Arpita Shah is an artist whose photography and filmwork on womanhood and shifting cultural identities has been exhibited across the world from Cambodia to the Hebrides. Born in Gujarat, Shah lived there until she was three years old until her family moved (briefly) to Ireland, before jetting off to Saudi Arabia, where she remained until the age of eleven. Her penultimate move was to Eastborne until she finally settled in Edinburgh where she attended university to study Photography and Film.
Ahead of her first London exhibition – and after fiddling with the Skype settings for what feels like an age – Arpita and I (finally!) connect and I’m greeted with a beaming smile.
What influences did you have growing up?
I travelled between India and Saudi a lot and I’ve enjoyed living in Edinburgh, so I’ve drawn influence from all of those places. Travelling led to me becoming really interested in the experience of culture and shifting identities. I actually went back to India every two years, so naturally I am interested in South Asian and Eastern mythology. What also captured me were the maternal stories, so I spent a lot of time following old Asian women around – not in a weird way! If I see someone, and I want to hear about their encounters, I talk to them. I would say that now most of my work is centered around the Asian diaspora and women.
What got you into photography?
Since I was a child, I have always been fascinated by photography. My father was an amateur photographer and he was always taking pictures of the family; my intrigue started for there as I looked at how multifaceted each image was. He was always taking pictures of my mother and I and so now my mum cameos in all my projects.
I like working with photography because of how layered an image can be. Particularly with portraiture, you can read something different in each person and extract numerous things about their experiences. That’s what I love about images, they’re really loaded. Each reading varies depending on where it’s shown and the person looking at it.
What was the inspiration behind your current exhibition, Purdah – The Sacred Cloth?
It’s actually an earlier work of mine. The work was made 5 years ago as part of a residency I was doing as part of Pollockshields in Glasgow which consists of two performance spaces and two galleries. One of the galleries is called the Tramway, it’s a massive art space and they called 6 artists to make a project about the community there, kind of like a “who is my neighbour” project, so I was thinking about the diversity of the community. It’s an area with a synagogue and a church and a mosque so I was already thinking along those lines. We had 6 months to get to know the neighbourhood and I decided to run photography workshops. As usual, I hung out with all the grannies, I knew they’d have rich and meaningful stories about migration and identity that probably hadn’t left their family circle so I wanted to ask them to be a part of the project. I met some of the ladies at Gurdwaras, temples and even just on the street!
Once I had people interested, we did an activity where each woman brought in something that meant something to them and said something about their journey to Scotland, and how it feels to be in Scotland now. Some people brought in the scarves of their mothers or grandmothers and that prompted us to start talking about purdah, the sacred cloth. ‘Purdah’ comes from the Persian word meaning ‘curtain’ and it is often used in the South Asian regions to refer to the religious and social practice of screening women from men and strangers. I have always been interested in cultural signifiers and looking at their evolution.
A lot of the women were excited about sharing what the scarf meant to them and their individuality and character. Whilst we were talking about the scarves and veils, a Scottish lady from the local area who was volunteering in the workshop, mentioned her neighbor, who she had never spoken to. She said, “we never smile or wave at each other. I can’t tell if she wants to interact with me because she’s wearing the niqab and I don’t know if she wants to talk to me. Is it about hiding?” It was an interesting point. It was one of the reasons I wanted to centre the exhibition on the topic. It turned out a lot of families were too scared to ask, there was an idea where they thought it was imposing to ask. Misconceptions and preconceptions unlocked a discussion that we need to have, especially today. The idea was to open that dialogue and create work that allows people to come and physically look at the unique story attached to each woman and her ‘purdah’. Looking at the nuances, the different folds and styles, you start to understand the different meanings. Older women said they used it because it was a part of their culture – growing up, it was embedded. A lot of younger women expressed that it was a choice they made because they didn’t grow up where it may have been a part of the culture or even compulsory, so they wanted to make clear it’s very much a choice for them.
The portraits talk about the various meanings the scarf has to Asian women. It’s complex. I wanted to be delicate and considerate because purdah can be empowering but still oppressive in other areas. We’re at a point where women are being forced to take it off on one side of the world and forced to wear it on the other.
How did people react to the final portraits?
What I found interesting at Tramway was that a lot of the Asian women featured lived on that street. On the opening day they all rang me up to say they were outside, and I told them they were allowed to come in. They told me they had ever been in there and wanted me to come and get them. I was shocked since they’d lived on the street their whole life! It was my favourite part, bringing them in and seeing their faces as they looked at themselves and their journeys that they had shared in a way they had never done before. Bringing in younger people was great too, but the older generation are also learning, people who have lived side by side with the South Asian diaspora are only now learning about it and what the scarves mean to people.
Other reactions were really eye-opening. I did an interview about 4 years ago for a Russian magazine and the translation was interesting. I had to stop reading the comments because they believed these women were forced. So I had to understand that responses will be different depending on the audience.
It’s still so great that a project like this got the exposure it did, that it could have been a part of changing perceptions in so many different countries.
Yes, exactly, and that’s why I am so glad that I did it. With the show, there are excerpts of interviews I did with the women about why they wear it. One girl wears it when she prays and when she’s around elders – which shows how you don’t even have to wear it everyday. Another wears it to keep in touch with her roots, even though her mother and grandmother do not wear it – the new generation who feel displaced make choices to connect with their heritage and ancestry. I feel really lucky to know these meanings a scarf can have to someone and want others to learn about it too.
I’ve had exhibitions in lots of countries, but Purdah will be my first one in England: I’m very excited! It’s a complete honour to be showing at Autograph – they have exhibited and worked with a variety of photographers that have inspired and influenced my practice. I’m grateful that I get to bring the work over and represent the women I collaborated with for the project.
What influences your other work?
The notion of home, looking at women and their families in their domestic spaces – the dynamics always tell you a thousand stories.
I was commissioned for the Commonwealth Games because the games were in Scotland and so that’s what the Portrait of Home project was for. I decided to take portraits of Hindu families in Scotland, because there’s something familiar to me about going into a Hindu home in a place that’s thousands of miles away from their homeland; a Hindu home in Scotland has a specific style, smell and feel which was so interesting and comforting. You can find differences and similarities when you look at portraits like that, and that’s what I enjoy showing people. I took quotes from the families to give viewers more insight on their journeys and even though some people were talking about feelings of displacement, you can still find something in the picture that connects with you. We can share so many narratives that we didn’t know we shared and it demonstrates how complex the notion of home is, especially when you’re born in one country and move to another.
Are you currently working on anything?
Yes! Surprise, I am still looking into identity and experiences of migration. My new work focuses on my own family lineage and history, and it’s called Nalini, after my grandmother. My grandmother and great-grandmother were born in East Africa, and I became interested in their journeys from there back to India and then to Europe. Whilst being autobiographical, it is also looking at the Gujarati experience as a whole.
I have already travelled to where my grandmother grew up in east Africa. It was amazing to see how much they’d preserved in terms of traditional Gujarati culture and language, it was like a time warp. I’ll be working with my great grandmother’s sarees too, somehow incorporating them – like with Purdah, cloth holds so much significance and I want to extract as much information as I can from it.
Purdah – The Sacred Cloth is showing at Autograph ABP gallery, Shoreditch, from 20th July- 22nd November 2018.
Words by Hanna Johara-Dokal
Images Courtesy of Arpita Shah