country driven by the conviction that the stories of Africans in India need a larger audience. Not just that — they require long-term attention and not haphazard media coverage when yet another African has fallen victim of an assault. In any case, news coverage is only able to scratch the surface, while Shantaram’s intent is to move beyond what is visible and describable and instead address that which often remains inadequately dealt with in reportage about racism: the individual, and his or her intimate experience of being ‘othered’ in a foreign society. To make the invisible, visible, is probably at the core of this photographic series.
Not only does it try to help us understand why the African is a largely absent resident in central cityscapes; Shantaram notes for instance that he has rarely observed a black person in Central Bangalore before. It also reveals the discriminatory politics of the housing market that drives Africans outside the city centre, into neighbourhoods that had previously not been on Shantaram’s map of Bangalore. The invisible barbed-wire fence that prevents Africans fair and easy access to housing in Indian cities, effectively marginalises them. While racism spans many areas of everyday life, its perceivable influence in the housing sector leaves a particularly sour taste, because it suggests that Africans’ ethnicity in spatial terms dictates their place to the margins of urban geography.
Shantaram takes the viewer, through his photographs, into these neighbourhoods occupied by the students and into their personal space, behind the four walls of their homes. When he meets his subjects, he spends several hours with them to gain a level of trust that allows them to open up, share their stories and feel comfortable to pose for Shantaram’s lens. The time invested allows for a personal bond and creates an intimate setting for deep and unguarded conversation. What adds to the effect of intimacy, is the fact that Shantaram meets most of his subjects at night.
Urban India has had to deal with a form of ‘racial difference’ that it continues to consider ‘foreign’ and ‘other’ despite longstanding ties to the African continent. The current dynamics between these two communities go beyond mere perceived difference; they are related to widespread ideas of racial supremacy and inferiority. Shantaram perceives the series of portraits as a starting point for conversations about the complex legacy of anti-blackness in South Asia that is deeply entrenched with notions of caste. He sees his job fulfilled if his photographs are able to create a relationship between the audience and the stories of his African subjects. It is only by creating a sense of personal connect between viewer and subject that the stories are able to leave a mark, strong enough to ultimately contribute to addressing our subconscious prejudices and racisms.
Shantaram’s photographic outcomes of his encounters with African students are able to give us an impression, however, they are insufficient to tell the whole story. In order to complete the picture, quite literally, he has recorded the individual stories behind the photographs in the form of a written blog, which is currently being published in a bi-weekly online format on TheWire.in (read here).
Everyday encounters of discrimination, subordination and violence faced by racialised groups in India remain largely unacknowledged and displaced. With this portrait series, Shantaram is shedding some light on a dark topic, and furthermore, may contribute to changing the discourse about the underlying racisms that persist in Indian society.
*Excerpted by permission of the author and Tasveer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the author or publisher.
Mahesh Shantaram is an independent photographer from Bangalore, working in the genre of personal and subjective documentary photography. Having studied photography in Paris, Shantaram returned to India and began working on photographic projects that explored his interest in complex systems, societies and institutions, especially with reference to contemporary society. Since his first critically acclaimed series Matrimania, he has been published by several media outlets.
Caroline Bertram is a videographer and ethnographic filmmaker based out of Delhi. She is pursuing her MA in Visual Anthropology from Free University Berlin, and is currently involved in research for a collaborative film project among the African communities in Delhi. She has made films in Greece, Germany and India.