Between Crisis and Joy: Emily Garthwaite’s ‘Afterlife’

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Contemporary / Contemporary Photography / Exhibitions / Galleries / KatherineCaddy / Photography / Portraiture / Yorkshire Art Journal

Emily Garthwaite’s exploration of India is presented within the Norman Rea Gallery’s latest exhibition, ‘Afterlife.’ Highlighting the culture’s vibrancy in the face of destitution, the photographs enable us to experience aspects of the country’s traditions and customs, while becoming aware of an underlying sense of poverty and danger. The energetic and vivid is paired with the haunting and perilous, engaging with the inescapable elements of city life. The diversity of Indian society is represented through a series of close and distanced portraits with a sensitive tone that implies Garthwaite’s wish to represent all elements of the culture; she does not gloss over poverty in this work, creating portraits that encourage our contemplation of the individual or group’s place within a city. The titles of the works are concise, leaving each photograph open to interpretation. There are no descriptions on the wall beneath the works – only a short paragraph delineating Emily’s pilgrimage; she travelled through India with family history in mind, intending to find a place to scatter her grandmother’s ashes. We are asked to  imagine the stories behind these inherently illustrative photographs.

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Florid oranges, pinks and reds differ starkly from the dull grey stone floor, on which a lady sits in ‘Funeral,’ while the passers by in ‘Temple’ offer a sense of motion and life. The use of vibrant colours to commemorate solemn occasions is something traditionally alien to our culture. These works differ from ‘Ghost,’ which presents a lone figure sitting beneath a tattered parasol at dusk. Colours are lacking here; there is a golden artificial hue and sense of quietude. Garthwaite captures night and day in order to illustrate the contrast between the lively and sunny day-time with this lonely, dispirited night-time scene. Another photograph, ‘Burnt,’ presents a solitary monkey, who appears ruddy-faced and distressed, clasping at a wire fence.

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The photographer also captures wealthier members of society, grouped together in celebration, beautifully clothed and jubilant in ‘The Wedding,’ contrasting with a group of poorer ladies, who sit barefoot atop weathered stone, with the sun beating down in ‘Women.’ They have vibrant colours in common, but their clothes differ in style. Children are presented as wondering, curious of the camera; sometimes they look to the lens with intense, inquisitive stares.

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Garthwaite creates portraits of young and elderly; she is not afraid to get up close. In the work below she ensures that the viewer can see the elderly lady in great detail; it is as though we are in front of her. The sun shines harshly on her face and we are left to wonder what she is experiencing; her facial expression is hard to decipher. In ‘Hurt’ a little girl’s skin is grazed. Garthwaite creates a photograph that obscures part of her face, while we can see the artist in the little girl’s eyes.

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As the exhibition leaflet gestures, there is an undercurrent of danger and hardship to these works. In ‘Swing,’ Garthwaite ensures that the little girl is the focus. She sits within a handmade material swing that appears potentially perilous; the left side seems finer and more likely to give way. The vibrant pink tones of the swing are mirrored by the blurry steps in the background, which are painted and worn. Garthwaite does not endeavour to crop the litter in the right hand corner. This must be intentional, an effort to gesture towards the litter stricken streets that in turn imply poverty and disorder,  while allowing the viewer to see the distance of the child from the unyielding concrete below. A composed monkey in ‘Sunset Meditation’ contrasts with the distressed monkey in ‘Burnt,’ linking animalistic tendencies to human behaviour.

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There is a deep-rooted, tense atmosphere within these works, between crisis and joy. There is a sense of exposure; these people and creatures are outdoors; it feels as though anything could happen in the next moment, and that one scene could easily lead to another. Garthwaite’s photographs become like stills from a film, just as they are stills from her pilgrimage.

The exhibition is responsive to the photographs’ subject matter in its curation so far as it is not showy or elaborate, allowing for the vibrant works to shine for themselves. They hang on transparent wire, held by metal clips, from afar appearing to hover, in partial light.

In ‘Sunrise Breakfast,’ which is my personal favourite of all, Garthwaite explores the inky blues and warm oranges of the animal’s fur in relation to the festive and vibrant decorations it holds within its mouth, as it raises its head to the morning sky, eyes closed. Garthwaite engages with India’s rich cultural identity through its exceptional celebration of colour, whether in the face of trepidation or delight.

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‘Afterlife’ continues at the Norman Rea Gallery until 7th March, 2014, curated by Lily Grant and Francesca Rose Butcher. Admission is free, and prints are available for purchase. Go to Emily Garthwaite’s website for more photographs from the series and for more examples of her work. See the gallery website and Facebook page for upcoming exhibitions and further information.

1. Emily Garthwaite, Funeral, 2013
2. Emily Garthwaite, Temple, 2013
3. Emily Garthwaite, Ghost, 2013
4. Emily Garthwaite, Burnt, 2013
5. Emily Garthwaite, The Wedding, 2013
6. Emily Garthwaite, Women, 2013
7. Emily Garthwaite, _, 2013
8. Emily Garthwaite, Hurt, 2013
9. Emily Garthwaite, Swing, 2013
10. Emily Garthwaite, Sunset Meditation, 2013
11. Emily Garthwaite, Sunrise Breakfast, 2013
12. Three Garthwaite photographs within the exhibition. Source, 2014

Katherine April Caddy, 27th February 2014.

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