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Visual Culture and Art History

Quest for a Shared Domain

Suryanandini Narain ( teaches at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

India and Its Visual Cultures: Community, Class and Gender in a Symbolic Landscape edited by Uwe Skoda and Birgit Lettmann, New Delhi, California, London and Singapore: Sage Publications, 2018;
pp xli + 379,
 ₹ 1,100.

India and Its Visual Cultures: Community, Class and Gender in a Symbolic Landscape, edited by Uwe Skoa and Birgit Lettmann states its primary intent as “not to offer an overall introduction to visual culture in India in its entirety; [but] to contribute to a more comprehensive anthropological, rather than art-historical mapping of contemporary empirical visual cultures in India, which is still lacking” (p xxi). Within the first couple of pages, the editors partially invoke the key debates between art history and visual culture at the juncture of the “pictorial turn” or the “visual turn” around the 1990s (Mitchell 1992). However, delving into this proclaimed disciplinary separation demands engagement with several older debates presented in the responses to the all-important Visual Culture Questionnaire edited by Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss in the issue of October (Alpers et al 1996: 25–70); debates that Skoda and Lettmann do not mention. As an outcome of the 1970s–80s crisis in representation (Zerner 1982), visual culture studies had caused much angst in art historical circles, with several seminal figures at institutions of learning responding to a set of four observations/questions circulated by Foster and Krauss, later published in the crucial issue of October. The initiative is referred to as a “baptism of fire” by Dikovitskaya as it “helped proponents of visual culture to articulate their positions and thus contributed to the theoretical growth of the new field” (2005: 18). Following it, a spate of readers and compiled anthologies on visual culture studies by theorists such as Bryson, Ann Holly and Moxey (1994), Bird et al (1996), Mirxoeff (1998), Jenks (1995), Heywood and Sandywell (1999), Burgin (1996), and others debated the older and newer approaches to studying art, the location of aesthetic theory, and issues of ideology and materiality that were gaining ground in studying the visual world. An acknowledgement of one such volume, Visual Culture: The Reader edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall (1999), since it was also published by Sage, may have more accurately positioned Skoda and Lettmann’s work within the continued history of this publishing house.

Reinforcing Boundaries

The main concern for the aforementioned commentators was whether art history would be redundant in the face of the new promises of visual culture. Through its inclusiveness and anthropologically grounded method, visual culture did not engage with the structuralist binaries of high/low art, folk/fine art, and heralded postmodernity in an expanded field. It engaged with what Victor Burgin calls the “integrated specular regime; of our ‘mass society’” extending across media and diversity of all kinds (Burgin 1986: 204). Skoda and Lettmann go on to conclude from this sequence of intellectual developments, that by the mid-1990s “with the increasing interest of an ever-growing range of disciplines in specific tangible pictures, and more generally, in images as different kinds of optical appearances, art history lost its interpretational sovereignty over them” (p xviii).

Ultimately, the position adopted by Skoda and Lettmann reinforces the boundaries between art history and visual culture. This is fundamentally contrary to the inclusive desires of the visual culture as a discipline, desires of resisting classification, straddling descriptive boundaries (Guins et al 1998), and rewriting culture away from patriarchal, heterosexist normativisation and Eurocentrism. Visual culture attempts the unframing of disciplinary fields, art history, film studies, mass media and communications, with theoretical evaluations of vision (Rogoff 1998). However, the editors also needed to take into cognisance the displacement that may be caused due to a divestment of self-location and historic specificity with an overarching avoidance of the art historical approach. This is especially important in light of the distinctions made between vision and visuality, where the former is the mechanics of sight and the latter is its historicisation (Foster 1998: ix).

Should it not be possible then to look at a shared domain of operation between art history and visual culture, especially since several of the contributors to this volume seem to be doing so in their writings? A case in point is Radhika Chopra’s essay on memorial visuals of the Sikh martyrs in the Golden Temple complex at Amritsar. Here the tasveers of pirs and shaheeds along with paintings of the events in the lives of the 10 gurus convert the museum space into a sacrosanct one. A museum, memorial and sacred space meld together history and belief, echoing the piety of the Golden Temple alongside iconographies of Sikh rebellion in popular bazaar prints. That said, the editors continue the hairsplitting quest to make finer distinctions between the categories of popular, folk, and mass culture, which besides being a difficult task in the Indian context (say in the case of the graphic novel mentioned by Roma Chatterjee in her essay, which simultaneously has elements of folk, elite, mass, and literary cultures at various registers of culture capital), defeats the conflating purpose of visual culture as a discipline. Again, the five thematic subdivisions (camera works, folk /artistry, market signs, pictorial politics, and monumental landscapes) for classifying the various essays carry little justification. For instance, Fritzi-Marie Titzmann’s essay on matchmaking may easily slip from market signs to the segment titled camera works, while Upasona Khound’s essay on Mayawati’s Sthals under monumental landscapes may exchange places with Chopra’s piece on the Sikh Golden Temple museum complex under pictorial politics. The final point is exactly this, that studies in visual culture inherently resist any sort of classification, their contents spilling across borders and blurring outlines.

