- Viewing South Asia, Seeing AmericaGauri Gill's "The Americans"
What is the visual landscape of South Asian American migration? Gauri Gill's exhibition at Bose Pacia, New York, opened with a disparate set of images: two businessmen leaning across a table littered with cocktails at a party on Capitol Hill; a group of women elaborately dressed for Halloween, roaring with laughter on a couch; teenagers flirting at a religious festival. Migrating from intimate snapshots of family and friends toward digitally edited diptychs and triptychs, Gill photographs sites of labor and pleasure created by South Asians across the United States. The exhibition showcased a series of prints that Gill developed during her travels from California to New York between 2000 and 2007. The accompanying print catalog, published in 2008, pays homage to Robert Frank's canonical collection of mid-twentieth-century images, also titled The Americans. Like Frank, Gill's photographs are characterized by a "politicized aesthetic of the everyday": the exhibition records public celebrations organized by large South Asian communities on the East and West coasts, as well as the private lives of new immigrants in Tennessee, Mississippi, and South Carolina.1 Whereas Frank's collection foregrounds the racial, gender, and class politics that defined the United States during the cold war, Gill's [End Page 135] prints generate a different image of nationhood. Her documentation of public culture and family life not only redefines what it means to be "American" at the turn of the twenty-first century; it also elucidates the shifting topography of "America." Gill's collection is distinguished by a transnational aesthetic of locality that is evident in the formal composition of the prints, which focus on the relationship between immigrants and the material objects that populate their homes and places of worship. However, as a phenomenology of belonging, locality is also engendered through the relationship between immigrant subjects who attended the exhibition in New York and the photographic objects that lined gallery walls.2 Reading these varied relationships between subject and object alerts us to the ways in which the question of locality shapes the aesthetic and ethnographic narratives of The Americans.
The Americans is Gill's first solo exhibition, arriving in New York after shows in Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, California, and Chicago. Currently based in Delhi, Gill is an independent photographer whose work has been prominently showcased in India.3 Trained at the Delhi College of Art and the Parsons School of Design, Gill completed her MFA in photography at Stanford University in 2002. Gill's other collections (Rural Rajasthan, Urban Landscapes, and Nizamuddin at Night), documenting the country of her birth, are shot entirely in black and white. Her exhibition at Bose Pacia is an aesthetic departure from her previous work in terms of form (using color photography) as well as content (focusing on diasporic subjects). As the photographs weave between sites of work, worship, and leisure, the exhibit also travels, like Gill, between India and the United States.
The problem of locality in The Americans mirrors, in part, the difficulty of situating Gill's work in relation to other Indian and diasporic South Asian photographers. Gill's collection diverges from U.S.-based artists such as Annu Palakunnathu Mathew and Jaishri Abichandani, who use photography to create critical representations of immigration. Characterized by pastiche, mimicry, and drag, Abichandani's and Mathew's self-portraits challenge received histories of post-1965 South Asian migration.4 The Americans is also distinct from the work of Sunil Gupta, known for his...