Bangalore, India born 1956
Great Britain born 1962
The Native Types: A series of photographs illustrating the scenery and the mode of life of the women of South India
Materials & Technique:
photographs, 8 Type C colour photographs and 2 gelatin silver photographs Edition: 18/20
Rather than looking at it as a perfect art work it should be seen in the light of the number of questions that it raises in so many areas: of female representation, high and low art, ethnography and ideas of race and caste, colonialism and Indian modernity – and the history of modern Indian art and photography itself … This project somehow touched a chord by dealing with very familiar material and remaking it into the form of art.
Pushpamala N, 20041
Having established a career as a sculptor, in 1996 Pushpamala N (born in Bangalore in South India in 1956) started to put together photo-performances – elaborately staged, enigmatic and open-ended narratives in which she played the lead role. In these series she uses and slyly overturns popular genres, working as director with a range of photographers. Sunhere sapne [Golden dreams] 1998, purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2006, was shot by two artist friends under her direction at an art residency near Delhi. The work was originally printed and hand-coloured in a small town bazaar studio. The technique of hand-colouring has a long history in India, where early portrait photographs were elaborately painted in the miniature painting tradition. In Bombay photo studio 2000–03, Pushpamala was photographed in a studio famous for Bollywood glamour work in the 1950s and 1960s. Her work is informed by a comprehensive knowledge of the history of cinema and early photography in India, where both mediums, introduced to the country soon after their invention, developed their own trajectories unburdened by the weight of a heavy European art history.
In 2000, Pushpamala and Claire Arni, a Scottish-born photographer who has lived much of her life in South India, teamed up to work on a project that after four years resulted in over 200 images that make up Native women of South India: manners and customs. The ten images called The native types, purchased by the Gallery, make up one discreet part of the overall work. As the title suggests, they set out to investigate the differing ways that women have been portrayed historically in their region. They spread their net as wide as possible: early Modernist paintings by the hugely popular artist Raja Ravi Varma, nineteenth-century ethnographic documentation, film stills, religious icons, newspaper articles, advertising imagery and art photography – all recognisable to and close to the heart of an Indian audience. Their source material made clear that women had been stereotyped and given models to conform to as much by local artists, in an attempt to define nationhood, as by the exoticising and controlling intent of foreigners.
In most cases, the two women undertook an accurate and obsessive copying as their modus operandi. Many of the tableaux took up to three months to assemble and photograph and urban artisans, like hoarding and autorickshaw painters, were used to create the backdrops. This was employed as a strategy to try and fully understand the original works, deconstructing and reassembling how they were put together and speculating on what the women in the images were feeling when portrayed. In other words, the particular experience of an artwork being made, the performative aspect, is what matters.
The acts of classifying and of stereotyping were and are about power and distance and about negating the individual, the particular, and replacing it with cliché. This is exactly where these artists draw their battlelines, albeit armed with toy guns. Pushpamala has noted: ‘the performance brings in autobiography and subjectivity, besides the irony and critique. One is inside the image, not just outside, looking’.2 The making of the final images was painstakingly recorded and these images make up the attendant The popular series and The process series where the audience is given the chance to see the behind-the-scenes, very human side to the creative process – the hidden aspects of making that usually remain hidden and are forgotten with the passing of time.
The charismatic presence of Pushpamala is everywhere in these images. Dressing up and masquerading as different types is the way that she makes sense of the particular world she inhabits as a woman in South India, testing the boundaries and seeing where freedom lies. It is a practice that is anarchic, disruptive, compulsive, uproariously serious and deadly fun. The two artists ask us to think as deeply as they have about the imagery that surrounds us all. Their ambition is far-reaching. As Pushpamala says: ‘I comment on the world and society. I transform the stereotypical with my persona’.3
Assistant Curator of Photography
1 Pushpamala N, fictitious interview with N Rajyalakshmi,
Chief Reporter of Ideal Times, 2004, in Native women of South India: manners and customs, exhibition catalogue, Nature Morte, New Delhi, Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, & Bose Pacia, New York, 2007, p. 140.
2 Pushpamala N, p. 135.
3 Aditi Di, ‘Performance photography’, The Hindu: Magazine, Sunday 28 March 2004.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra