Inspired by her family’s migration from India to Kenya – both former colonies – to Britain, Sonal Kantaria’s interdisciplinary research-led practice is concerned with history, trauma and memory, investigating different forms of resistance through photography, video and text.
Autograph commissioned Kantaria to create new work in response to the wider context of the Covid-19 pandemic for our project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other. For this artist commission, Kantaria re-examines the concept of ‘home’, confronting her sense of entanglement with the changing landscape in her immediate surroundings. Through still and moving imagery Kantaria explores the poetics of space delving deep into physiological and spiritual states of being in relation to her cultural heritage.
To contextualise this new artist commission, we invited Lola Young to write a short reflective essay. Inspired by Kantaria’s visual imagery in Ghar (2020) , Young weaves together memories that traverse the city and countryside shaped by evocative cloudscapes and all they symbolise. This is published alongside an in-depth conversation between the artist and Autograph’s director Mark Sealy.
City, Country, City by Lola Young
Let me begin by saying to Sonal Kantaria, ‘Thank you for the series of images and films entitled Ghar.’ When I looked at the photographs of the traces of human activity in the countryside setting, but especially when I saw those beautiful clouds, I was reminded of some history I was carrying around with me.
Eight, or maybe it was nine years ago, I had to perform a task that I knew would be profoundly upsetting. It was a case of really not having been careful enough about what I wished for.
A deep longing for knowledge needed satisfying and now the moment had come; it was causing too much anxiety to absorb. So, I went walking. Again and again – I went for long walks through streets, through parks, through fields to stave off the moment. Walked whenever and wherever possible. ‘I’m an obsessive walker’, I would laugh when colleagues asked why. Since I was a child, my twin preoccupations have been reading and walking. As a consequence, I actually bumped into a lamp post while I was reading The Wind in the Willows.
Still, I could not escape childhood insecurity and loneliness.
The city has been good to me, and I intended to stay friends forever with its choked roads and hidden alleyways. Even so, I longed for open fields, sea views, crumbling cliffs and the different tasting air.
On a school journey to the countryside, I did not want to go outside, did not want the staring. Those places were not places of safety for all of us. Too many trees or too few can be sinister, long wind-driven grasses’ susurrations threatening.
That task is on me now: it has to be completed.
The moody sky and dirty windows of the number 38 bus conspired to make reading the notes an undertaking that threatened my veneer of calm. My knees scrunched up uncomfortably against the seat in front, I flicked through the pages as my eyes became accustomed to the dim light.
The path that had led me to the documents had not been an easy one to take, and I wanted to start reading the material as soon as the files were in my possession. I glanced over my shoulder to see if anyone was craning their neck at the papers spread across my thighs, as the bus travelled in fits and starts along Rosebery Avenue. I resisted an urge to gather up all the papers and clutch them to my chest. This was not right: I should not have been reading the documents here like this. The place, the timing, the weather, were all wrong.
I have put it right now. I have left the buses, people and traffic behind, packed walking boots and waterproof gear, and hopped on a train to Cornwall. From the streets of London to the cloud streets of Falmouth.
We have booked into a former meteorological station, a tower that resembles a lighthouse, converted into a holiday home. One room on each floor and in sight of the sea and the harbour. The top floor has 360 degrees’ worth of windows. This is the right place to embark on the journey.
Watching the weather roll in feels right. The windows allow so much light into the room – a working room in which we sit and write in silence, apart from an occasional tap-click of laptop keys.
It is the clouds I love. Cumulus congestus with an overlay of stratocumulus. It is the lone bird wheeling in and out of sight among the clouds that are yet to decide what form they will take.
The shadows of human presence are embedded in this landscape. That is fine by me. Telegraph poles, pylons, they are us and our histories. No space untouched by human hand in this countryside.
Be careful when you say clouds are grey, meaning they are bland and lifeless, giving away no secrets. Cirrus spissatus speak: they say people and their emotions are as ephemeral as clouds. Birds know better than people what makes clouds so satisfying to observe. Trees would like us to know their views about them, but we do not want to listen.
It is the right time now. I open the files, ready to read the contents, observed only by the cloudscape.
Mark Sealy (MS): Thank you so much for all the work you produced for this commission. It is very much appreciated. During our conversations throughout this process, I was reminded that the majority of your projects are grounded in developing visual methodologies that give voice to marginalised peoples. I became aware that the experience of working with yourself as the subject might be new, uncomfortable and challenging, in ways you might not have expected. Was this the case?
Sonal Kantaria (SK): My past projects have focused primarily on other territories, most recently in Western Australia, working with Elders on Yamaji Country. Although the territories differ from project to project, the themes – displacement, movement and settlement, under the umbrella of identity – have remained constant in my practice and are also points of connection with the people with whom I work and collaborate. In the project with the Elders, we have spoken about discrimination and minority groups from our respective perspectives, as well as the activist work that we undertake to counter these experiences. Another project brought together the person and landscape through a diptych series focusing on the Indian diaspora in Australia. This was a direct exploration of my own background in relation to others with whom I had met and connected in Australia. So, my own background and experiences come together in this commission (and it is something that I would like to expand upon).
