I have just left the Street Level Photoworks Gallery at Trongate 103 where I have been lucky enough to catch Arpita Shah discussing her ongoing series ‘Nalini,’ a collection of photographs and objects that explore the relationship between the photographer, her mother and her maternal grandmother, in whose honour she has named the exhibition. The work is an investigation by Arpita into the stories, paths and migrations which have shaped the lives of her maternal ancestors and herself, as well as the ways in which these experiences are understood, transmitted and integrated into their lives. The photographs embody the diverse and complex relationship each of them have with this idea of belonging, as their personal journey’s lead them away from home and on towards different places and new beginnings. Arpita Shah’s ability to capture, through her intimate photographs, what the generations share – and how they negotiate their histories by way of their environment – makes the work deeply personal and at the same time universal.
The entwining of her family’s personal stories with the places and objects of their past saw Arpita journeying to India where she was born and where a lot of her family lives, including her grandmother Nalini, and also to Nairobi, where her grandmother had spent time in her childhood. In visiting the places and photographing where her family resides and where they once lived – where they felt most at home – Arpita tries to layer the past and the present, exploring the way in which place, experience and the home landscape can offer ways to breach the distance between memory and the present. Her desire to connect the stories her family have told her of their home – and the effects of migration from these places on how her grandmother and mother remember, imagine and mythologise their birthplace – creates a deep sense of nostalgia and longing for renewed contact in these images. The photographs, in another sense, make me think of that need I imagine we all have, to make sense of our parents and our grandparents, connecting ourselves to where we come from through the stories we inherit.
Arpita, in her talk, tells us that she began the project when her grandmother became very sick a few years ago. She had an overwhelming feeling at this time that she had not paid enough attention to her grandmother’s stories, that she had not permitted herself to store her grandmother’s history in her memory, and that if she were to die, she would not be able to know or understand her. Her grandmother recovered but this revelation sparked this urgent need to connect her life with that of her grandmother’s. I think many of us can relate to this: we all have that wish to preserve people and to trace how those who have shaped us became what they themselves are. Our parents and grandparents are like jigsaw puzzles that we stumble across half-complete, with the remaining pieces scattered, maybe lost forever. It is only through the stories they tell us that we can make out what the picture is, start to see their life for what it has been. It is the most human thing in the world to want to know people, to delve deeper into their interior world and, through shared experience, walk the roads they wandered, occupy the spaces they once did. The photographs testify to that searching for the past and how it seeps into the present and roots us. I found Arpita’s attempt to garner some sense of the journeys that her family had undertaken in their lives, what connected them to home and to each other, very affecting.
By inhabiting the places of her maternal ancestors’ past, where they felt rooted – even if only through memory, objects or photographs – she could reach them in an intimate and visceral way, something she couldn’t have done without travelling to and photographing these places.
Connections between the past and the present are communicated through the symbol of nature: the bougainvillea flower, which appears throughout the work to highlight how attachments to the past are formed through the flora and the land that her grandmother and her mother have inhabited. Nature, in its constant and cyclical existence, pays homage to the way in which people age and decay. However, by incorporating dry pressed flowers and placing them beside sepia photographs of her family, Arpita collapses the past and present into each other where old and new can exist together and always alongside each other, as the narratives of our ancestors inform our own paths in the here and now as we grow and flourish.
This exhibition made me think a lot about my relationship with my own home, my own maternal lineage and the way in which I have tried to understand what it means to belong, and how important that shared connection to place is. I thought about how I used to go to Millport with my mum when I was small and how she told me that her own mother had taken her there in summers when she was a child. She would tell me how she used to cycle around the island by herself and make up stories with her imagination, running rampant along the beach collecting things and pretending she was a spy, following strangers around from the shadows to eavesdrop on their conversations. When I go there now I have my own memories but I also carry hers. The place doesn’t belong to me or her but to us both; in this we are connected across time. I understand the stories of her life by being on that beach and imagining that wild child running around and spying on others. I know her vivid imagination was nurtured here and that imagination would come to colour my own childhood. I feel that time really does collapse when I walk those pebble beaches and rugged rocks where the ferry comes in. Forty years separate that little girl, who was to become my mother, and myself, now my own woman, from this place. Despite this, when I am there I feel we both are, through the memories she had and which she gave to me. In that way this place is always part of me: it was part of her and it was through her that I came to be.
The photograph series makes us consider how we seek to feel close to the past, even a past that is not our own yet one to which we are connected through our mothers or our family. I’ve spent a lot of time away from home over the last couple of years. I lived away from Glasgow for almost a year and a half, at the other side of the world. Glasgow is where most of my memories with my mum are; it is where I wrestled with and worked out the woman I would be. It is where I return to, whether in my mind, through memory, or physically; when I need to be steadied, when I suffer without the grounding sense of the familiar and the known. When I am nostalgic and when I want to feel close to those I love and when I want to remember things that are gone, I find myself thinking of Glasgow, of Millport, of places I collected unknowingly like trinkets as a child, when life was not so dizzying.
Glasgow is my rooted place. There are things about it that I think other people might miss, things that make it like nowhere else and which make it mine. It is all the little things about this city that I love which makes it home. If you walk through Kelvingrove park at around nine o’clock in the morning, from when the days start to get lighter until Winter takes hold, there is always the sound of seagulls squabbling with each other. They fill the park with a sound which so closely resembles laughing. That is Glasgow for me. A place that laughs at itself, that is merry and humorous. It is always laughing, often at someone’s expense, but full of affection. When I was homesick, what I thought about was the sound of that park on damp mornings, the cold air. On days where it was overcast, which was not often in Sydney, I thought about Glasgow’s greyness. I couldn’t be rid of her. My mind found ways to return to her, to those places, to connect me with what was at a distance, to those people whom I couldn’t reach but who exist perpetually wrapped up in the places I shared with them – the sights and sounds, smells and experiences of these spaces which root me to myself.
Yet ‘home’, synonymous with our beginnings, is in some sense not about the place at all. I think it is perhaps more about our constant attempt to narrate our lives; to remain connected to our former selves, our family and our heritage as we move away from those things, as we migrate and adapt to different places and begin new phases of our lives. It was not until I left Glasgow that I would come to realise what it was about home that made it feel like this to me. I had to try and find traces of it in this far away place. I wanted to be able to take parts of Glasgow with me; those things I couldn’t take were what I longed for. The exhibition, by capturing this, is a beautiful portrait to this desire we all have to collect parts of our past and to keep things that die alive; to carry places with us when we leave them; and to forever be able to find, through our environment, a sense of belonging, not only to a physical place, but by way of the stories that fuse our lives with those of our loved ones.