Misogyny and racism as spectacle and performance: A critique of Mahesh Shantaram’s African Portraits, Forbidden Love

Mahesh Shantaram’s work fits into a long history of photographing and projecting black bodies as sites of victimhood

Suchitra Vijayan February 18, 2019 08:09:46 IST
Misogyny and racism as spectacle and performance: A critique of Mahesh Shantaram’s African Portraits, Forbidden Love
  • Mahesh Shantaram’s projects are connected by the use and abuse of bodies to stage visually sensational images that are ideologically problematic, because they rely on the allure of spectacle.

  • In 'The African Portraits' series, he included a nude photograph of Alexis Ward, a black American woman, without any context or clarification.

  • Shantaram asked Ward to pose in the nude and while holding a cigarette - two factors that did not have anything to do with her story.

  • Ward added that there was no conversation about how the photos were going to be used and Shantaram never told her if they would be sold.

  • Contrary to Shantaram's claims, the photograph was exhibited at a gallery and on sale on a website.

I first saw photographer Mahesh Shantaram’s work titled 'The African Portraits' in August 2018 when I received the following message from him over Facebook Messenger.

“Hi Suchitra… You may (or may not) be aware of my 2016-17 project ‘The African Portraits’ which attempts to get under the skin of racism and xenophobia in India. I thought I got done with it last year but then when I was invited to write for a journal about the project, it gave it a new lease of life. Now I’m going to finish up the research (with 1-2 trips to Africa in the winter) and publish the whole story as a book in March 2019. Please do check out the campaign and let me know if you have any questions, thoughts. Could it be featured on POLIS? http://bit.ly/TheAfricanPortraits.”

I was immediately struck by the aesthetic — the lighting, the rendering in these images of Africans living in India, and the texturisation 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.

Does merely photographing the diverse African community automatically mean depiction, representation, or engagement with racism?

After an internal discussion, The Polis Project decided not to feature the work.

Four months later, in December 2018, two women published harassment allegations against Shantaram in the Instagram account Herd and Scene. Shantaram had allegedly scouted them to pose naked for his 'Forbidden Love' project. In response to the allegations, Shantaram wrote a deeply dismissive and patronising Facebook post. In the process of explaining himself, he argued that he was just doing his job and was taking the project “somewhere I would otherwise dread to go.” I have undertaken a fuller analysis of this non-apology in this previous piece.

In his words:

“In 2015, I was one of the photographers commissioned by Arte TV for a global project called ‘Forbidden Love’. I was free to express the theme in any way I wanted. Well, with a loaded title like that, I wanted to take it somewhere I would otherwise dread to go. I requested several women — whom I’ve known on some level — to sit for my portraits. And yes, this led to some awkward conversations, no doubt. What is said about the proposal being “ideologically problematic and sensational” — I agree. The concept was not the most convincing back then, and it bombed. In retrospect, to make a series of portraits of “women across the country” is pointing towards a good idea and I intend to pursue it.”

Disrobing the regularly disrobed

Interpreting 'Forbidden Love' to mean photographing “powerful women in the nude” is not pushing artistic, political, or societal boundaries. It is sexualising “powerful women” and reducing the idea of forbidden love to a bourgeois notion of sex, lust, and freedom. India’s sexual landscape and the political (often violent) repercussions of love, lust, and desire are inextricably linked to caste, class, and religion. In 2016, an inter-caste couple, Shankar and Kausalya, were attacked by Kausalya’s family. Shankar was hacked to death in public and Kausalya sustained severe injuries. In September last year two horrific caste crimes sent shockwaves across Telangana and a 13-year-old Dalit girl, Rajalakshmi, was beheaded in Tamil Nadu for rejecting the sexual advances of a 30-year-old man. The Kerala High Court in 2017, in what is now called the Hadiya “Love Jihad” case, gave a controversial ruling that gave the custody of a 24-year-old woman to her father for marrying a Muslim man. The court initially stated that Hadiya was incapable of making decisions regarding her marriage or conversion to Islam, a decision later overruled by the country’s Supreme Court.

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.

Shantaram’s projects are connected by the use and abuse of bodies to stage visually sensational images that are ideologically problematic. The African Portraits and Forbidden Love projects rely on the allure of spectacle. They are advertising campaigns built to grab attention and whose political significance is often lost within this spectacle.

