Behind Closed Doors : Artist Talk

Poulomi Desai

Thursday 1 March 2001

Artists Talk at Exhibition Opening – Poulomi Desai

Thank you all for coming here today to mark the opening of this insightful, inspiring and ground breaking exhibition, a project that I have been involved with as an artist and facilitator for over a year now. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with the women from the Phoenix group who chose to explore photography and I am glad that I applied and was picked for the job.

Firstly I would like to do a list of thanks 1) to all the women and children from the Phoenix Project who shared their painful memories, risked their emotions as they turned the camera on themselves, and embraced the experimental nature of this project 2) special thanks to Bhaggie Patel at Phoenix for all her hard work, commitment and vision to make this happen, Farat who supported hands on, Kevin Wallace at Housing % for the Arts in Bolton for seeing the possibilities and dedication to funding this, and Sarah Paulley and the design team for creating the structures for the work.

Secondly I would like to touch upon a few issues that informed the process of this project.

The plethora of images that dominate our world are constant and absorbing – it is a cliché to be reminded – some are informative but to what extent? If anything, many reveal more about the photographer than the subject and the uses of photography from passport and id photos to media images to name a few, are still considered to be real and unambiguous.

To construct our own stories and narratives within this – ones that do not always run in a linear fashion and are invariably invisible is always a challenge. Though many contemporary photographers, artists, activists and academics have provided a critique to American/Euro centric ideologies, there are still canyons, let alone margins, to be negotiated.

To attempt to do this on an issue of domestic violence as working class Asian women within a project which is outside of even the outer circle of ‘THE ARTS’ opens a box full of tricks and gauntlets to tackle.

Some of the challenges for all of us have been :

  1. the negotiation and wrangling of definitions for funding.
  2. how to create an arena which is non-hierarchical and participative.
  3. how to create work that explores personal experiences, sometimes of extreme abuse, that can have a resonance wider than the self
  4. acknowledging the political contexts of racism, sexism and prejudice; and the possible stigmatisation of whole communities based on culture/race/religion – especially since the increase in Islamophobia.
  5. Dealing with self-elected so called community reps (predominantly male) who attempt to censor in the name of some absolute notion of culture, albeit in cahoots with certain civic institutions.

The challenges of my role within this has been finding the balances between acting as a facilitator and influencing the directions of ideas and work, introducing experimental ways of using photography as a tool for tackling political issues whilst enabling self expression and self esteem.

As an artist and activist, I have worked in partnership with a range of Black Women’s groups, such as Southall Black Sisters – this has been integral to informing my own work and practise. The Phoenix Project are part of what is an international debate and exchange of ideas on the links between domestic violence and global political violence, both state sanctioned and other.

We are also part of the growing international direct links between peoples who want to create change which benefit women specifically across borders – finding new ways of working together, such as the World Social Forum.

It is with this in mind that I am really pleased to find that the project will be going to India with this exhibition to attend a conference on Women, Migration and Globalisation. It is only when we make these direct International links and enable these access points that we begin to realise the possibilities of making positive changes.

I look forward to being part of the development of this project as it tours nationally and internationally which will only be possible if it receives the sustained support it deserves.

I would like to finish with a quote from Amitav Kumar from his book ‘Passport Photos’

“As photographers and viewers we need to make an image work like memory, crisscrossed by dreams and detours. A critical reading practise that adopts that goal cannot be satisfied with a ‘straight-reporting’ model of documentary; especially in a postcolonial context, an image will have to be seen as surrounded by other images, other words, and always, other worlds. Such a practise cannot be unilinear in yet another sense: it cannot flow from the photographer to the viewer. In a new altered mode of reception, there is no finished photograph. An image can only be part of a continually changing narrative, interrupting the authoritative discourse of a lecture on a distant history.”

Poulomi Desai