JTF (just the facts): A total of 38 black and white and color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, hung against orange and khaki walls in the main rooms of the gallery. All of the works are pigment prints on handmade Innova Smooth Cotton Natural White paper mounted to board, made between 2008 and 2011. Most of the prints are sized roughly 5×8, and are available in an edition of 7; 4 prints are sized slightly larger at roughly 9×7, and are also available in an edition of 7. There is no photography allowed in the gallery, so the installation shots at right are via the Pace/MacGill website.
Comments/Context: Fazal Sheikh’s nighttime images of the Ganges river holy city of Varanasi are steeped in a quiet sense of meditative calm. Instead of pointing his camera at the crowded chaotic hustle of everyday Indian life, he has chosen to document the motionlessness of dark repose, when the city sleeps and tranquility and peace return to its streets and alleys. His pictures capture the endless cycle of birth and death in this spiritual place, grasping for the dissolving, elemental strands of earth, air, fire, water, and the ephemeral, elusive ether.
Sheikh’s images of slumbering people form the core of this show. Bodies lie covered in sheets and blankets and serene, undisturbed faces peek out from the shadows. Those merely sleeping and those who have passed on seem indistinguishable and interchangeable, the transition from the weary to the corpse a completely natural one. Each lies in restful but safe vulnerability, bathed in a warm glow, moving from dark bronze to softly golden as the hours pass. Even the dogs are asleep, curled up on stone platforms, near muddy puddles.
The remaining images in the show provide a supporting backdrop for these dusty, shrouded forms, creating a noticeable rhythm around the gallery. The photographs are grouped into small sets, where sleepers are flanked by the wilting flowers of a shrine, the glowing embers of a fire, or the misty, star-filled sky. An interior wall pairs images of newborns in swaddling clothes with the dead covered in garlands, reinforcing the cyclicality of this life. The overall effect is one of stillness and harmony, of spiritual rest and natural rebirth, often ending with a view into the dark night.
In this age of monumental contemporary photography, Sheikh’s intimate prints are a welcome surprise. They encourage a slower, more attentive engagement with the work, rather than a fast-food inhalation of imagery. And they successfully evoke a specific mood, one that flies in the face of the conventional view of the tumult and pandemonium of Indian street life. Shiekh’s photographs are like a hushed lullaby, a gentle moment of reflection on things larger and more intangible.
Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced at $4000 each. Sheikh’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets, so gallery retail is likely the only option for those collectors interested in following up.