Disrobing is always a question of power and society’s need to imprint shame on the body of women. Shame is also used to socially control, coerce, discipline, and punish. India has a long history of violent assaults, disrobing, and parading Dalit and Adivasi women naked. In 2007, a young Adivasi woman, Laxmi Orang, a member of the All Assam Adivasi Students’ Association protesting in Guwahati demanding Scheduled Tribe status for Adivasis residing in Assam was chased, stripped naked, and assaulted in public. While she was being stripped and assaulted, the police standing nearby did not come to her rescue. The next day the media flashed her naked pictures leading to public outrage.

The spectacle of disrobing a woman runs through much of Shantaram’s work from the incident that sparked his interest in the African community to the use of naked bodies to create sensational projects.

Spectacle and performance

Shantaram says he began shooting his African Portraits series after the “stripping of a Tanzanian woman in Bangalore.” Shantaram had stated at the time that he did not know that there were Africans in India and therefore he began this series.

Misogyny and racism as spectacle and performance A critique of Mahesh Shantarams African Portraits Forbidden Love

A screenshot taken from Mahesh Shantaram's website

Khoj, an arts collective, has been located in Khirki Extension since 2002. Khirki is also home to one of the largest and diverse communities of Africans in India — Nigerians, Congolese, Ugandans, Kenyans, Somalis, and Rwandans. Students, artists, sex workers, and transgender communities all live here alongside segregated spaces where gated upper-class communities live. Many Africans here do not feel welcome. They regularly face discrimination, pay higher rents, and are often targets of violent attacks.

It was against this background that Khoj created and curated the 'Migration and Memory' project, where various artists and photographers including Shantaram worked on themes related to the project. The residency was built to understand and produce work on and about the African communities that lived next to them. Some of Shantaram’s other African portraits were shot over a period of five weeks during the Khoj residency’s Coriolis Effect Migration and Memory project in 2016.

Persis Taraporevala was the critique-in-residence when Shantaram was at Khoj in 2016. Taraporevala is currently based in the Geography Department at King’s College, London. Her research interests include citizenship rights and the enactment of democratic processes in the urban landscape. As a critique-in-residence, she engaged with Shantaram throughout the residency. Taraporevala was uncomfortable with Shantaram’s work from the beginning. She states that early on, she and others at Khoj had serious concerns about his work.

Shantaram was there to make images and create a body of work; the stories of African life in India seemed ancillary to the photographs. Shantaram regularly employed the language of how it was important to shed light on the African communities in Khirki. You need to be seen was essential to his pitch.

After having seen the initial images and his practice, Taraporevala discussed the photos with Shantaram. She asked questions about his process, how he photographed the images, and discussed the ethics of photography. Taraporevala was concerned about how the subjects were posed — the positions, how they were made to stand, look, and gaze into an empty space, and how they were made to hold each other. She felt Shantaram’s portrayal showed them as weaker, stripped of agency, and not capable of telling their own stories.

Taraporevala specifically asked Shantaram whether the people he shot had the freedom to choose how they were depicted. Shantaram responded that the images were staged and that he had directed the people to pose. He said that there should be something strong about each image, and he was creating it. There was no commitment to investigate or tell these stories; instead, it was about making powerful images.

Malini Kochupillai, an independent photographer and urban researcher based in Delhi, was also at Khoj with Shantaram. For her, Shantaram’s work was one-dimensional, and it sensationalised the experiences of the community and always portrayed them as victims. “Photographing dark-skinned people in dark places in the night is technically difficult. He tapped into this to make technically well-made photographs,” she said.

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.

During the residency, Taraporevala and others at Khoj tried to constructively critique Shantaram’s methods to no avail. Taraporevala said Shantaram always became defensive about his work.

Pooja Sood, director of Khoj and who usually ran the workshop, was away during this period. The gender-age dynamic also played an important role in how work was critiqued, reviewed, and challenged. Shantaram was also the only Indian man in residence. While he spoke politely, he was always dismissive in his responses according to Taraporevala, who characterised his behaviour and response to her critiques as “gaslighting".

According to Kochupillai, Shantaram had an air of male entitlement “so ingrained in the attitudes of upper-caste and upper-class men in this country,” she said. Kochupillai said of Shantaram: “His mind was quite made up in that what he was doing was quite amazing work from the get-go. There was no doubt in his mind that he was doing God’s work.”

Taraporevala had two long, individual conversations about his work, practice, and process. At the end of these various conversations, she said that “she felt drained.” She added, “I felt like I had created a Frankenstein monster. We had now taught him the language of critique, power, and representation that he would now use to manipulate, sell, and leverage these pictures. He now knew how to use the language, without critically engaging with the ideas.” Taraporevala also found serious problems around consent coupled with his refusal to see the humanity in those he photographed.

