Just Wide Enough To Hold The Weight
Marvel Harris, Siddhartha Hajra, Soumya Sankar Bose
Just Wide Enough To Hold The Weight
Marvel Harris, Siddhartha Hajra, Soumya Sankar Bose
Baxter St is proud to present Just Wide Enough to Hold the Weight – a group exhibition of three international artists instrumentalizing the camera in their exploration of gender identity. Bringing together new and recent works by Marvel Harris, Siddhartha Hajra and Soumya Sankar Bose, curator Phalguni Guliani builds a presentation that treads the space between self-portraiture and staged dreamscapes. What distinguishes the work of these artists and activates a cross dialogue between their practices, is the self-reflective gaze and a space for collaboration that each enables within their individual inquiry. Just Wide Enough to Hold the Weight opens on May 4 and will remain on view at Baxter St gallery until June 8, 2022. It is part of the organization’s annual guest-curated series that invites curators to propose a project that will expand the notion of lens-based practices and is selected by a jury of Baxter St supporters.
The exhibition’s chief question – what happens when someone has the agency to tell their own story – is signposted by its very first work on display, and perhaps also its quietest that greets viewers alongside a towering poem, as they enter the gallery. As Marvel Harris’ autobiographical series Inner Journey unfolds, taking off from this early self-portrait of the artist against a mountainous backdrop, viewers are presented with a visual diary that chronicles the rawness of the artist’s gender transition and in equal measure the tenderness of a coming-of-age tale that is informed by his neurodivergent adolescence. For Harris, who describes his process of image-making as a “way to understand emotions that can’t be put in words,” the series represents an ongoing search for himself that extends beyond gender identity, marking his transition as a human being with feelings that are constantly in flux.
Echoing this ricochet between deep interiorities of the body and the vastness of the landscapes it occupies, is Soumya Sankar Bose’s Full Moon on a Dark Night – a series of portraits realized from the artist’s critically sustained interaction with members of the LGBTQ community in India. Sharing their dreams and anxieties in extensive interviews with him, Bose’s collaborators played a key role in determining the staging of the photographs, and are thus as much the co-authors of the portraits as the artist himself. “In the surreal wakefulness of Bose’s imagery where animalistic apparitions and estranged half-glances seem to have just woken from a dream, it is not uncommon to find the narrative plunging us in oceanic waters one moment and surfacing in a bathtub next,” says the exhibition’s curator Phalguni Guliani about her choice of a sequence that shows the large and largely inscrutable axes of scale and psychology across which Bose’s subjects view themselves.
Turning this gaze from looking at oneself to looking at an intimate other, Siddhartha Hajra presents I See You Better in the Dark – a series of portraits built from participatory storytelling workshops the artist conducts with a section of the gender minority community in India, that facilitate a unique opportunity of self-representation. “Whether it is on broken beds or amidst grassy fields, the framing that you see of the people in these photographs is not only an exercise in looking by their fellow participants, but equally an exercise in friendship,” says Hajra.
Taking its title from an Emily Dickinson verse, Hajra’s crisp sequence or “photo-poems” as the artist calls them, is presented atop a light-table structure that fills the gallery space by cutting a line across it, much in the same way a handwritten note would across paper. On this scenography, Hajra says, “There is a profound quietness for me in these images. They speak to you in no dulcet tones, but almost a whisper. I wanted that quality to shine through in the way light passes through their surface, creating a sense of something that you want to hold so close and yet feel inveterately slipping. Like the rush of knowledge tapping your shoulder ever so gently one afternoon in a dimly lit library perhaps, glowing and waning at the same time.”
Bookending this wavelike lyricality on the gallery’s central wall, is a triptych from Hajra’s Opera Monorama series – an ongoing documentation of the lives of transgender performance artists with whom the artist has closely worked with over the years. Like I See You Better in the Dark before it, the mirror-like images in this series too, signal that this is an artist who consciously refuses to accept darkness as a state of fecundity. Hajra’s work instead pushes viewers to ask – what parts of ourselves might remain shrouded to us and yet visible to those closest to us? In pointing towards the potential of darkness as a tool in understanding the self, he urges us towards that which can still be seen or rather that which becomes newly see-able, when our eyes have become, to borrow from Dickinson again – “accustomed to the dark.”
