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On Care, Memory and Place: In Conversation with Sonal Kantaria

POSTED: 27 May 2021

Artist Sonal Kantaria speaks with Autograph's director Mark Sealy about notions of home, family and heritage – central themes in her new commission Ghar.

When Autograph invited Sonal Kantaria to create new work for our commissioning project Care | Contagion | Community - Self & Other, the artist had just returned to her family home in Hertfordshire in southern England, relocating temporarily due to the pandemic. Here, themes of care, displacement and diaspora provided the backdrop to her new commission, Ghar (2020), a series of quietly charged yet serene monochromatic landscape photographs and three short film fragments which Kantaria poignantly describes as ‘moving stills’.

Autograph’s director Mark Sealy caught up with the artist, to discuss some of the wider themes behind this new work in the context of Kantaria's past projects and long-term commitment to the representation of indigenous / marginalised communities.

Mark Sealy (MS): Thank you so much for all the work you produced for this commission. It is very much appreciated. During our conversations throughout this process, I was reminded that the majority of your projects are grounded in developing visual methodologies that give voice to marginalised peoples. I became aware that the experience of working with yourself as the subject might be new, uncomfortable and challenging, in ways you might not have expected. Was this the case?

Sonal Kantaria (SK):
My past projects have focused primarily on other territories, most recently in Western Australia, working with Elders on Yamaji Country. Although the territories differ from project to project, the themes – displacement, movement and settlement, under the umbrella of identity – have remained constant in my practice and are also points of connection with the people with whom I work and collaborate. In the project with the Elders, we have spoken about discrimination and minority groups from our respective perspectives, as well as the activist work that we undertake to counter these experiences. Another project brought together the person and landscape through a diptych series focusing on the Indian diaspora in Australia. This was a direct exploration of my own background in relation to others with whom I had met and connected in Australia. So, my own background and experiences come together in this commission (and it is something that I would like to expand upon).



"the themes – displacement, movement and settlement, under the umbrella of identity – have remained constant in my practice"


Here, I reflect on my experiences of growing up in Hertfordshire and the relationship I have with the landscape there during a time when I am thinking about the BAME community and the impact of Covid-19 upon it. It becomes even more pertinent to reflect on these experiences and go inward, in thinking about my culture and my relationship with my immediate space. I feel that past projects have also led to this juncture and it is a subject that I want to pursue more deeply. My work exploring the Indian diaspora in Australia is linked directly to my experience of growing up in the UK as British Indian, whereas my long-term body of work with the Yamaji communities and Elders in Western Australia concerns an indirect experience but one that speaks to the space ‘between’ the Yamaji notion of exile from their lands and my own familial experience of an inherited exile. It is in this space in-between that the Britishness exists.

Sonal Kantaria, from Ghar,  2020. Commissioned by Autograph.
Sonal Kantaria, from Ghar, 2020. Commissioned by Autograph.

MS: I would like to pull you back in time to some of the conversations we had some years ago concerning the work you made in a care home here in the UK. I think you did something quiet and special there and it resonated with me deeply. This was because I thought the question of cultural difference and the care of the elderly had not had that much photographic attention. Yet it seemed such a key question. It touched on so many important themes. This work, and your long history of engaging with issues of care, memory and place, was why I was so keen for you to take up the commission. Can you reflect a little on what brought you to produce the work you did back then and whether it had an impact on how you approached this current body of work?

SK:
I began this work thinking of how cultural values have changed in this country and the ways in which this has manifested itself, one example of which was care homes specifically for elderly Asian people. This felt like such a huge shift to me. My own grandparents were living with extended family and I certainly had them in mind when undertaking this project. Many of the residents of the particular care home were feeling a sense of loss because of their detachment from their families at a point when care was a much-needed aspect of their lives. They had looked after their own mothers and their mothers-in-law on the Indian subcontinent (where they had grown up and spent some of their adult lives).

This shift was a cultural aspect that they had not come across previously in their lives and they were experiencing at a point when they were coming to the end of their own lives and in a place with which they were not familiar (culturally or physically). So, this sense of care was both fundamentally needed and conversely lacking. There were many reasons why the families were unable to look after their elders. It was heart breaking to see and raised larger questions about how we care for our elderly and the amount of care (beyond a superficial level) they experience in care homes. They rarely receive the one-to-one attention that they so need, which is very hard to witness. Their whole energy changed with the sound of music or a trip outside. It made me consider issues around ageing and the extent to which the expectations of care are met.