On the day of the Khoj finale exhibition in September 2016, amongst the African Portraits was a seemingly innocuous picture of a naked black woman. Taraporevala was shocked to see this nude photograph. The woman was not African but an African-American tourist then travelling in India who Taraporevala had met and socialised in Delhi.

At the Khoj exhibition, the photograph was shown unnamed, without any context or clarification that the woman was African-American.

The image appeared on Shantaram’s website as [Image] 23 of 26. Shantaram removed the image after The Polis Project emailed him with questions about the images. The image, when it appeared on the site till 10 February 2019, had no name or context. The caption just read, “What it feels like to be stared at Kasauli, 2016.”

When Taraporevala raised the question with Shantaram on the day of the exhibition, she said that he made a random remark and walked past her.

Kochupillai, who was also present at the exhibition, said, “The story Shantaram gave us was that she is the one who wanted to disrobe for the camera. She is the one who wanted to be photographed this way. I haven’t heard the woman’s version.” It wasn’t the nude that bothered Kochupillai. Her discomfort was with “a context-less nude in a body of work about the African diaspora in India.” She continued, “To me, this is typically to create something for the shock value, a vacuous move.”

What does this image represent? How is photographing an African-American woman naked a part of the story about race, xenophobia, discrimination, and violence? If this image was about interrogating “gaze” or how the Indian society stares at, looks at, and perceives black people then does that narrative require her to disrobe? Did Shantaram ask the men to disrobe to articulate the sentiments of violence, power, and gaze? What function does the nakedness of the black woman serve? Are the experiences of an African person in Khirkee the same as those of an African-American tourist in Kasauli?

The unnamed woman in the portrait

Alexis Ward is a black American artist and model who was travelling in India between July and October 2016. She was introduced to Shantaram by her friend Veda Laayla through social media. Ward actively engaged and spoke about racism, colourism, and the Black Lives Matter movement in America, and Laayla wanted to extend these conversations about racism and colourism to India. Ward said she did not know who Shantaram was and is not sure how he came to know about her. She decided to speak to him after Laayla told her that Shantaram was a journalist who was shedding light on racism Africans faced in India. Laayla suggested that she discuss her experiences in India with him along with her work as an artist, activist, and a model. “I trusted him because of her. I knew her for over two years and had already met her and her family,” Ward said.

According to Ward, Shantaram wanted to photograph her for a profile piece on her experience in India. Shantaram told her that his work focused on Africans in India and that including Ward’s perspective as a black American would be a good contribution to the series. “Any opportunity to speak out about my community and my people was important to me. He seemed a credible source, and I wanted to make that connection as an artist with someone working on issues I cared about,” she recounted.

Soon after their initial conversation, Shantaram came to Kasauli, a small hill town north of Delhi, and spent a day with Ward and Laayla’s parents. “We were in mixed company the whole day and we all had dinner together,” she said. Ward spent a lot of time talking to Shantaram about her experience of being black, her relationship with other black Americans, and what it meant to be in India, a conversation she remembered Shantaram recording.

When they discussed the photo shoot, Ward said, “I asked him what’s your idea, what’s your concept, what is that image that you want to put out?” Shantaram suggested that he would like to photograph her on the hotel rooftop. Later as they discussed the image he casually suggested, “If you don’t mind being nude, that would be good.”

Ward was a little perturbed, she recalls. “I don’t mind being nude. I am a model. I don’t have any shame about my body, I love my body, and I think it is powerful. For me, nudity was not a negative thing.” However, this request did not make sense to her. “I kept asking, what is this story that you [Shantaram] are trying to tell with my nudity, how does this relate to everything that I have told you about my story? My story had nothing to do with my body or nudity,” she said. “In response, Shantaram basically said,” she told me, “the nudity was going to make people look at the black body and blackness and put that in front. He said India had such problems with nudity.” She added, “I was very put off by the fact that he brought it up in the first place. I regret it now. I wish I was able to speak up then.”

Shantaram then asked Ward to hold a cigarette in the frame as he started photographing her. Ward is not a smoker, and the cigarette had no connection to her story or their conversations. She said, “That was when I felt something was really, really wrong with this. But I was already in it and felt I couldn’t back out. As soon as he gave me the cigarette, I immediately felt this was wrong. This was wrong. I was purposefully trying to cover up and he kept trying to open me up, open me up, and open me up. He kept saying, “You are hiding. [It] looks like you are trying to shy away from the camera. You look like you are not really comfortable. Feel relaxed, try and take a deep breath.” I was like, dude, I get it, but come on.”

