by Rathna Ramanathan 

April 2002

I had the pleasure of visiting British photographer Allan Parker’s exhibition ‘Invisible States’ organised by the British Council at the Amethyst Gallery, Chennai. The exhibition consisted of a series of large size photographs of British-Asian dancers and of Asian dancers who have performed in Britain. These performers, I was told had in common the fact that their choreographic styles sought to embrace contemporary western performance styles with Asian traditions such as Bharatanatyam, Kalari and Wu Shu. 

In his note on the exhibition, Parker introduced the creative context of these photographs. He writes: ‘…they express the notion of linking of the cultural discourses and identity in both an individual and social context. The work highlights the manner in which diverse traditions can come together in a contemporary context.’ 

When you place you work on public view, it is a challenge to effectively communicate to many different kinds of people what it is that you wish to say. And no matter how you couch it, in the end, the work must speak for itself. A successful exhibition then is one in which the artist does this in a way that is understandable yet deeply original. And therefore memorable. 

Allan Parker’s task is doubly challenging. His work seeks to bring together two very different cultures and place them in a context that both Indian and British audiences will understand. Parker does this with subtlety. When you look at Parker’s work, you are hit by a strange sense of dejavu. You have been here before, seen this before, But you cannot quite put your finger on what ‘it’ is. You are intrigued. You keep looking at the images trying to solve this query of the recognized and the different. The faces are Asian. Yet the context is Western. The movement is strangely emotive. Yet the expression is a captured reserve. The situation is traditional. The context is contemporary. 
As an Indian designer, educated partly in Britain I am familiar with such juxtapositions. I work in different cultural contexts on a daily basis. I try to communicate Indian stories to European audiences. I try to put European contexts in Indian perspective. As I do this, I struggle constantly to be true to both. 

It is easy to take something out of one culture and put it in another cultural context. You find Western designers taking Indian design inspiration often with no regard to the original context. You also find Indian designers copying Western visual practices without a thought to how relevant it is in an Indian context. It is difficult to work with two cultures in a way that is respectful to both and affectionate. Parker seems to achieve this with a simple grace. 

His success lies, I believe, in the fact that he has obvious knowledge of the visual history and traditions of both cultures. Rather than destroy one to create the other, Parker brings them together in a way that gives value to both and at the same time, provides new context, In this, he not only gives us a view of a British embracing other cultures but gently nudges us to look again at how it is that we see ourselves. 

Rathna Ramanathan has an MA in Communication Design from the Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, London, She has worked as a book designer in several publishing houses and co-authored two typographic picture books. She now runs Minus9, her own graphic design studio (www.M9design.com) and is also visiting faculty at design schools in India, Malaysia and USA. 

Courtesy: The British Council: CONNECTING – News from South India, April 2002.