How Do I Bring You Home?
This series is an expression of my intellectual and emotional vulnerabilities that emerged whilst trying to engage with a colonial photo archive, the L.A Waddell Collection (1890 c.). Now housed at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, the collection has 60 photographs of 30 men and women representing “types of natives” of Nepal, Tibet and Sikkim. The commission was carried out by Johnston and Hoffman studio, Calcutta and the portraits are similar to the photographs prescribed by the anthropological concerns of the time.
Type photographs were taken by early anthropologists to document the physical characteristics of different population groups, usually colonial subjects. Whilst they satiated the exotic gaze, these were also considered ‘scientific’ evidence in the racial categorisation and comparison of people, inevitably becoming one of the ways of legitimising white supremacy. Whilst the practice has been widely criticised and discontinued, the visual archives still remain.
When I first saw the photographs from the L.A Waddell collection I felt an immediate affinity towards the people in the photographs. My immediate reaction was to seek agency for the people in them and critique the colonial practices that made the photographs possible in the first place. But once the sentiments had somewhat settled, I began to find a strange solace in seeing... and unseeing.
How Do I Bring You Home? is a self-conscious attempt at, what anthropologist Clare Harris calls, reversing the silencing of colonial archival process. I have tried do so through an imagined visual and oral reconstruction. The visual is a bricolage of sorts—an unskillful juxtaposition of photographs from the L.A Waddell collection, from the Confluence Collective Photo Archive and from my own family albums. The oral is in the form of letters—reflective of my internal oscillations making them rather incoherent and inadequate.
This series is not an artwork. It is a search for different ways of looking and seeing colonial archives. It is about defying historical impositions. It is a hope that the personhood of our ancestors remain inviolate in these images. This is why, despite the colonial contexts in which these were made, a small part of me now believes that, perhaps, the initial agency, I was so desperately seeking, already exists, both in the presence of the people in the photographs and in the presence of the photographs themselves.