“Tell Me What’s Beyond the Levee”: “The Levee: A Photographer in the American South” at the Cincinnati Art Museum, October 5, 2019-February 2, 2020

December 28th, 2019  |  Published in *, December 2019

Sohrab Hura is a young Indian photographer (b. 1981) who in 2016 came to the cities, towns, and countryside that stretch along the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, down to the Gulf of Mexico, looking to understand a section of the United States that was profoundly unfamiliar to him. Along the way, he wanted to explore the nature of rivers, a natural feature of great physical and spiritual consequence in India. He also hoped while he was here to arrive at a better understanding of his father, who was piloting an Indian merchant ship up the river at roughly the same time that Hura was meandering down it along the levee, the border whose purpose is to try to confine the river and keep it distinct from the shore. Though Hura brings clear if complex points of view to his work, he is himself relatively invisible in his work. But deep into the show, there is a pair of self-portraits, of a sort. In one, he is sitting on a levee, leaning back with his feet stretched out before him, looking over his shoes out at the river (which is actually a fairly infrequent presence in the sequence as a whole). Though it suggests that in his various quests, he may have to settle for coming up empty (there is nothing special to be seen here on land or water before him aside from his feet), it is a relaxed and relaxing picture. The photograph exudes an air of leisure. Huck Finn, an earlier visitor to the river from Cairo on south, would have understood it.

Sohrab Hura (b. 1981), India, untitled inkjet print from The Levee, a suite of 83 photographs, 2016 (negative), 2018 (print), Gift of Sohrab Hura and Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata, 2019.106 © Sohrab Hura

The other self-portrait is more deliberately mysterious. The photographer is present in the form of a shadow in the lower left corner of the image, standing on an inhospitable piece of dusty ground thickly matted with crabgrass. Not far from the center of the photograph is a dark smear, which I took to be a dead and partly dismembered bird. There is certainly a touch of the gothic here, as there is in quite a number of other photographs in the show, a capturing of a vision of the South that partly fulfills the expectations of many: a place of dirt, decay, and danger. But I’m particularly interested in the part of the picture that is his self-portrait. The shadow of a standing figure is holding up what seems to be a medium-format camera to its face. I assume that Hura is acknowledging his presence as artist and witness while keeping his identity opaque. He portrays himself as a featureless shadow. This is partly deeply conventional in the history of both art and vernacular photography. But it has a special resonance here as part of his consciousness that he is himself a person of color in a geography that is filled with people of color who are still, to a degree, socioeconomically invisible. It is also a tactful recognition that he can only be present as a shadow in part because, as Dr. Nathaniel Stein—the CAM’s Associate Curator of Photography since 2017—explained in a brief interview with Aeqai this month, Hura “respects the fact that he’s not from there, that he’s looking at lives that he does not fully understand.” Throughout the show, we can see signs of an artist who is a chronicler who cannot shake the “feeling that he is an outsider.”

As Stein notes, the best way to see The Levee is as “one work with 83 parts.” None of the works in the show has a title because the show is meant to be experienced as an aggregate, rather than having the viewer become distracted by the appeal of individual works. This is consonant with Stein’s goals as curator as well. Though the collecting of photography at the CAM is virtually as old as the Museum itself, there have been few actual specialized curators of the collection which means, Stein notes, that “this collection is still of a scale that it can be shaped.” The current strengths of the collection lie, by and large, in its breadth; Stein sees his goal as “building collections that are distinctive,” which means focusing on fewer things but deeply. This collecting strategy certainly includes acquiring works by “a single artist in great depth,” so that the CAM’s holdings could become a resource in the art world in a finite number of categories, and therefore a destination for those who want to know more about that artist or movement. He has already begun this process with the announced acquisition of more than 300 prints and archival materials that document the achievement and influence of Nancy Rexroth, the producer of the landmark work Iowa in 1977; the Museum is also acquiring the entire suite of The Levee, giving the CAM possibly the richest holdings of Hura’s work in the country. Under Stein’s curatorial eye, the photography collection will grow in demographic diversity overall, with more exhibits that “reflect the contributions of women artists, and persons of color, and artists from the LGBTQ worlds.” This is happening not a moment too soon; as Stein notes, the best works of the classic photographers we associate with the rise of the art form—those who come out of the traditions of “American high modernism,” and who have tended predominantly to be white males—are becoming increasingly rare, difficult to acquire, and “too expensive to become a central strength of the collection.”

