Sunil Shah

  • Text  Anna Sanders
  • Photography  Sunil Shah

Photography: Sunil Shah
Text: Anna Sanders

Drawn to themes of expulsion informed by his own childhood experiences, Shah cuts and pastes fragments of history into one another, finding a new narrative within ambiguity, and new meanings in the chasm time leaves behind. Referencing the fractured nature of history, and our inability to know it in its completeness, Shah looks to present alternatives, to offer un-fixed meaning.

In Embassy, images are layered on top of other images: displaced scenes that resonate with the other. Their jarring placement and relationship through proximity alone communicate new messages: an air cargo box holding an unknown person’s worldly possessions sits in the corner of a sunset – life seeping out of the day in a blood-tinged sky; people queue by barbed wire, waiting, and below a ferry leaves one land for another.

Uganda Stories presents a more literal, fractured narrative; one personal to the artist yet universally understood. Family photos taken during a time of political upheaval carry a sense of foreboding, their subjects’ nescience of their impending fate a sorrowful tale. Photographed objects that sit alongside as though evidence for a trial hold a narrative within themselves: a handsome leather bag bought as a gift becomes a means to pack up an old life, a passport stamp signals the start of a new one.

Through this de-contextualising of images we find our blind spots. We see the past in light of the present, the history of colonialism resonates; we’ve been here before.

We spoke with Shah about his political, post-photography aesthetic, the burden of representation, and the resonance of his work in the current political climate.

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AS: How would you describe your methodology of working?

SS: It’s difficult to nail this down precisely but I am interested in what could be described as ‘post-documentary’ or ‘post-photography’. I am not entirely sure what that means exactly, but I guess it is a willingness to think of the medium beyond any fixed meaning, function, or visuality. As an undergraduate, I was influenced by conceptual art and its relationship to photography and the work of Victor Burgin and Allan Sekula, both in their capacities as artists and writers. This led towards a critical interest in photography, art, and visual culture. In addition to my practice, I write about photography and art and work on curatorial projects. All of these interests intersect and make cross-references throughout my practice.

Much of my own work comes out of the postcolonial experience. I was born in Uganda and we moved to the UK during the Ugandan Asian expulsion. In my work on Uganda Stories and Embassy, I wanted to reflect back on the past to reveal alternative narratives or blind spots, whether real or fictitious.

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AS: Is there a definitive message you hope to convey through the projects, or do you intend for viewers to find their own personal meaning?

The closer one looks into the photograph, the less certain we are about what it shows us, it reveals something, but not everything. There is a good analogy of this in Antonioni’s Blow Up – magnification eventually turns into abstraction. To paraphrase John Tagg, photography’s burden of representation  reduces life’s complexities into a discrete visual codification that maps to our cognitive powers. I try to work against providing expected codes, preferring instead to leave interpretation to viewers. Although the work is framed around a subject, how that subject is presented is ambiguous and the viewer can choose to engage with that ambiguity how they like.

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AS: How do you feel your multi-cultural upbringing affects your work, would you say you are more sensitive, and more responsive to political issues because of it?

I think experiences in life get drawn into art, either consciously or unconsciously and this politicises the work. In its production, my work reflects something of my experience but not all of it. It is not a complete representation of it and it is not a direct attempt to resolve it. The work on Uganda was never intended to present any political position; it was driven by an impulse to de-contextualise existing images in order to find a new currency. However, at the same time, I don’t think the work could exist (for me) apolitically either, because of the experiences mentioned above.

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AS: Uganda Stories was inspired by your experiences of being a refugee in the 70’s, and there are still huge numbers of refugees displaced across the world. I wanted to ask your thoughts on the current political climate and attitudes about refugees, what do you think can be done to help?

SS: Just recently, I have felt attitudes towards refugees and immigrants re-surface in a very similar way to how some people treated us in the 1970’s. When fear of the ‘Other’ overwhelms any sense of humanity or tolerance we see abuse, hatred, division and a defensive mentality. We live in a world that is becoming more fearful and less embracing which is really worrying. Right now, I think the impact of refugees and immigration is being hugely exaggerated for its use as political leverage and to make news headlines. Displaced people, migrants and settlers, for whatever reason, are not the problem.

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AS: You’ve mentioned Victor Burgin and Allan Sekula as being influential to your practice, what is it about their philosophies that you admire?

Sekula and Burgin are amongst many other postmodernist writers that opened up my thinking around photography. Specifically, I liked the way they tore down modernism and debated the politics of representation, from different perspectives – the photographer, the photographed, the spectator, the gallery, the art market, the elite, the media, popular culture etc. Sekula’s and Burgin’s words eloquently resonated with me at a time when I was asking lots of questions.

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AS: You used the phrase ‘post-photography’ – how would you define this, especially in relation to your work?

I think this term is one that I’ve appropriated for my own use. From my perspective, post-photography refers to a practice that is not invested in any dogmatic thinking about photography. It is not a big concern to me who makes a picture, who presses the shutter, whether it is film or digital, what type of camera took the picture, whether it has been photoshopped or not, etc etc I am more interested in the photograph’s latent meaning and its ability to stir our faculties of aesthetic judgment and knowledge making.

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AS: What projects are you currently working on?

I have just begun a commission with artist Kajal Nisha Patel for the New Art Exchange. It is about social change, protest and activism in Nottingham and it is due to open in an October exhibition. I am also half-way through an MA in History of Art and working with American Suburb X, an online photography and visual culture platform as Associate Editor. I plan on finding time to develop some of my personal projects this year too, and if I can, improve my grammar…It’s a pretty busy year so far, but things are good.

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Photography © Sunil Shah