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Arpita Shah's Nalini: A personal journey exploring migration, family history and shifting cultural identities

Nalini

Arpita Shah's new work, Naliniis an ongoing series of work that focuses on the photographer's mother, her grandmother and herself. It explores the intimacy between the three of them and how their histories, memories and physical bodies are entangled and connected to one another.

Nalini is being premiered at Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow in a solo exhibition and will run from 9 February - 7 April 2019.

We spoke to Arpita about her process as a photographer, about her journey in creating the work, and what she hopes will resonate with audiences.

Why did you create Nalini?

As a photographer, central to my work is exploring the notion of home, belonging and shifting cultural identities. I’m interested in using photography to represent and reflect on the personal and migratory experiences of South Asian women.

I’ve collaborated with and photographed so many inspiring women and families in Scotland, and often photograph my own mother as part of these projects. So, Nalini felt like a very organic direction for me to go, it was time to turn the lens around and look into my own family history.

Nalini is a very personal journey for me, but I think there are some very universal themes in the project, especially that desire we all have to preserve our family history before it gets lost- Arpita Shah

Focusing on my maternal lineage, I wanted to connect the various histories, memories and bodies of different generations of women in my family and bring them all together into one space.

'Nalini' is my grandmother’s name, so the project begins with her and was inspired by her. She was born in India, but spent her childhood in East Africa before returning to India. Although I visit her in India every couple of years, I started this project because I realised how little I really knew about what she was like as a young woman, her memories, experiences and relationships. Every time I see her, she gets a little frailer and more forgetful, so I felt this really important urge to document her stories before they got lost.

I started collecting old family photographs and objects, and also began interviewing and photographing family members in India and the UK. It was really important for me to physically and symbolically return to the various landscapes connected to my family so I also travelled to Kenya (for the first time) to visit where my grandmother had spent her childhood.

How did you find the process of exploring a personal journey for a public exhibition?

It has been really wonderful, emotional and challenging at times - but essentially has led to new discoveries and sparked up memories, conversations and experiences that I’m not sure would have emerged if I hadn’t started the project. So in a way knowing that the work was going to be exhibited, really pushed me to slow down, enquire, observe and reflect on things that were at times very familiar and at other times very hard for me to process.

When I started making images for Nalini, what I realise now, is that as part of my process, I was subconsciously laying images out and responding to them in sequences and diptychs as if for a photobook or a diary. So, when it came to planning and preparing to show Nalini for a public exhibition – the editing process became quite tricky at times because I’d never displayed such intimate photographs and shared such personal stories about my family before. I sometimes felt quite over protective over some of the images and narratives.

But as we starting installing the work, what I found was that was that some images just needed to be displayed smaller, more delicately and some worked better shown enlarged. Some stories are included and some are left out. Nalini is ongoing, so the narratives keep evolving and shifting, which is a really new and exciting approach for me.

Nalini

What is your background as a photographer?

I completed my BA (Hons) in Photography from Napier University in Edinburgh in 2006 and since then I have been working as a photographic artist and educator.

As an India-born artist, I have lived across various countries before settling in the UK and so this migratory experience is reflected in my practice, which explores the relationship between identity, heritage and displacement. My photographic work tends to draw from Asian and Eastern mythology, using it both visually and conceptually to explore issues of cultural displacement in the Asian Diaspora.

I have had my work exhibited in the UK and internationally, including at the Detroit Center of Contemporary Photography (2013); Tramway in Glasgow (2014); Focus Festival in Mumbai, India (2015); Chobi Mela IX in Dhaka, Bangladesh (2017); and Autograph APB in London (2018).

What would you like the public to take away from the exhibition?

Nalini is a very personal journey for me, but I think there are some very universal themes in the project, especially that desire we all have to preserve our family history before it gets lost and that deep longing we have to maintain particular cultural traditions of our ancestors. So I hope visitors will feel inspired to start documenting and archiving their family histories if that haven’t already started to do so.

I also hope the exhibition will also give more of an insight into the migrational routes and complex histories between India, East Africa and UK. Scotland has a large South Asian community and many South Asian families I have met in Glasgow share similar journeys to mine, so for me it’s really important that this exhibition also reflects on these shared histories and touches on the complex intergenerational relationships between families, that share similar narratives to mine.

What’s coming up in the future?

Nalini will be touring to An Lanntair, Stornoway this October, and I’m also going to be spending a month in Syracuse, New York this September as part of the Light Work + Autograph ABP Artist-in-Residence programme. I’m going to be developing Nalini into a photobook during the residency – so I’m really looking forward to that.

Nalini is at Street Level Photoworks until 7 April. Find out more at streetlevelphotoworks.org/event/arpita-shah-nalini. An Exhibition Tour with the artist is taking place on 9 March (free), and Arpita Shah will be taking part in In Conversation: Anne M. Lyden, Chief Curator of Photography at National Galleries of Scotland on 6 April (also free).

(All images: Courtesy of Arpita Shah).

This article was published on 22 Feb 2019