The small, quaint village of Aldona in North Goa, which is often touted as the 'most beautiful village in the world', hosted the third edition of the Goa International Photography Festival (GoaPhoto) earlier this month. Known for its rich architectural heritage dating back to the Portuguese colonial era, Aldona boasts of some remarkable Goan architectural heritage. Given the format of the Goa Photo Festival, which "produces location-specific installations connecting photographic displays and their architectural contexts", the private residences of this quintessential Goan hamlet served as an ideal place for photographers across the globe to present their works.
Curated by Lola Mac Dougall and Akshay Mahajan, Goa Photo Festival, or GoaPhoto 2019, was replete with photographs that spoke in volumes to the festival's recurring theme of the 'domestic'. On the festival's website, this subject and its significance have been poignantly summarised in a quote from a book by American writer-photographer Teju Cole, titled Known and Strange Things (2016), which says that objects are 'reservoirs of specific personal experience, filled with the hours of some person’s life. They have been touched, or worn through use.'
GoaPhoto 2019 takes fine-art photography out of the gallery and places it amid narratives of people, their memories, private spaces, among others. While Austrian photographer Simon Brugner's The Arsenic Eaters focuses on historical records of arsenic consumption in eastern Austria, Indian visual artist and ethnographer Rajyashri Goody’s Eat with Great Delight is a compilation of her family photographs that confront the narratives around food and caste in India.
"Curation is an organic process at GoaPhoto," says Mahajan. The theme for the festival, in general, since its inception, has been around "looking at photography that has some relationship with the private, the interior and the domestic." "This is reflected in the way the festival is experienced as one walks through these ancient private homes of the residents," he adds. According to Mac Dougall, one of the merits of this proposal is the creation of bridges between fine-art photography and everyday life, while "questioning the art gallery as the privileged locus to experience art."
Explaining that further, Mac Dougall says, "In contrast with the aseptic white cube gallery space, our homes-venues retain their furniture in situ. This encourages site-specificity, while testing our ability as curators and exhibition designers to work around them: not one nail is hammered on account of the festival, as we want to minimise our intrusion while investigating how the two aesthetics — the photographic and the domestic — engage with each other."
Continuing that exploration, this year's line-up has been further fine-tuned through three propositions — namely 'Food & Photo', 'Vernacular Photography', and 'The private/ The domestic'.
Sentimental Journey, by Ângela Berlinde is a part of a larger "transversal" collaborative project, titled Aldona Through Family Eyes, in which along with Berlinde, Indian photographer and GoaPhoto co-curator Akshay Mahajan and Portuguese anthropologist, Pedro Manuel Pombo, have explored and artistically reinterpreted vernacular imagery, giving it a new look and life. Organisations and institutions such as the Fundação Oriente, Alban Couto Reading Room, and Bookwork Library had a huge role in bringing this idea to fruition.
The trio worked on a bunch of vernacular photographs from the village of Aldona, which was later put on display in the sala (living room) of the 400-year-old D’Sa House, the private residence of the Condillac family in Quitula, Aldona.
"As a researcher on contemporary visual practices, family portraits always amazed me like an astonishment — that lasts and is renewed. So, I became a collector of these kinds of images in order to understand all the mystery that surrounds them," Berlinde mentions. With this series, her intention was to "open a combination of anthropological immersion into the archives of the village of Aldona and offer a kind of visual experimentation and resistance against the frenetic gesture to capture reality." In order to do so, Berlinde collected black-and-white portraits from Aldona households; painted them with colour and created textures with fantasy light artifacts.
According to Berlinde, her aim was "to provoke a playful artistic exploration in order to celebrate and re-signify the cosmogonies and storytelling" of Goan people — which she says is something rather common in many Portuguese and Brazilian family albums.
"This series shows us the ambiguity between realism and abstraction, in the play of light, shadow and colour, and focus on the relationship between perception and emotion," she says. It also covers concepts such as memory and loss, while leaving its veracity or degree of fiction uncertain. "Just like with memories or thoughts, photographs are not isolated: they form a fluid kaleidoscopic sentimental journey, leaving an unclear and uncanny sense of loss in the search for light."
Berlinde says that it was, in fact, during one of her trips to India when she realised the significance of the practice of painting photographs in the subcontinent. The idea stayed with her, and when she came back, she conducted a workshop with the children of Aldona, in order to compare how different communities react when prompted to paint over their family photographs. With that, Berlinde says she wanted to "explore their idea of self-representation, that has left a valuable legacy of photographic archives."
The Arsenic Eaters is a research project about historical arsenic eating in eastern Austria, where Brugner grew up. One of the most potent mineral poisons, arsenic was used as a stimulant in the area. People used it so as to be able to work harder and as a prophylactic (preventive medication) against diseases. It was also fed to the horses, probably for similar reasons.
"My grandma still remembers (how) Arsenic eating was a strong taboo. People still do not talk about it. Being a hidden practice, there is nothing left to show, except for the arsenic mines in the remote mountain regions dating back to the 14th century," Brugner points out.
A well-kept secret, arsenic eating is almost forgotten now, says Brugner, adding that a lot of historical research went into approaching the subject. "I was very interested in how something seemingly so surreal as eating arsenic, did exist right where I grew up just several years before my birth."
