The exhibit Shaheed/Witness/Kashmir installed at the 22nd Biennale of Sydney is a spatial representation of the book Witness. The book won design awards and was listed among New York Times’ ten best photo books of the year. The resulting traction led to an invitation to display the work at the Biennale.
The exhibit is intended as a photographic glimpse at life and politics in Kashmir over three strife-ridden decades, which is richly detailed in the book. It was to be true to the book, not in a linear or literal way but to render the book’s intent into space and volume.
Witness reflects the photography in which a generation of photojournalists in Kashmir in the period 1986–2016, responded to three decades of near continuous conflict. For them, Kashmir is not only the theatre in which they worked, but their home.
Their images became a way of showing Kashmir’s reality to the world, but also what they were enduring. So each of them was a ‘witness’ an observer, as well as a part of the community they were observing, as Kashmiris.
Shaheed, translates to ‘witness’ in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. It also means ‘martyr’, the sense in which it is most commonly used in Urdu/Hindustani. This dual sense is key to the book and to the installation Shaheed/Witness/Kashmir.
The exhibit sets out to preserve the book’s calm narration using a set of images and videos that are anything but. Its cool, precise tonality is at deliberate odds with its disturbing content. At first glance, the viewer sees a sparse, silent landscape, but realises something is amiss.
A network of red threads fills the ceiling, inviting the viewer to connect words and pictures. Red tape or a warning of catastrophe.
A cloth tape runs through the exhibit, tying together memory and evidence of the conflict years. (The book’s physical form suggested a casefile, tied together with a cloth tape).
The installation opens out the book. Where gatefolds, postcards and foldouts in the book formed peaks of surprise, shock and unease within the level flow of the narrative, the installation deploys a mix of formats, including LCD screens, light-tables, as well as photographic prints of varying sizes.
Divided across two venues of the Biennale of Sydney 2020, a few images from Shaheed/Witness/Kashmir was displayed at Cockatoo Island, a highly visible heritage venue. These worked as a silent invitation to the full installation at the more contemporary Campbelltown Arts Centre.
At Cockatoo Island, two disused machine shelters display high-quality photographic prints, on vinyl-mesh, stretched across their fronts. The brutal, spare landscape serves as a mental canvas on which the Kashmiri experience of these troubled decades, still ongoing, is framed.
Giving ‘WITNESS’ a room
The exhibit Shaheed/Witness/Kashmir installed at the 22nd Biennale of Sydney is a spatial representation of the book Witness. The exhibit is intended as a photographic glimpse at life and politics in Kashmir over three strife-ridden decades.
the installation opens out the book
The exhibit’s calm narration contrasts with the moments of shock and unease that the images and videos bring to it. LCD screens, light-tables and photographic prints recall the ebb and flow of the book.
tying the threads together
A mesh of red threads on the ceiling connect words and pictures. A cloth tape runs through the exhibit (The book is imagined as a case file, tied together with a cloth tape).
a silent invitation at Cockatoo Island
A separate exhibit at Cockatoo Island, a 5 km boat trip across the sea from Sydney, welcomes visitors and provides a trailer to the main exhibit. Large prints stretched across disused machine shelters take advantage of the harsh, bare industrial landscape. The silent shock of the image tells its own story.
Partner-in-charge, Creative & Art Director Lisa Rath | Design Development & Production Design Pradhyumn Kag | Production Kaushik Ramaswamy & Sanjay Kak | Movie Production Pradhyumn Kag | Editor-in-charge Sanjay Kak | Project Duration 2 months