Moving between an American and an Indian identity, and drawing extensively from both, Waswo X Waswo’s career in India has spanned almost two decades. Using the medium of studio photography, he navigates between personal revelation and inspired fantasy. Happy to be accepted into the Indian art scene, he proudly wears the label of an Indian artist. “Yet, my art has long explored the ‘outsiderness’ of the foreigner in India. But home is where the heart is. India, and more specifically Udaipur, is certainly the home of my heart,” says the artist, whose works have covered miniatures, hand-coloured photographs, video, installation and marble sculpture… even a comic book.
The works in his ongoing exhibition—We Are Always Working at the Gallery Latitude 28—are part-portraiture and part-spoof. Reminiscent of old-school photography, there is also a lot of emphasis on skill and craftsmanship, playfulness, satire, and self-critique. “My art tends to deconstruct itself, always going back to something earlier and questioning it. Much of the portraiture in my photography is sincere, and can even be read as homage to the common man,” he says. What stands out in his art is how he always inserts himself into the composed piece. The end result is a satirical, self-abasing humour.
In the current exhibition, Waswo takes on the real-life form of the well-known ‘fedora man’ from the miniature paintings. This character is both a caricature and also a sort of archetypal ‘Evil Orientalist’. With traditionally hand-painted backdrops, the photographic studio becomes a stage on which Waswo and his models devise a series of tableaux. Little wonder that his composed pieces remind one of theatre performances—akin to street theatre or even traditional nautanki.
The artist says, “The vernacular photography studios that once populated Indian towns and cities is a prominent influence on me. In these studios, young Indian boys or couples could imitate Bollywood stars or otherwise perform on the ‘photographic stage’ to shape a fantasy. I see our studio in the village of Varda, outside Udaipur, in the same manner. I like to think my photography walks a line between the serious and the playful, and also between high art and village vernacular camp.”
Not many know that Waswo once published a book of poetry. Remind him of it and he is quick to play it down, “I’ve been trying hard to kill the ‘poet’ appellation. I self-published a small book of poems nearly 20 years ago. Yet this idea that I am somehow primarily a ‘poet’ keeps cropping up. Maybe the reason for this is that I approach my art and photography in the manner of a poet. The works I make strive for a poetic feel, often seeming like lyrical fragments from a larger narrative. My work exists as a sort of continuing story, and as in all well-written stories, poetry must enter and illuminate it.”
The artist also often collaborates with prominent names in Indian contemporary art to add that extra dimension to his photography works. He has collaborated with Rajesh Soni, a third generation Rajasthani hand colourist, for over 14 years. The images that a viewer sees in the present exhibition are all black and white, though they have been hand-coloured by Soni. In this current exhibition R Vijay has also added a few specially painted details that are exquisitely brushed on the photo paper. “For me the finished print is very important, even in this digital age.
I was trained as an old-school photographer, where we were taught the importance of the paper, the surface, the texture and luminosity of the print. For me, image making is not just what happens in the camera. What happens in the camera is at best 50 percent. Our photo backdrops are painted on linen and canvas by a team of Rajasthani artists, including Dalpat Singh,” he says. Talking about his collaboration with Shyam Lal Kumhar, who is dedicated to the art of clay in the context of its village tradition, Waswo says, “I come up with the general concept and let him take it from there. For this exhibition, Kumhar shaped the clay and I only added the finishing paint and the gold leaf. The result is quite amazing.”The dream-like sepia photographs, which hark back to ethnographic photography of bygone era, are as Waswo grudgingly admits, “the work of a poet”.