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Tin roofs in Venice


ART FELT: The photographer's (right) work is about art created by people, not necessarily artists

Samar Singh Jodha's solo show at the Venice Biennale turns the spotlight on the environmental assault unleashed on India's North-East.

This is photographer Samar Singh Jodha's second outing at the Venice Bienniale, where he is rubbing shoulders with over 150 leading artists including Tino Sehgal, who has been awarded the prestigious Golden Lion, and the UK's Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller.

At last year's Biennale, Jodha presented a video projection. Part of a public projection, it was independently done as a group. This year, he takes a solo bow with his show, Outpost (on till November 24), the subject of which is "lifeless containers - about art created by people who are not necessarily artists, outside the art circle".

Needless to say, Jodha is happy because, "Venice is the oldest and most prestigious art fest where you get to see some of the world's best contemporary art. " While India may not have had much of a presence this year - there is no India Pavilion - for Jodha, the experience has been "exciting as I haven't exhibited a solo project here before, and the response has been way beyond my expectations. I have been given a 500-square-metre space, which I am told is over a thousand years old. " Talking about the "diverse and yet very specialised platform" at the Biennale, he says, "There's work by some political bigwigs like Ai Weiwei who challenge boundaries artistically and politically. At the same time, there are those who have such serious corporate sponsorship and corporate involvement that the end product seems closer to a corporate event than any inner aesthetic pursuit. "

Outpost, he says, reflects his association with the Indian North-East, that began way back in the 1990s. He remembers how, a few years later, when he was driving down the road that connects the region to southwest China and at the Phaneng village in upper Assam, he came across the endangered Tai-Phake tribe, whose life he documented in an exhibition called Phenang in 2008. "I learnt of their problems and the biggest threat to their continued existence by the large-scale opencast mining nearby, " he says.

Using his camera to create "images of persuasion" in the hope that they would have an impact on those willing to engage, Jodha's visual disquisition of 16 images throws light on the way discarded containers are fashioned into tin roofs to safeguard people against the rain that abounds in the area. The fact that Jodha focuses attention on a people who excavate minerals from the earth to keep the engines of the same mass culture and industry running, adds a poignant irony to his images.

Typically, Jodha's work has been with people on the margins of society and mainstream media. "Apart from South Asia, I have worked in Africa, Arabia and China, " he says. "While Outpost may have been inspired by the habitat of migrant workers in India's North-East, it evolved into larger ideas about making art in a world that is getting more and more culturally homogenised. At the same time, art is increasingly framed by commercial interests too. "

Initially wary that his ideas would not find a resonance in a setting like Venice where the audience is pretty hard to please, the response from serious curators and some critics, says Jodha, "has put those concerns to rest. Some of the feedback and interest has really got me very excited".

Jodha spends a lot of time working out of Dubai on varied projects like consulting for a publishing house and shooting documentaries projects for Nat Geo and Discovery channels. His name was in the news for drawing attention to the main sponsor of the London Olympics, Dow Chemical, that bought up Union Carbide, the company responsible for the industrial gas crime in Bhopal in 1984, through a 40-foot installation art project presented by Amnesty International. Jodha says, "Art is increasingly becoming the preserve of the so-called professional artist or virtuoso. At the same time, it is increasingly being defined and framed by commercial interests. This was never the case earlier as can be seen, for example, in India's diversity, or among her indigenous people, where not just one or two individuals but the whole community is given to making art. My project is a reaction to the present state of affairs and a gentle reminder of what is slipping away. "

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