Sonal Kantaria c. 2012. Resident was 82 years of age. She has tears in her eyes when she talked about her family.
Sonal Kantaria, c. 2012. The residents pass their days in this room.

The theme of care has been present in my family and in my practice since the start and has manifested itself through not only physical care for those around us but also care for our environment and landscape. For this particular commission, care was at the forefront of my mind. I was back at my family home for lockdown and concerned for them during this precarious moment when we knew little about the virus but had the constant reminder of the grave numbers of deaths (which were particularly high for BAME communities). The care homes project was the first project I had undertaken in the UK, inspired by my thoughts about my culture and understanding of ageing in the country and the cultural shifts taking place. This commission was the second time I had directly explored my own cultural heritage and experiences of growing up in this country. The link between the two commissions signalled a shift from other territories to my own and a more inward, retrospective reflection of self and culture.

Sonal Kantaria, Jaar, 2020. Commissioned by Autograph.

MS: I know the time you spent in Australia working with indigenous peoples has had a strong influence on how you now view your sense of place in the world. When I started looking at this body of work, I could not help but think about what the idea of being in the landscape means to different peoples across time and space, especially if we consider the politics of land ownership, forced displacement and colonial forms of cultural erasure. Is it fair to say this work can be read quite starkly through the lens of history and melancholy?

SK:
This was the point of departure for this body of work. Gordon Gray, Noongar Elder, was the first person I met with to begin our collaborative work. We spoke about colonial violence, displacement and the discrimination affecting Aboriginal peoples in Australia, but also how these forms of violence have been inflicted upon my own community and culture. The respective histories and experiences fostered a connection and a pivotal point for the project.

As the work developed it has been led by the landscape in a sense. This was an unfamiliar concept to me at the time, but in a space that is immense and expansive, it became clear that hyperawareness was vital in understanding that space. Little moves in the Australian bush, and stillness is the key to being aware of subtle changes when travelling from place to place. As such, the narratives that were being shared by Elders about the place itself and their personal histories were being aligned with that which was taking place in the space. One such encounter was at the first site of significance visited with Gordon. This was the start of a project I was undertaking to explore Aboriginal sites of significance in Geraldton and the surrounding areas, and the histories pertaining to these sites. Upon arrival we walked to the bank of the Greenough River to find a dying fox, which Gordon believed had been caught in a trap placed by farmers. He decided to kill the fox to save it from a slow painful death. I photographed the dead fox as it lay in the landscape, its red fur contrasting with the greens and browns of the bush. As we walked up the mound, contemplating this encounter, we found a king brown snake, with its head severed and ants ferociously feeding off it. I took photos of the snake, until it was just a skeleton.

With the camera on a tripod, I also filmed both the snake and the dead fox, using a technique that I refer to in this work as the ‘moving still’. The filming of these animals felt intrinsic and pertinent to the narrative, not knowing how the rest of the project would develop, and as such I will only now start retrospectively to explore the meanings that accrue to the images. On a site both of a massacre and of mythological significance to the local Yamaji communities, this was a strong encounter.

Each site visited had layered histories pertaining to the local Yamaji population and later a story connected to colonisation and the impact of encounter. These histories were both pertinent and impossible to escape. The melancholy expressed in the visuals is drawn from the Elders themselves who recount oral histories inherited or experienced, sometimes both, and particularly pertinent as they are at a stage where they feel the need to record these histories. All of the Elders with whom I have worked are activists in their own right, as well as being community leaders, artists/writers and well versed in Aboriginal law. They have fought for their rights from an early age and continue this form of resistance on a local and national level. The manner in which we have worked together is based on a system of trust and has therefore led to a collaborative and slower pace of working, taking into consideration all participants in the project, including the landscape and that which inhabits it.

MORE

See the full artist commission by Sonal Kantaria

Read Lola Young's response to Kantaria's commissioned work

Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...

Read the introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project

The Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other exhibition is now in development

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Supported using public funding by Arts Council England


Images from Sonal Kantaria's commission Ghar, 2020, © and courtesy the artist, commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other: 1) Dharti [detail]. 2) From the series Ghar. 3) From the series Ghar. 4) Jaar.