A Bell Rings Across the Valley: a Reflection

The human body, particularly its frailty, has come into sharp focus over the last two years. For the first time in recent memory, a single world event has bound everyone in a fate that is replaying slowly, over and over, through many long lockdowns, loss of life, means of living, and family. 

Everyone I meet these days talks about family in one way or another. The conversations may start around rising prices, recipes, rental woes or dying houseplants but will ultimately arrive at the doorstep of being heart sore at not being able to be with family (or one’s community, which in fact are the same thing), in a way that feels nourishing and affirming. 

The list is long and I don’t need to remind anyone of how much one has missed through these years of lockdowns, and embargos on international and domestic travel. 

So, it was special to have a slice of home when I walked into A Bell Rings Across the Valley at Footscray Community Arts, on Boon Wurrung and Woi Wurrung Country in Melbourne, as part of PHOTO 2022 International Festival of Photography a few days ago.

Opening of A Bell Rings Across the Valley. Credit: Jasmeet Kaur Sahi

Australia’s largest photography biennale, PHOTO 2022 returned to the streets and galleries of Melbourne and regional Victoria this autumn with a curatorial theme of Being Human, asking artists and photographers to unpack the human condition to explore what informs who we are: what unites us and what makes us unique within the narratives of Society, Self, Mortality, Nature and History.

A Bell Rings Across the Valley attempts this via a showcase of five voices from the region of South Asia & its diaspora. 

South Asia has nearly two billion people spread across eight nations. So it’s a brave and ambitious task to ask, “What does Contemporary Photography look like in South Asia?” “What stories are being told?” In a geographical area where nearly a quarter of the world population lives, there are many stories being told. 

Sydney-based, Fijian-Australian artist and curator Shivanjani Lal in true South Asian style has attempted a response to these questions through this exhibition by yoking together personal, political, historical and social narratives from the region.

Shivanjani Lal  in her studio, 2020. Photo by Jacquie Manning, courtesy Parramatta Artists’ Studios.

Lal, in her artistic practice, uses personal grief to account for ancestral loss and healing brought on by generations of familial movement. She is a member of the indentured labourer diaspora from the Indian and Pacific oceans. In her work, she employs intimate images of family, sourced from photo albums, along with video and images from contemporary travels to the Asia-Pacific to reconstruct temporary landscapes that act as shifting sites for diasporic healing - from which she emerges.

As ex-colonial subjects of the empire, the people of South Asia have an old relationship with photography or documentation, as something that was a tendency of the colonial rulers. They would document each-and-every-thing so that the empire’s glories could be sung and the ‘good’ word of their ‘work’ spread far and wide. This year marks the 75th year of Independence for two nations within South Asia - India and Pakistan - and 51 years since Bangladesh secured its Independence after a brutal civil war to wrest control from then West Pakistan (now Pakistan). An independence that has come at a cost to each nation - the scars of which run deep and divide the region on cultural, religious and political differences.

Images by Ashfika Rahman, A Bell Rings Across the Valley. Credit: Jasmeet Kaur Sahi

Remnants and resonances of these scars are evident in the stories being told through photography in the region - whether it’s in the state sanctioned violence documented through imagery by Ashfika Rahman; or the lack of safety for women in public spaces as challenged by Indu Antony; or in the simplest of texts shared by Shwe Wutt Hmon that tell a story of coping with mental illness, its ensuing care and the desire to feel well and whole again through a pandemic that has seen the neo-colonialist countries hoard vaccines and refuse patents to “third world countries'' who are enterprising and resourceful enough to develop their own vaccines; or in Sheelasha Rajbhandari’s images of family rendered historical and worthy of keepsaking and archiving through familiar fabrics, words and motifs; and ultimately in Devika Bilimoria’s work of the never ending loop of entry and return, an essence of a diasporic life that contends with hope, loss and joy of that which is left behind and that which lies ahead.

Work by Sheelasha Bhandari, A Bell Rings Across the Valley at Footscray Community Arts. Credit: Jasmeet Kaur Sahi

Lal in her curation and collection of these voices has allowed for the images to surpass a singular framing. Photographic practice in the South Asian region and its diaspora is a many headed figure, and the stories, stitched by gold thread and embroidered onto matriarchal shawls, and posing amidst crumbling public spaces, homes and minds through multilingual voices do remind us that “we cannot run away from who we are,” and in not running away we create new stories of who we are or can be.

The works expertly respond to questions about what it means to inhabit one’s body within the context of covid, through ongoing historical and continuing brutalities, in opposition to a violent invasive gaze and its actions, and the lack of care to the body but also its defiant celebration in the face of it all.

To me, there were echoes of Lal’s own work around familial history intersecting with political movements and instabilities, in particular the use of stitching & embroidery - practices quite central to South Asian cultures in daily and artistic life - on certain images to lend a three dimensional quality to them which in itself tells a story of what gets archived and memorialised and what doesn’t. It was wonderful to see this - as though the artists were communing with each other through their works unknowingly.

Personally, it was also a reminder that no one else can hold space for one’s body, the way one’s family and community can; and truly isn’t that why one needs the arts to be more representative of the lives of those among which it is exhibited and shared; to make people feel seen, held and acknowledged.

Image from Cecilia'ed by Indu Antony, Bell Rings Across the Valley. Credit: Jasmeet Kaur Sahi

A Bell Rings Across the Valley is showing at Footscray Community Arts till 26 June. For more details visit their website.

Jasmeet Kaur Sahi lives and works on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation. In her day job she takes care of public programs at Science Gallery Melbourne and is part of the editorial team at SAARI Collective.