Enclosure/Erasure: Imran Channa and Partition

Mar 2016

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Imran Channa translates archival photography into abstraction. This is accomplished through a rigorous practice of drawing and erasure in all works in the three series shown in the Enclosure/Erasure exhibition. Central concerns of Channa’s extended investigation revolve around the question of historical truth associated with the photograph, and how our understanding of history remains malleable to ideology despite the ostensibly stubborn veracity of photographic evidence. If even the most reliable visual artifact in the archive cannot guarantee truth, how can we situate ourselves as subjects of history? These questions are absolutely central to subjectivities in South Asia today, as we individually and collectively seek a responsible relation to our history, beyond the siren song of exclusivist postcolonial nationalisms.

Since its inception in 1839, photography has been associated with an unparalleled truth claim, arguably much more so than other kinds of artifacts such as written accounts or history paintings. The photograph has been seen to provide a measure of truth that is manifest and visible (and this widely accepted conviction has paradoxically not weakened even in our era of Photoshop manipulation.) One way to understand the continued force
of this belief is by theorizations that locate the photograph as an indexical medium. Just as the fingerprint is an index whose presence guarantees that the very person whose fingerprint is recorded was not only present, but physically pressed a part of their body to leave a trace, similarly, the photograph-as-index is also an artifact created through a direct impression of whatever is before placed before the camera lens. As soon as the exposure is made, the photographic negative faithfully records the very presence of the landscape, object, or person (of course framed by camera placement, choice of lens, and exposure time etc.) But even if the photograph was staged or set up in such a way that it creates an image that departs from “reality,” nevertheless the final photograph is nothing other than a material and mechanical tracing of all these actions performed in its making, which is its truth. Also, the photographic field of view does not make distinctions between the objects placed in its view, and records all without hierarchy, producing a powerful set of responses associated with realism.

This realism is a major factor in the truth-effect the photograph evokes; “the photograph cannot lie,” John Berger had insightfully noted, but he immediately qualified this by observing, “by the same token, it cannot tell the truth; or rather, the truth it does tell … is a limited one.”1 This is because a photograph is nothing but an artifact that freezes a moment into a flattened rectangular space, and disconnects this rectangle from the ceaseless flow of time. It can never be equated or synchronized with the fullness of actual presence. Even in the most saturated instances of photographic ubiquity, we have but a finite number of photographs, taken from selected angles at discrete and discontinuous moments in the continuous flux of time. The photograph thus provides us only with fragments—social hieroglyphs—whose meanings individuals and societies continually strive to fabricate and secure later. To create these new significations for legibility, the photograph must be immersed in a new discursive context quite different from its originary space-time continuum, and this necessary act of reinscription is also where the meaning of the photograph is reworked.

Channa has utilized two kinds of photographs in the making of these works. The first is a set of personal photographs, which he understands to be a “personal archive.” These are everyday photographs of life in Shikarpur, Lahore, and of various events and landscapes of ordinary character. The other works are comprised of historical photographs of India’s Partition in 1947. In Memories, both archives are deployed but in such a way that it becomes impossible to identify their source, while the series Eraser on Paper and Error are based entirely on the Partition photographs.

The Partition marks a momentous, deeply contested series of events in the history of modern South Asia, and has been the subject of much scholarly work, biographical recounting, and as a continued provocation for contemporary artists.2 Its aftermath continues to foster mistrust and violence between the governments and the peoples of India and Pakistan. How does one arrive at the “truth” of the Partition today? How can its histories be comprehended and their complex and contestatory claims untangled to arrive at some form of reckoning? Since the event is so overdetermined and official history texts are so clearly tendentious, one has no choice but to look at the various kinds of evidences that constitute its historical archive. Much of the history of the Partition is recounted in official papers, by accounts of the people involved in the decision-making process, or the oral memories of those who were subjected to its unsettling effects. Within the range of materials in the historical archive, the photograph arguably occupies a unique place in providing a view of how Partition impacted everyday life, without ideological manipulation. But is this really the case?

One might imagine that because the Partition happened in the full light of history during the mid-20th century, and since it marks such a monumental series of events, that one would find a variety and profusion of photographic evidence documenting its complex dimensions. However what circulates instead is an extremely limited number of photographs. There are numerous photographs of leaders engaged in negotiations, or addressing masses of people leading up to the Partition. But the few photographs of ordinary people, migrants, refugees caught in its maelstrom have been taken by primarily Western photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and most notably, Margaret Bourke-White. These were published not in South Asia, but as photo essays in American magazines such as LIFE. Today, when one seeks visual evidence of the Partition on everyday life, one encounters only this small body of photographs, and one struggles to reconcile the powerful, yet fragmentary and limited scope of this archive with the tremendous scale of widespread violence and physical and psychic displacement that the Partition engendered.