I wanted to understand what circumstances led people to the conclusions that arsenic eating makes sense? What was the reality of arsenic eaters?
In order to probe into the reality of this historical practice of arsenic eating, Brugner's work visually operates on a symbolic level, by working with allegorical figures. "It [the project] not only talks about eating arsenic, but also about the human desire for overcoming worldly restraints, about a longing for lifelong youth, about eating poison in order to defeat death," he says.
“He is now past middle life, but astonishes everyone by his fresh, juvenile appearance; he is always exhorting other people to follow his example, and says, ‘See how strong and fresh I am, and what an advantage I have over you all! In times of epidemic fever or cholera, what a fright you are in, while I feel sure of never taking infection.’ ”
CÉCILE SMETANA BAUDIER
"When photographing, my main inspiration is literature. My favourite book is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, and I wanted to have this sense of magic in my images," says Cécile Smetana Baudier, whose photo collection, titled Diaspora, presents a delicate portrait of the little-known African-Mexican community of El Azure, a fishermen’s village on the Costa Chica region.
Baudier mentions how this search of 'magic realism' — a narrative technique used extensively by Márquez — was found in the fascinating stories told by the inhabitants of El Azure, of their African heritage. She says, "They were not built on facts, but on myths and stories their grandparents had told them when they were kids. I wanted my images to reflect that."
Visually, Diaspora is more about a feeling than anything else and the community culture around Costa Chica is steeped in superstitious fables.
When she first arrived in Costa Chica, Baudier had not prepared anything, for she did not know what she had to prepare for. "A friend of mine had told me that he knew a family who lived in Costa Chica and that they would be glad to host me, but he didn’t have their contacts. So when I turned up, they gave me a tent in the front yard, without knowing me or having heard of me," she recollects, highlighting how that kind of hospitality was rare in Scandinavia, where she grew up. "Since then, it has been the same experience wherever I’ve been in Mexico."
Having said that, Baudier reveals that most of the time, while photographing the people of Costa Chica, she felt her subjects displayed a mixed sense of being flattered, and at the same time, being confused as to why someone would want to photograph them. She says, "Many of the older women in the town were so poised and tall, but when I asked them if I could take their picture they told me that they were quite surprised because they did not see themselves as something beautiful."
The younger girls would play games and dress up in their backyard. They would use makeup to paint their faces whiter and one could tell, as Baudier points, that the hierarchy between the girls depended on their skin colour. "It broke my heart, because it made me understand how big these issues are, and how early it starts — this feeling of not feeling like the skin you live in is good enough," she laments.
Like most of Goody's main body of work, her project for GoaPhoto 2019, Eat with Great Delight, is also an exploration of Dalit food narratives and politics in India. While her usual work is predominantly text-based and centred on Dalit memoirs and autobiographies, — especially where the writers are speaking about food, access to eating, or simply stories based around food and water — adapted into recipes, Eat with Great Delight is a collection of family photographs representing joyful enjoyment of meals.
Goody herself comes from a Dalit background (her father is English, while her mother is Dalit), and hence tries to look at food from a Dalit perspective using family photographs from weddings, birthdays, or things surrounding the kitchen or the food — some very ordinary moments. "This too offers a Dalit narrative," Goody points out and further explains: "Recipes give you complex perspectives that might go deep into aspects like trauma, shame or guilt; into the relationship of food and caste. The photographs actually tell a different story, and yet it is a part of the same story — that how, perhaps guilt and shame can exist, but also joy and self-assurance."
None of the photographs featured in the series have been shot by Goody herself — they are all photographed by her mother and father when she was young. With this series, Goody mentions that she wanted to look at how documenting what other people have done actually holds a wealth of knowledge and history. "I don’t always find it necessary to create my own narratives from scratch because if someone else has been doing an amazing job of it, why shouldn't I just highlight that and try and read into more aspects of their work and draw those out," she says.
She also wished to focus on the fact that like autobiographies, photography as a concept is relatively new among the Dalit communities, as they didn’t have access to reading, writing or education, until very recently. "Because my father is English (from England) he had the camera, and through that our family started photographing a lot since they could afford a camera. That also brings forth the fact that we don’t have those many photographs from the time my mother wasn’t married," Goody points out, further underlining why, like access to language, even access to a camera is important in owning one's own narrative and history.
People, in general, prescribe to certain stereotype when imagining what a Dalit family would look like, even if that thought or perception comes from a good place, involving a narrative of victimhood and suffering quite often. While Goody believes narratives of pathos do exist, and are extremely important to document, there is also the idea of a family which has some joy in it, some celebration in it. "I feel only if you have both sides of the story can you paint a humanised picture of the entire community," she says. At the same time, she stresses on recognising that as a privilege, and using and sharing it further.
Goody adds, "I think it’s very important — that now I have a camera and I will photograph, now I can write and I will write a story. Even though these are very personal privileges, in the end, they do help tell honest stories about entire communities. These are just small efforts to make a small difference in showing that the Dalit community is as complex and as varied as possible, and one can't put everybody in the same box."