Mapping Theoretical Strands

Skoda and Lettmann’s acknowledgement of the methodological valency of visual anthropology in India comes as a refreshing input, especially since the mentioned works of Banks and Morphy (1997) and MacDougall (1997), have awaited greater scholarly attention in the subcontinent. The centrality of the anthropologist/ethnographer in examining the field for visual systems and visible culture, or for actually using visual methods in social research is finally given due credit for guiding investigations in cultural studies in India. In addition to these scholars, it may have aided the reader to have a brief overview of India’s internal engagement with the visual in anthropology, even though visual anthropology as a sub-discipline has never been separately institutionalised. The use of photography in fieldwork, for instance, although addressed by Malavika Karlekar in her essay in this volume, has a large uncharted history in the works of several anthropological investigations in India. Although beyond the scope of this volume, such a compilation would be of great importance to Indian visual culture studies. Most importantly, such an account would have redeemed a discourse which unfortunately remains Eurocentric in relation to the essays
that follow.

Skoda and Lettmann’s own essay titled “Visualising Death and the Corpse: Perspectives on Post-mortem Photographs in Central–Eastern India” is a meticulous ethnographic document and a critically located piece on the subject. The authors successfully address the purpose of producing and displaying these images, and also look at contiguous indexical practices such as taking footprints, evoking the primary purpose of forensics and criminal record-keeping in photography (Sekula 1986).

A few theoretical tropes that run through the volume call for attention. A discourse on gender commences with the introductory mention of Laura Mulvey’s formulation of scopophilia (1975) and carries over into the essays by Karlekar on the labouring female figure, Anusuya Kumar on female actresses in Indian cinema, Fritzi-Marie Titzmann on the feminine “ideal type” in the online matrimonial market, Jill Reese on Jayalalithaa’s visual–material politics, and Upasona Khound on Mayawati’s Sthals. Another thread of studies in material culture traverses most essays, concerning ritual objects, but also monuments (dedicated to caste, faith and regional locations), matrimonials (in a certain dematerialised manner), and even advertisements for meat shops. Jill Reese’s essay on the transformative power of material goods in return for votes by J Jayalalithaa, who is photographed from being an actress, to MGR’s divine consort, to amma (mother), to amman (mother goddess) in Tamil politics most directly addresses the nexus between visuality and materiality. Theoretical understandings of materiality (Miller 2005) would thus open up these anthropological investigations, dovetailing them into the larger domain of visual studies. Intersections between religion and visuality underly the essays in Part IV titled “Pictorial Politics” (in addition to Rita Brara’s essay in Part III, “Market Signs”), reinforcing the inescapable politics of faith underlying everyday visual and material culture and spatial occupations by politico-religious sites, as exemplified in Susmita Pati’s essay on Delhi’s “monuments.”

Again, although new disciplinary areas within the realm of anthropology are being evoked, they do not exist with watertight borders, and generously share their fields of study. A rich intertextuality appears between contiguous topics, say Roma Chatterji’s essay on the 9/11 patachitras of Bengal and Cecile Guillaume-Pey’s text on Sora paintings of the Odisha–Andhra border. Both address the question of folk and ritual elements in traditional painting adapting to new subjects and contexts in a changing world, not necessarily suffering a loss but enhancing their symbolic efficacy through creative, collaborative attempts and commercial forays. Examinations of text–image relations by Asuncion López-Varela Azcárate writing on the illustrated poetry of Anjan Sen and Rita Brara’s ethnography of meat shop signages draw out a similar intertextuality. One can only imagine that the two tributary workshops to this volume, one at Aarhus University and the other in conjunction with Sri Venkateswara College in Delhi in 2011–12, would have had a rich discourse between some of these scholars.

India and Its Visual Cultures rides on the strength of its contributors, the novelty of the fields of their research and their well-argued theoretical and critical frameworks. Whether it is Kumar’s evocation of Jungian psychoanalysis, or Brara’s use of the Deleuzian method in Difference and Repetition (1994), or Skoda and Lettmann’s references to post structuralists, such as C S Pierce and Roland Barthes, each essay is a deeply focused contribution by the author within a larger theoretical realm. As the only publication dedicated to India’s visual culture since Jyotindra Jain’s edited volume in 2007, this is bound to become a key text in assisting anyone who wishes to engage with the included topics.


Alpers, Svetlana, Emily Apter, Carol Armstrong, Susan Buck-Morss, Tom Conley, Jonathan Crary et al (1996): “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” October, Vol 77 (Summer 1996), pp 25–70.

Banks, Marcus and Howard Morphy (1997): “Introduction: Rethinking Visual Anthropology,” Rethinking Visual Anthropology, Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy (eds), New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp 1–35.

Burgin, Victor, J Donald and C Kaplan (eds) (1986): Formations of Fantasy, London: Methuen.

Dikovitskaya, Margaret (2005): “Introduction,” Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
pp 1–45.

Foster, Hal (ed) (1988): Vision and Visuality, Seattle: Bay Press.

Jain, Jyotindra (2007): India’s Popular Culture: Iconic Spaces and Fluid Images, Mumbai: Marg Publications.

MacDougall, David (1997): “The Visual in Anthropology,” Rethinking Visual Anthropology, Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy (eds), New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp 276–95.

Miller, Daniel (ed) (2005): Materiality (Politics, History and Culture), Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Raiford, Guins, Joanne Morra, Marquard Smith and Omayra Cruz (1998): “Conversations in Visual Culture,” The Visual Culture Reader, Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed), London: Routledge.

Rogoff, Irit (1998): “Studying Visual Culture,” The Visual Culture Reader, Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed), London: Routledge, pp 24–36.

Sekula, Allan (1986): “The Body and the Archive,” October, Vol 39 (Winter 1986), pp 3–64.

Zerner, Henri (1982): “Editor’s Statement: The Crisis in the Discipline,” Art Journal, Vol 42, No 4.


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