The connection between England’s Black Country and the Punjab may not be immediately apparent. Yet, the Black Country is host to one of the largest Punjabi diasporas outside of India. The Indian communities living in places like Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton have played a central role in redefining the region’s cultural, economic and social landscape. A new photographic project, Girl Gaze: Journeys Through the Punjab and the Black Country, explores the interweaving relationships between two different geographic regions through the lenses of four female photographers.
Jennifer Pattison, Jocelyn Allen, Andrea Fernandes and Uzma Mohsin have each travelled across the two regions to take a closer look at the lives of the women living in these parts of the world; from Wolverhampton and Sandwell to cities and villages in the Punjab. Their work reveals compelling synergies between the Black Country diasporas and their origins in northern India. Girl Gaze is an insightful and rounded reflection on the complex nature of migration and the fluid identities that are forged as a result.
Girl Gaze will premier in Chandigarh on 10 March and will travel to Jalandhar, Delhi, London and Wolverhampton later in the year.
“The images are taken at dusk, dawn or are lit by moonlight. I wanted to transport the viewer to the quiet, intimate moments shared between a mother and a baby as they drift off to the magical realm of sleep,” says the London-based photographer Jennifer Pattison. Drawing on lullabies and Punjabi loris, Jennifer’s series Rice Pudding Moon & The River of Dreams explores the universal language of dreams and motherly love.
Jennifer’s images foster a virtual dialogue between women from the Punjab and those from the Black Country, offering them a shared platform to communicate their stories. “I spoke to immigrant mothers and grandmothers in the Black Country who couldn’t remember any loris from their childhoods in the Punjab. They did, however, remember loris from Bollywood films they had watched on television in the U.K.” Through Rice Pudding Moon & The River of Dreams, Jennifer demonstrates that cultures stretch across spaces and are kept alive by the memories and traditions that are passed on through generations.
A closer look at the gender dynamics in certain loris led Jennifer to reconsider their cultural impact. “Two professors shared many traditional, long-forgotten loris with me. Some of them were poetic and spoke of sweet sleep with babies laying on their mothers’ lap. But many presented a traditional, domesticated scene where the family’s son was being sung to sleep while the daughter cooks and sews in the background. I wonder if letting go of some of these songs isn’t such a bad thing after all?”
Jocelyn Allen is a London-based artist who graduated from the London College of Communication in 2010 with a Master’s degree in photography. Her series, You Will Live In This World As A Daughter, is a compelling set of photographs that reflect on female visibility both literally and metaphorically. “When I was in Jalandhar, I would walk down a street without seeing any women. There are definitely questions to be raised about female visibility in traditionally patriarchal communities,” Jocelyn says. Girls whose faces are concealed by balloons or covered by veils occupy ambivalent spaces; their bodies may be present but their faces, and by extension identities, are not recognised.
Despite producing a strong and cohesive series, Jocelyn faced a number of challenges while shooting: “Photographing women in the Punjab was very tricky because we had to go through their guardians. There were women and girls I didn’t even get to speak to who may have wanted to be in the project. One woman wasn’t allowed to feature because her brother had said no, despite her dad saying yes. If the project had been about men it would have been a lot easier. They are allowed to do whatever they want.”
Bombay-based photographer Andrea Fernandes withholds a coherent narrative in her latest series You Laugh As Much As You Cry. For the most part, it’s difficult to tell if you’re looking at a shop window in the West Midlands or an aspiring ballerina in the Punjab. In offering the viewer little help, Andrea’s work forces us to reconsider ‘natural’ assumptions about the supposed differences between the UK and India. The ethos of Andrea’s non-linear project is reflected in the title’s hidden meaning: “You laugh as much as you cry is a Panjabi expression. It means that all of us have an equal opportunity to look at a situation and choose how to interpret it.”
Andrea’s series is a collection of photographic impressions of the people and places she captures. “I know that living in a bubble with those who share the same ideas and interests as us is comfortable and that understanding other people’s viewpoints can be challenging. But when we are open to listening to other people’s perspectives we are also able to interpret the world in a more complex way.” Andrea considers photography a vital tool in allowing viewers to extend beyond their comfort zones. It can prompt them to both engage with difference and acknowledge similarities where they had otherwise seen none.
Female migrants play a key role in You Laugh As Much As You Cry. The young photographer felt that women had been dismissed as the passive followers of visionary male migrants. Andrea, however, turns her lens on the women who emigrated of own accord. “Female migrants redefine the social roles that had previously been denied to them at home – that of breadwinner, decision-maker and community-influencer. They then also have to renegotiate their identities in their host country. Migration, for this ever-increasing population of women, works as a liminal step towards self-development; it is a subversive act that destabilises traditional gender relationships.”
Love & Other Hurts is Delhi-based photographer Uzma Mohsin’s contribution to Girl Gaze. The series sheds a new light on the personal histories and ambivalent identities of women across the two regions. “Love & Other Hurts paints a psychological map of British-Punjabi women in the Black Country and their counterparts in Indian Punjab. It draws on intimate accounts of love and longing, family bonds and cultural traditions to highlight their struggle for survival, often in very challenging circumstances,” Uzma tells It’s Nice That. In a global, multicultural world, Uzma’s work underlines the importance of acknowledging the different communities living alongside our own and carves out a space of convergence and common aspirations.
Uzma’s aim is to “bring forth the voices of women that often go unheard and to build an understanding around their struggles.” Through visual metaphors and symbols that reflect on the relationship between people and places, her work focuses in particular on the complexity of women’s lives in diasporic communities and unravels the spectrum of emotions that result from leaving home.
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