Here, I reflect on my experiences of growing up in Hertfordshire and the relationship I have with the landscape there during a time when I am thinking about the BAME community and the impact of Covid-19 upon it. It becomes even more pertinent to reflect on these experiences and go inward, in thinking about my culture and my relationship with my immediate space. I feel that past projects have also led to this juncture and it is a subject that I want to pursue more deeply. My work exploring the Indian diaspora in Australia is linked directly to my experience of growing up in the UK as British Indian, whereas my long-term body of work with the Yamaji communities and Elders in Western Australia concerns an indirect experience but one that speaks to the space ‘between’ the Yamaji notion of exile from their lands and my own familial experience of an inherited exile. It is in this space in-between that the Britishness exists.
MS: I would like to pull you back in time to some of the conversations we had some years ago concerning the work you made in a care home here in the UK. I think you did something quiet and special there and it resonated with me deeply. This was because I thought the question of cultural difference and the care of the elderly had not had that much photographic attention. Yet it seemed such a key question. It touched on so many important themes. This work, and your long history of engaging with issues of care, memory and place, was why I was so keen for you to take up the commission. Can you reflect a little on what brought you to produce the work you did back then and whether it had an impact on how you approached this current body of work?
SK: I began this work thinking of how cultural values have changed in this country and the ways in which this has manifested itself, one example of which was care homes specifically for elderly Asian people. This felt like such a huge shift to me. My own grandparents were living with extended family and I certainly had them in mind when undertaking this project. Many of the residents of the particular care home were feeling a sense of loss because of their detachment from their families at a point when care was a much-needed aspect of their lives. They had looked after their own mothers and their mothers-in-law on the Indian subcontinent (where they had grown up and spent some of their adult lives).
This shift was a cultural aspect that they had not come across previously in their lives and they were experiencing at a point when they were coming to the end of their own lives and in a place with which they were not familiar (culturally or physically). So, this sense of care was both fundamentally needed and conversely lacking. There were many reasons why the families were unable to look after their elders. It was heart breaking to see and raised larger questions about how we care for our elderly and the amount of care (beyond a superficial level) they experience in care homes. They rarely receive the one-to-one attention that they so need, which is very hard to witness. Their whole energy changed with the sound of music or a trip outside. It made me consider issues around ageing and the extent to which the expectations of care are met.
The theme of care has been present in my family and in my practice since the start and has manifested itself through not only physical care for those around us but also care for our environment and landscape. For this particular commission, care was at the forefront of my mind. I was back at my family home for lockdown and concerned for them during this precarious moment when we knew little about the virus but had the constant reminder of the grave numbers of deaths (which were particularly high for BAME communities). The care homes project was the first project I had undertaken in the UK, inspired by my thoughts about my culture and understanding of ageing in the country and the cultural shifts taking place. This commission was the second time I had directly explored my own cultural heritage and experiences of growing up in this country. The link between the two commissions signalled a shift from other territories to my own and a more inward, retrospective reflection of self and culture.
MS: I know the time you spent in Australia working with indigenous peoples has had a strong influence on how you now view your sense of place in the world. When I started looking at this body of work, I could not help but think about what the idea of being in the landscape means to different peoples across time and space, especially if we consider the politics of land ownership, forced displacement and colonial forms of cultural erasure. Is it fair to say this work can be read quite starkly through the lens of history and melancholy?
SK: This was the point of departure for this body of work. Gordon Gray, Noongar Elder, was the first person I met with to begin our collaborative work. We spoke about colonial violence, displacement and the discrimination affecting Aboriginal peoples in Australia, but also how these forms of violence have been inflicted upon my own community and culture. The respective histories and experiences fostered a connection and a pivotal point for the project.
As the work developed it has been led by the landscape in a sense. This was an unfamiliar concept to me at the time, but in a space that is immense and expansive, it became clear that hyperawareness was vital in understanding that space. Little moves in the Australian bush, and stillness is the key to being aware of subtle changes when travelling from place to place. As such, the narratives that were being shared by Elders about the place itself and their personal histories were being aligned with that which was taking place in the space. One such encounter was at the first site of significance visited with Gordon. This was the start of a project I was undertaking to explore Aboriginal sites of significance in Geraldton and the surrounding areas, and the histories pertaining to these sites. Upon arrival we walked to the bank of the Greenough River to find a dying fox, which Gordon believed had been caught in a trap placed by farmers. He decided to kill the fox to save it from a slow painful death. I photographed the dead fox as it lay in the landscape, its red fur contrasting with the greens and browns of the bush. As we walked up the mound, contemplating this encounter, we found a king brown snake, with its head severed and ants ferociously feeding off it. I took photos of the snake, until it was just a skeleton.
With the camera on a tripod, I also filmed both the snake and the dead fox, using a technique that I refer to in this work as the ‘moving still’. The filming of these animals felt intrinsic and pertinent to the narrative, not knowing how the rest of the project would develop, and as such I will only now start retrospectively to explore the meanings that accrue to the images. On a site both of a massacre and of mythological significance to the local Yamaji communities, this was a strong encounter.
Each site visited had layered histories pertaining to the local Yamaji population and later a story connected to colonisation and the impact of encounter. These histories were both pertinent and impossible to escape. The melancholy expressed in the visuals is drawn from the Elders themselves who recount oral histories inherited or experienced, sometimes both, and particularly pertinent as they are at a stage where they feel the need to record these histories. All of the Elders with whom I have worked are activists in their own right, as well as being community leaders, artists/writers and well versed in Aboriginal law. They have fought for their rights from an early age and continue this form of resistance on a local and national level. The manner in which we have worked together is based on a system of trust and has therefore led to a collaborative and slower pace of working, taking into consideration all participants in the project, including the landscape and that which inhabits it.