Home Arts & Culture REVIEW: Masterji And Coventry Exhibition

REVIEW: Masterji And Coventry Exhibition

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Masterji Coventry

One of the most engaging photographs in the Masterji and Coventry exhibition, now showing at The Box, Fargo Village, until 20th November, is of the photographer’s young son, taking a bath in the kitchen sink. There’s an awful lot to love about it, from the incidentals of 1960s life (the tall tube of Ajax powder on the window sill, the rubber pipe attached to the cold tap), to the mystery of where the child’s legs have gone. But what’s most striking is that, almost alone amongst the subjects of this large collection of portraits, the boy has not chosen to be seen this way. He has raised his hand to cover his face. Through his giggles, you can almost hear him squealing ‘Daddy, don’t photograph me in the bath!’

It is, of course, his nakedness that he is trying to hide; and in a way, that’s what makes this particular picture the real starting point of the whole exhibition. Because the narrative here is one of covering nakedness – the nakedness of the recent immigrant to the new land – with brand new identities. Confirmed by their choice of clothing and home furnishings and their adoption of a variety of cultural signifiers (the sharp-suited gent with the big dog, the rock’n’roll fans), these are people intent on telling the world – and themselves – exactly who they are. And by extension, it’s a celebration of Coventry too, a place where openness to the new means anything is possible.

Masterji, now ninety-four years old, arrived in the city from India in 1951. He opened a photographic studio, and the portraits of his fellow-migrants and their families displayed here were taken in a period covering the 1950s to the 1990s. Their tone is unmistakeably optimistic: the subjects, mostly young and attractive and living in what was then England’s boom town, stare forwards, faces to the future. One or two are actually caught in mid-stride towards the camera, while others are still wearing their coats – so frantically on-the-go perhaps, that it wasn’t worth taking them off. Only Masterji himself, in a self-portrait, is captured in profile, looking off to his left.

Broadly speaking, the photographs shown at The Box fall into two groups: studio portraits, and more spontaneous and intimate shots of Masterji and his family at home. Only a handful are taken out-of-doors. Developments in the world beyond the photographs’ frames is referenced only indirectly, through changing fashions in clothing and interior décor. The subtext seems to be that despite the physical journeys of many thousands of miles that most of the subjects have made, it is their interior journey – towards the destination of identity – that is the important one.

But identity has meaning only if observed and interpreted by others; it is the identities of others that help us to create our own identities. The wider world here is us. For me, pictures taken in homes stuffed with then-high-fashion 1970s consumer-goods like nylon carpets and dralon chairs (themselves powerful identifiers of material success) stirred nostalgic memories of my own teenage home and Thursday evenings watching Top of the Pops against a background of parental grumbling. Taken during a period when disenchanted Western youth was looking to India for spiritual enlightenment, they’re a reminder that physical objects, and the memories they evoke, also embody spirituality of a kind.

What Masterji has given us is a case-study of how, in defining the identity of the self, we help to define the identity of a wider British culture. For more recent migrants, this is a message of hope: you can do the same. The climax of the exhibition is the opportunity to enter a re-creation of Masterji’s studio and sit in the iconic 1960s chair where some of his subjects posed for the very pictures that surround you. To do so is to stop being an observer merely, and merge your story with that of the chair and all those who have sat in it before you. It’s a chance to reflect on your personal identity and how it has been shaped by your times, your experiences and your city. To ask yourself, in short, how you have hidden your own nakedness?

Masterji and Coventry, The Box, Fargo Village, Far Gosford Street, Coventry CV1 5ED. 3-20 November, 10am – 6pm every day (closed Mondays). Admission free.

Summary
Masterji has given us is a case-study of how, in defining the identity of the self, we help to define the identity of a wider British culture. For more recent migrants, this is a message of hope: you can do the same.
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