Centred on the self

"I was not waving but drowning II", by Atul Bhalla.

"I was not waving but drowning II", by Atul Bhalla.

“Beyond The Self”
The National Portrait Gallery, until November 6.
Reviewed by Johnny Milner


THROUGHOUT the ages, portraiture has memorialised a person’s legacy, power, class and wealth.

From Leonardo DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa” to Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe”, portraits are centred on the self and often contain something profoundly revealing.

At the Portrait Gallery is “Beyond The Self”, a travelling exhibition of Asian works including painting, photography, sculpture, drawing and media compositions, all produced from the early 2000s to the present.

As the title may suggest, the exhibition transcends traditional notions of portraiture looking to the complexities surrounding identity and place in an increasingly modernised and globalised Asia.

Atul Bhalla’s work “I was not waving but drowning II” encapsulates a fascinating self-portrait composed of 14 sequential, frame-by-frame images.

The shots narrate him sinking in and then out of a pool of water. His expressions and mannerisms are caught meticulously in the photography and are heightened by the reflection off the pool’s surface. Bhalla’s portrait explores environmental concerns such as the politics of water in India, looking to its distribution as a commodity opposed to a necessity.

Wearing traditional dress and situated on a chair inside a mosquito net, Javanese painter, Herra Pahlasari reconstructs one of the most iconic portraits of Indonesian art, the “Di depan kelambu terbuka” (“Self portrait before the open mosquito net”).

Although contemporised in form and style, her rendition explores some of the intriguing themes that so poignantly featured in the original.

Pahlasari leans forward awkwardly; her pose symbolises the restlessness of the woman and comments on the role of women in Islamic society, a role that is rapidly changing in a modernised Indonesia.

By its sheer breath and diversity, “Beyond the Self” makes an important contribution to our understanding of art and portraiture in Asia.

The artists have cleverly positioned their works, combining past contentions such as the material body and inner subjectivity, with contemporary global and technological issues such as the transnational flow of images capital and people.


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