Currently on display at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent are three photographic pieces and two illustrated miniatures by American-born photographer and artist Waswo X. Waswo. The pieces portray aspects of India, his home for over twenty years, in relation to themes of identity and place, providing a good overview of his larger body of work. Whilst I found Waswo’s use of colour and space fantastic, I believe it also arguable that greater depth to his work is limited, which whilst perhaps not itself an issue, Waswo’s attitude towards political critique of his art appears to be.
All of these pieces were purchased with the support of the Art Fund, a national charity which raises funds to allow museums and galleries to acquire art. They have previously been instrumental in obtaining the Anglo-Saxon treasure of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2010 for the Potteries which is still on display.
My first impression of Waswo’s work was how striking the scale and vibrancy of his photographs were, especially when compared to the darker works of other artists on display, such as L. S. Lowry and Sir William Coldstream. This is brought about through his technique which involves collaborating with painter Rakesh Vijay who creates the backdrops to his sets and Rajesh Soni who hand colours Waswo’s distinctive sepia toned photographs, bringing an exciting and unique element to his work. The success of the subjects used in these photographs, however, I felt varied, with their body language conveying very different meanings to one another. Specifically, I felt that ‘The Pot Thief’ (2010), whilst a very dynamic image, appeared overly posed in a way which made it appear close to a film poster while lacking much of the drama on the subject’s face- no sign of desperation, malice, fear- which could be expected from such a title. This makes it difficult to find a narrative within this particular piece. I felt a vast improvement from this to his 2017 works ‘Hanging the Wash’ and ‘From a Neighbouring Village’ as, while the former also felt very posed, it appears to have a stronger narrative in place, with one woman’s gaze focused on the task of hanging her washing with a sense of resignation on her face while the second character, possibly her daughter, smiles upwards communicating her hope and imagination which is echoed through her surroundings which have had colour and light added to them, suggesting that we as the viewer see the scene through her eyes.
Over the years, Waswo’s work has faced controversy, both within India and abroad, with specific accusations of orientalism for his use of the miniature style in his paintings, which are painted by Vijay, and the positioning of his indigenous subjects within his photographs. His photograph ‘From a Neighbouring Village’ for example, I feel has strong connotations of imperialist photography, positioning a woman in front of a fantastical backdrop which presents a romanticised view of India. Although Waswo lives in India and works with local artists from Udaipur to bring his visions to life, one has to question whether he brings a western perspective to his imagery. His contempt for criticism of his artistic perspective does feel frustrating and makes it difficult to view him as an impartial observer. In an interview with Aditi Rao, Waswo said of his work that “I don’t want them to be picked apart for cultural and political meanings” and instead wants them to be looked at with “poetic sensibility”. Personally, I find that this only makes me want to further explore the cultural and political inspirations and implications of his work. For him to want his work to be detached entirely from its cultural context and for his audience to look on it through a romanticised lens, for me, means he does not want his audience to fully engage with potential readings. For him to welcome this commentary would, I feel, be at the expense of his own comfort as an artist from a western background.