For an exhibition that had begun with the promise of agency to its photographic subjects, a display fore-fronting the narratives of queer bodies as put forth in their own voices thus asks – can such agency lead to a crack, a fissure in perception as constructed by a photographic ‘other’? Can that crack be a tectonic rupture ‘just wide enough to hold the weight’ of a newfound narrative and yet thin enough to shine light in on it?
“If to curate is to care, what I hope to nurture in this exhibition is a space where marginalized identities (in this case of gender) can fashion their own truths, their own fictions,” says Guliani. “For too long in our colonial understanding of photography, the figure of the photographer has been the one who has the power to construct a narrative of his own choice. I’m interested in looking at practices that give that power to the subjects, and ask if there is a dignified way of doing this within the photographic arts that pushes the medium to introspect itself?”
Alongside the exhibition, free public programming will be accessible to Baxter St’s community of engaged creators. Highlights include an opening day on Saturday, May 7th with a special announcement from the curator at 11am ET, a special screening of the documentary Marvel Harris: Everything Is Now by filmmaker Jessica Villerius, and a coffee talk conversation between the curator Phalguni Guliani and the artists Marvel Harris, Siddhartha Hajra and Soumya Sankar Bose.
This exhibition is part of Baxter St’s Guest-Curated Program and is made possible with the support of the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation.
Marvel Harris is a photographer born and raised in the Netherlands. Marvel’s photographic work revolves around his experiences as an autistic, non-binary transgender artist who has struggled with mental health problems for many years. Marvel graduated from the University of Applied Photography in Apeldoorn in 2018. Marvel has since won several prizes with his work, including the 1st prize of the prestigious Zilveren Camera in the documentary category (2018), and was selected by LensCulture as one of the Emerging Talents (2019), and by Foam as one of the Foam Talents (2022). Marvel’s work is shown both in the Netherlands and abroad at fairs and exhibitions, such as Melkweg Expo (Amsterdam), World Press Photo Exhibition (Rotterdam), Museum Hilversum, Paris Photo, Musea Zutphen, and Webber Gallery (London). In 2020, Marvel self-published the photo book MARVEL. The book won MACK’s First Book Award and got republished in 2021.
Siddhartha Hajra calls himself an instinctual maker of photographs, capturing life as it unfolds before his eyes. For over a decade, he has chronicled the cities of India and those who occupy the margins of it. In this time, he has both attended and facilitated photo workshops with Michael Akerman, Jonathan Torgovnik, and gender collectives in Calcutta. Siddhartha’s expertise lies in capturing the work of international aid organizations with the sensitivity of his training as an erstwhile Professor of Sociology. He currently works as a documentary photographer with UNICEF and has published with the likes of BBC, Human Rights Watch, and National Geographic.
Soumya Sankar Bose is a photographer from Bengal, India. He graduated from the one-year diploma program at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Dhaka. In his practice, Soumya uses photography, archival material, text, and film to explore desire, identity, and memory. His first book Where the Birds Never Sing (2020) on the Marichjhapi massacre, the forcible eviction in 1979 of lower caste Bengali refugees on Marichjhapi Island in Sundarban, India, and the subsequent death of thousands by police gunfire, starvation, and disease; was shortlisted for the First PhotoBook Award in the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award in 2020. Soumya was awarded Magnum Foundation’s Social Justice fellowship for his Full Moon on a Dark Night project. His other projects are also a recipient of the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art’s Amol Vadehra Art Grant, Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan’s Five Million Incidents, Henry Luce Foundation’s grant, and India Foundation for the Arts grant. In 2019, he was one of the recipients of World Press Photo’s Joop Swart Masterclass.
Phalguni Guliani is an exhibition-maker based in New Delhi, India. She is interested in the inner lives of women and of quotidian objects, seeking to explore these through a practice that pirouettes between writing and contemporary curatorial art. Her latest exhibitions include Vermont Studio Center, Vermont (2022); The Clemente, New York (2022); and Mumbai Art Room, India (2021). She was awarded the Bianca Patton Fellowship for Young Women Writers (2019) to attend India’s leading residency for writers – Sangam House, and was invited to the Canserrat Residency in El Bruc, Spain (2018). Her texts have appeared in Frieze, Ocula, and the Indian Quarterly magazine among others.