Channa bases much of his work on these iconic photographs of the Partition. His process in all three series involves first producing large-scale drawings using a dark pencil such as a 9B, to create an enlarged realist image faithfully based upon the archival photograph. After the drawing has been completed, Channa practices a laborious process of erasure and re-inscription, effacing the legibility of the original image. This process of erasure is extremely arduous. It involves a very considerable effort, and is physically painful on the muscles and fingers of the artist. This sense of bodily involvement, pain, and fatigue, as Channa reworks and erases the photographic image, creates an embodied act of creative destruction leading to a kind of new inscription, which insists of the necessity of the substrate image even as it seeks to question its veracity and its positivist transparency. Channa, of course, cannot give us the “truth” of the Partition, or even of his own personal past. But instead, these works offer another kind of evidence, that of continued psychic disturbance that is produced when history—in large and small ways—is remade and in turn molds our lives, and how this process of fabrication is ceaselessly and continuously inflected by power and ideology.

Erasures and reworkings are handled by the artist in three different ways, specific to each series. In the series titled Error, the drawings are erased in such a manner that the original image creates thick arc-like smudges across the surface of the paper. The end result is a tension between two pictorial languages simultaneously at play in each work. The remaining ghostly outlines of the original drawing are now overlayered with abstract expressionist form. The delicacy and fineness of underlying image is interrupted by the gross smudges, in a manner in which neither can be detached from each other and each one interrupts the other. These works evoke a sensation of profound tension between abstraction and realism. These two modalities are also analogues for any methodological understanding of history itself. Is history to be entered through the concrete and the evidentiary, best exemplified by the specificity of the photograph and by all of its indexical claims? Or is the Partition better apprehended with a kind of abstracted affective overview, especially by those of us who did not experience its events firsthand? To put this another way and interpret the character of the lines and the strokes literally: is specific history recorded by the fine line to be contrasted with the sensory phenomenology of the broad brush?

Now let us turn to the works in the Eraser on Paper series, which are similar to works in previous series such as Erasure drawings (2013). Here, however, the drawing has been completely erased, leaving behind only the spectral outline and shape of the original drawing. Without referencing the original source-photograph, it becomes very difficult to reconstruct the original image—all that one can make out now is a kind of a uncanny landscape characterized by ghostly shapes that trigger a resemblance to things one might seen before—associations with unfashioned forms that one struggles to situate and define. These works evoke tentative, hesitant, but nevertheless dissonant resonances with prior imagery stubbornly lodged in the crepuscular regions of one’s memory.

In the Memories series, the act of erasure proceeds not towards evacuation and lightness, but towards density and opacity. Channa completes the original drawing faithfully, just as in the other series. But now the work is methodologically erased in regularly spaced steps with the assistance of a ruled surface. The first erased drawing, which still retains a smudged original image with vertical or horizontal orientations, is then redrawn and erased again, a process that is repeated several times, until the massed dense black outlines are interrupted by striations of horizontal or vertical patterns, rendering instability and dynamism to the heavily worked final image. Unlike the faint ghostly shapes in Eraser on Paper, here the association is much bleaker, resonating with mental specters of darkness and oblivion. But since the striations are evenly spaced, curiously the final drawing also retains a quality associated with the photograph—the character of a mechanically produced image, but one that is abstract. This tension between the regularity of the striations and the primeval organic shapes of the massed forms can be allegorized as the tension of the individual lives that are caught in modern ideological regimes that grind on, and the gyres of history continue to turn ceaselessly, over the bodies and lives of individuals and communities. Moreover, in these works the personal archive is equated with the historical archive—this correspondence suggests that even one’s own personal memory is not secure, but open to a process of reinscription beyond one’s own conscious perception.

This article has been re-printed from a Koel Gallery publication by Iftikhar Dadi on Imran Channa’s Enclosure/Erasure series. 

Iftikhar Dadi is Associate Professor in the Department of History of Art and chair of the Department of Art at Cornell University. He has published numerous scholarly works, including the recent book Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). Recent projects he has curated or co-curated include: Tarjama/Translation at the Queens Art Museum (2009) and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art (2010); Anwar Jalal Shemza-Take 1: Calligraphic Abstraction (2009) at Green Cardamom, London; and Unpacking Europe (2001), at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. A working artist, he collaborates with Elizabeth Dadi and has shown widely internationally.


  1. John Berger, “The Ambiguity of the Photograph.” In The Anthropology of Media: A Reader. Edited by Kelly Askew and Richard R. Wilk (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), p. 53. []
  2. For a recent summary of scholarly and biographical approaches to the Partition, see David Gilmartin, “The Historiography of India’s Partition: Between Civilization and Modernity,” The Journal of Asian Studies 74, Issue 01 (February 2015): 23-41. On the work of contemporary artists dealing with Partition, see Iftikhar Dadi and Hammad Nasar, eds. Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space (London; Ithaca, NY: Green Cardamom; Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, 2012). []

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