As they came to the end of the shoot, Shantaram told Ward the images were going to be shown in the gallery. She told me, “I was like what gallery, what show?” Shantaram told her there were other women involved in the shoot as well and she was not the only one. However, there are no other nudes in the publicly accessible African Portraits series.

Ward stated, “This whole thing did not make any sense to me. I really did not know how to defend myself. It didn’t feel good at all. It was all already happening. But I did not know what to say. He was already there, we had already been talking for so long.”

Shantaram invited her to come to New Delhi for the exhibition but she refused. She said, “I didn’t go to Delhi because I didn’t trust him. I was nervous, I wasn’t even sure if the exhibition was real. I felt that if I went I was going to end up in some kind of a trafficking situation. I was a sole, female, black traveller in India.” Ward adds that there was no conversation about how the photos were going to be used and Shantaram never told her if they would be sold. There was no contract or release signed for the images. In fact, she became aware of the existence of [Image] 23 of 26 online only after The Polis Project informed her of its existence in an email seeking an interview.

A few weeks after the shoot, Ward sent Shantaram a message telling him not to publicly release the photos. She told him to “refrain from posting them.” He responded agreeing not to. In a conversation over Facebook Messenger, he told her, “I haven’t shared your wonderful portrait anywhere other than the weekend show in Delhi last month, and at a university talk I gave later. I hope I can submit it [for] professional reviews where my work will be seen by industry professionals. That’s connected mainly with my career growth.”

Ward added, “I knew it was too late as far as whatever gallery showing happened in 2016. But I specifically asked him not to show the images after that. He messaged in 2017 saying a poet wanted to use the image but I never responded.”

When The Polis Project emailed Shantaram for a comment on the discovery that he had misrepresented Ward in his African Portraits series and whether he had also not secured her consent for further display or sale of her photographs, he had the following response. He said that he was not misrepresenting an African-American because one of his initial portraits was of a “Jamaican medical student that I usually use as an opener to the series.” He also stated that he and Ward “collaborated to create this portrait and express the idea of ‘what it feels like to be stared at.’” He added, “The image in question has never been for sale — neither for art buyers nor publications. I keep it as part of my portfolio because I believe it supports the larger statement I wish to make with this work. Since I’m aware of her concerns, I have taken utmost care not to send it around for competitions, publications, and events where I have no control over how it can get used. For the time being, I have also removed this image from my website.”

Based on our interview with Ward, Shantaram never asked her for permission to display her picture on his website. Contrary to Shantaram’s claim, in spite of Ward’s request to have the image retracted after the initial gallery display, it has since been exhibited at Gallery 320 in 2017. The image was also available for sale on the Agence VU website till 10 February 2019. It was removed hours before this essay was published. The Polis Project has also reached out to Agence VU for comment but has not received a response yet. Ward summed up the impact of this event saying, “Now that I know people have seen it, that it is still out there, it’s going to take me time to process what it means for me right now. But I am still ashamed by that experience for sure.”

Contrary to Shantaram’s claim, Alexis Ward’s image print was on sale on the Agence VU site. The image was removed on 10 February from their site after The Polis Project emailed Shantaram and Agence VU.

Ward’s image on Shantaram’s website and in exhibitions has been displayed without her story or any other clarifying text. The naked image, to our knowledge, has always been exhibited unnamed, accompanied by a misleading caption. Ward added, “Erasing my voice is yet another instance of racism towards my people, and that is totally unacceptable.”

Like the Forbidden Love project that proposed the use of naked bodies as a trope, here the unclothed body of a black woman was used as a spectacle. Shantaram scouted young women to pose unclad for his Forbidden Love project to depict freedom and power. Now nudity was being redeployed to represent a violent gaze on a black woman’s body. Nakedness became a salacious blank slate where any meaning — freedom, fear, desire, death — could be conjured and forced onto the exposed body of a woman. In the end what is produced is a spectacle, not a consideration of what it means to be a black man or a woman living in and navigating India.

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. Shantaram is not an exception, he is the rule.

Suchitra Vijayan is a Barrister-at-Law, writer, photographer, and executive director, The Polis Project. She tweets @suchitrav. You can read the complete version of this essay here, and a related previous part here.

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