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Capturing contemporary South Asian stories in Footscray

Photo 2022: ‘A Bell Rings Across The Valley’ Exhibition


Pinching the top of the Taj Mahal or camping at the Everest base in Nepal - South Asia has been extensively photographed for decades. 


Many times seen through the eyes of the West, an umbrella-like image takes over the continent. A post-colonial tourist destination coated as the “third world”, the region is captured for the amusement of the white elite. 


But, at Footscray Community Arts’ latest photo exhibition, ‘A Bell Rings Across The Valley’, we see what contemporary stories are being told by South Asians.  


Five artists from across South Asia and its diaspora present newly created works – their first Australian commissions – exploring complex experiences of identity, heritage and change. 


“Footscray Community Arts wanted to do an exhibition for Photo 2022 which has a theme of Being Human, and they wanted to focus on South Asia”, curator Shivanjani Lal recalls. “I was really excited about producing something for the space and sharing my love of South Asian photography with audiences.”


When Australia platforms South Asian art, it can end up appearing India-dominating. But at ‘A Bell Rings Across The Valley’, we meet photographers Ashfika Rahman (Bangladesh), Indu Antony (India), Sheelasha Rajbhandari (Nepal), Devika Bilimoria (Australia) and Shwe Wutt Hmon (Myanmar) bring in the ‘diversity’ we see in hashtags every day. 


The exhibition features Ashfika’s ‘Files of the Disappeared’, Indu’s ‘Cecelia’ed’Sheelasha’s ‘I Still See That Same Old House of Ours in My Dreams’, Devika’s ‘Untitled 02’, and Shwe’s ‘Only Clouds Know’

 

Shivanjani Lal | Photo by Jacquie Manning

 
To see beyond India was a conscious decision for Shivanjani, too. “I am from the South Asian diaspora but have lived and worked in India,” she says. “I really wanted to expand the Australian understanding of what South Asians can be, so I actively worked to find artists from South Asia with a particular focus on countries around the Bay of Bengal.”
 
 The exhibition embraces the themes of family, gender, being a child of the diaspora, ancestral history and mental health. 

At a time when the world is confronted by isolation, how to live in one’s own company with ease is a valid question to ask. 


Shwe Wutt Hmon’s work ‘Only Clouds Know’ began with her sister’s diagnosis of Schizophrenia. It reflects Shwe’s realisation that she also needs support to look after her mental well being. 


“Especially for the last two years, mental health has been severely affecting our lives impacted by the pandemic, lockdown, isolation, conflicts and wars globally,” says Shwe. “I believe, though my work is very personal, it inevitably reflects our collective experience of the contemporary world.”


Stories like Shwe’s are so personal, yet, they strike a chord with folks she has perhaps never even met. 


How does her photograph journey from a camera lens to an exhibition in Australia?


“Our boats are different, but we all are still in the same ocean,” Shwe says. “I am more interested in our daily lives than big phenomena. As an artist, I tell my personal stories using available resources to reflect my heart and experience. I believe some people out there relate to my story, which will lead to a broader conversation at least eventually.”

 

Shwe Wutt Hmon | Self Portrait

 Bringing a collection of photographs into a singular space can be challenging. This is their first Australian commission of hopefully many to come for the photographers. Firsts are scary, but firsts are essential. 


‘A Bell Rings Across a Valley’ may mean multiple things to visitors, but what does it mean for the artists themselves? 


“The physical representations of things like “bell” and “valley” are literally full of Asian essence,” Shwe shares. “And the meaning of “A Bell Rings Across The Valley” in a metaphorical way brings the ethos of a reminder for all of us to look for the calm during this chaotic time.”


For curator Shivanjani Lal, it’s crucial to create a safe platform for Dalit and lower caste communities, women and gender diverse communities and their artists. ‘A Bell Rings Across The Valley’ is a step closer to that journey. 


“The idea of a ‘bell ringing’ particularly at this moment represents both joy and alarm but also the bodily connection that a diasporic person feels towards the sub-continent. I love the idea of reverberations as a way to share and translate ideas”, says Shivanjani. 


A Bell Rings Across The Valley is showing till June 26 at the Footscray Community Arts Centre. It’s free of cost. For more information, please click here.


The cover image is Indu Antony’s work ‘Cecelia’ed’.

About the author

Dilpreet is the founder of South Asian Today. More about her can be found here.

 

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