by Georgina MaddoxApr 19, 2023
There are two aspects in the context of books and artists. One, an 'artist book', a work created by an artist in the format of a book. It is a work of art. And the other, a 'book on an artist', that contextualises their practice. This is documenting the artist’s work. And both are significant in understanding the very medium of a book. Art that exists in the form of a book is created because the work encourages the 'interactivity'. It invites viewer participation in not just meaning-making, but also to create the work. Just like any other format, art books project the voice of the creator but is layered with engaging in dynamic and tactile object.
In 2018, artist Anshika Varma founded Offset Projects to explore the various engagements and sociological impact of receiving the world through creative expressions in visual language. As a photographer and curator, she was keen to use the photograph in conversations outside of her community, related to story-telling, identity, and history. Based in New Delhi, India, Offset Projects works to create channels of engagement in photography and book-making. “Personally, for me the book is a warm invite to the conversations I want to hold with my audience. It places a demand on their time, on their emotionality and on their thoughts. It is not a passive object you can pass by but it is in your hands and that allows my reader to have ownership over the moment when they are reading my book. That relationship is very sacred to me,” says Varma.
It is this same attention that Varma wanted to draw upon for works and practitioners from lens-media from South Asia which led to her desire to publish Guftgu. “Working as a photographer and curator I have been privy to their inquiries with the medium and also to their ethics and processes while creating their work. While there is recent interest in the nature of work that is being created in South Asia, most of it, and rightly so, is focused on the form of the work,” she explains. From her position as a photographer and working through Offset to make photography an inclusive language for a wider audience, she wanted these works to exist even outside of the periphery of the arts space. And, it is for the same reasons that they made the form of a deconstructed book that allows you to engage with each artist’s work in its own unique format.
For Varma, photography is not only within the four corners of a frame but all that may invoke the visual, either literally through the camera or through text, video, sound, and smell even. “I wanted to expand on how people perceive photography. Widen the conversation from our preconceived ideas of engagement in photography and book making but also making it a point of inquiry and research,” she adds. In the chapters of Guftgu one finds Diwas Raja navigating through private family albums in Nepal to tell us what it means for a historian to look at an image. By decoding the small visual details and looking upon them as data for a larger narrative, he provides a peek into the process of developing history of the feminist movement in Nepal. Uma Bista’s chapter has been created from two existing bodies of work that reflect and elaborate on her engagement with issues around patriarchy and gender. In contrast Adira and Amar’s (Adira Thekkuveettil and Amarnath Praful) component reflects on their practice in academia, writing, and teaching photography in a region where the history of the lens has been deeply influenced as a practice of the colonial enterprise.
They say an image is worth a thousand words. I ask Varma why then the need for text to support these images in Guftgu? She says that the relationship between text and image has been a long contested one. When the text present as a ‘crutch’ for an image, becoming a literal explanation for the visual that exists and when it becomes a beautiful collaborator, allowing the image space to have its own conversation as a reader and its place to do so has often been argued in multiple situations. “The works incorporated in this edition/curation engage with text as an important participant to the narratives and subjects they engage with. Cheryl Mukherjee’s text, repeated over the pages of her chapter echo through the traumas of memory, allowing us to stay with fragments of thoughts scribbled in varying intensities and sequences,” she explains. In this context the text is visual. It tells the viewer of the sequence of events. On the other hand, for Jaisingh Nageshwaran, text is a navigator to draw the two worlds together, that of image and language. He was a part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and could not have removed the social constructs that have made him an ally to the people of this land, of his own dalit identity that helps him document the stories. Varma says, “For Guftgu, the text is therefore a collaborator, not a literal explanation to the images we see but a mediator between the visual and the emotional and an extremely important part of the work itself.”
The true power of holding the object of a book, allowing for the image to gain a life and experience of its own is far deeper than the idea of a photobook to be a consolidation of an artist’s journey, a testament of works done, moments witnessed, and journeys undertaken. The book can be the beginning of conversations. “I thought how different the life of the image could be, if, as artists and curators we could create a larger world for the images we make. How tragic would it be if writers only wrote for other writers and were read only by other writers!”, she says.
Guftgu is a fine example of creating publishing experiments that allow artists to engage with the ‘book-language’. Extended programs will include workshops and mentoring programs in editing, understanding the elements of the medium. Varma says that the focus of these engagements is to expand the associations in photography, not just through established names from the ‘Photographic West’, but also to create our own circles of solidarity, learning, and to create a stronger local voice of representation.