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To die is to be turned to gold

Artist Feature of Akshay Mahajan

"To die is to be turned to gold" is an in-progress work that tells the story of the once-colonial city of Bombay (now Mumbai). An attempt to revisit the city of the artist’s childhood, where for 300 years, people hoping to make their fortune have flocked. In their search for gold, many like him have died. Their bodies were laid in a place known as Sonapur, which also means 'the city of gold' since, according to an Indian saying, to die is to be turned to gold.

The story of this once-colonial city of Bombay (now Mumbai) is seen through the eyes of a protagonist, a young sculptor of commercial statues. A city they scour for artistic inspiration. His fellow citizens are the protagonist's primary inspiration. Their vision is set out in this series of photographs. They would sit in cafés and look at people. They would take their images home with them.

What they feel about them would come out in their work - they would borrow a nose from one, the ears from another. They ask the question: Who are the invisible ones on whose backs this city was built? These visions are set out in this series of photographs which tell the story of several protagonists who are mythologized as everyday heroes.

This cast of characters questions the idea of representation in photography - How do these photographs work? What form of personhood do they instantiate, and what politics do they point to? How are they different from other photographs? This work examines what might be special about a photograph, especially a photograph of a face, and how its political impact might be understood.

The attempt here is to exorcize colonial ghosts from the city. In some images, they would explore how architecture, both formal and vernacular, is “a sculptural representation of failed futures.” In many ways a post-colonial reading of this city scarred by absurdities, crises, and injustices, they search their surroundings for clues - to where we’ve been and to where we’re going. They come across “forsaken relics of late-fifties Nehruvian functionalism” in the old financial center. The exploitative colonial relic has been repurposed as an equally oppressive investment bank. Like found sculptures, the ramshackle corrugated tin, plywood, plastic, pukka bricks, sheets of asbestos, piles of earth, sand, clay, and other materials make up the houses of millions of the urban poor. All these buildings - their designs and locations, the condition they’re in, what they replace and what they conceal - record histories and gesture toward one-time paths forward.

"To die is to be turned to gold" with a level of visual performance can be read as a building can be read: as an object that records, with its highly stylized language. The sequence of images careens between street scenes, portraits, landscapes, and close-up details, recreating a fluctuating experience of the multiple faces of the city.

Akshay Mahajan is part of Guest Room: »David Campany & Taous Dahmani«.