Hura went down South as part of the collaborative Postcards from America project undertaken by artists from the Magnum group, who have been working in small teams in series of road trips since 2011. The overall goal of Postcards is to produce a body of work that is both experimental and documentary, and which represents the hardest look a group of artists have taken at our nation—and at the medium of photography– since the WPA projects of the Great Depression. Though the documentary venture that led to The Levee included a number of other artists (including Alec Soth and Jim Goldberg), Hura’s work feels like the product of an artist working in isolation, in part, in Stein’s words, because he never sacrifices his awareness that “he’s the one that’s not an American.”

Sohrab Hura (b. 1981), India, untitled inkjet print from The Levee, a suite of 83 photographs, 2016 (negative), 2018 (print), Gift of Sohrab Hura and Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata, 2019.157 © Sohrab Hura

Hura is a man far from home, though his desire to come to terms with aspects of a home is part of the show’s rich and complex agenda. Having devoted much of his recent work to the deteriorating condition of his mother in India, Hura had hoped that this series would help him come to terms with his father who, due to immigration laws, could not have gotten off his boat any more than his son could have gotten on it. For both father and son, the levee served as a rigid boundary. The frustrated journey for a unified family and something like a home seemed to me like a theme out of The Odyssey. But father and son communicate—it’s a modern story, so they do it via emails and iPhone pictures—in ways that are both familiar and filled with yearning. Of the show’s 83 items, six were taken of the river by his father from the bridge of his ship and another five are transcriptions of texts the father sent to his son, including the poignant note, “When you get the chance tell me what’s beyond the levee.” Metaphorically, the closest they come into contact with each other is in one remarkable photograph Hura took of a weedy field stretching almost to the horizon with a blurry line (possibly with clothespins but no clothes) diagonally above it. In the distance, we see a huge cargo ship serenely plowing its way up the river, as if it were the father with whom Hura could not connect. It is also a sign of the economic disconnect Hura encountered on his voyage on his side of the levee. The immediate economic world through which he traveled is weedy and empty. In the distance is the macreconomy, modern and powerful and as out of reach as a mirage.

Hura found himself documenting the immense poverty endured by persons of color in the South, but he does so without satire or sensationalism. Partly this is because of Hura’s Indian roots; as Stein observes, “India has no illusions about poverty—there is no presumption that people aren’t going to live in poverty and dire circumstances.” On the other hand, Stein argues—as he will in his very substantial catalogue essay soon to be published by the CAM—that Hura’s imagery “is not harsh or gritty. It’s about tenderness. We see people being kind to one another, despite the representations of pain—all of which was heightened by it being 2016,” with the country in the middle of what must have seemed like an epochal election. What Stein values most in the works in the show is the ways that they seem expressive of Hura’s “earnestness, forthrightness, and his peeling off of veneers.”

Sohrab Hura (b. 1981), India, untitled inkjet print from The Levee, a suite of 83 photographs, 2016, © Sohrab Hura

Sometimes, we see the veneers coming off perfectly literally. There are two pictures of rooms in ruins—possibly trashed or neglected or in the process of being turned into something else. One depicts a room in someone’s house or office once used for watching VHS tapes, which litter the floor and furniture. There is a wooden bookshelf that looks like it once held a TV; leather-like chairs and couches with mismatched plush cushions are at angles to each other. It feels as if this room has been many things along the way. The trash suggests that we can view domestic space as a palimpsest, a layering of purposes, none of which can claim permanence. Another picture shows a room that has been trashed even more systematically. It is larger than the first and seems to have once been a public space. Both pictures of ruined spaces suggest a loss of civic purpose. The larger room is shin-deep in garbage of all sorts, including insulation that is spilling down from the ceiling. There is evidence of a half-hearted attempt to put things back together. “Evidence” is a useful word here; as he does with many of his pictures, whether indoors or outdoors, Hura uses flash which flattens out the image and makes it look like a police photo or something fished out of an old newspaper file of a fire or a riot. In pictures like these, there is at least as much influence of Weegee as there is of Robert Frank.

By and large, Hura’s account of the South suggests a dysfunctional economy. In his telling of the South’s story, nothing new is being produced. Nothing teems with energy. Civic life is at a standstill; stores are closed and there are no crowds anywhere. Very few people seem to be gainfully employed. There seems to be a lively market in second hand things, as we can see in one of the show’s most text-drenched images, featuring a hand reaching out to touch second hand blues albums and memorabilia. A poster on the wall announces “Blues You Can Bank On,” a souvenir from a blues collective in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Interestingly, the items are preponderantly by or about white artists: Johnny Winter and the Allman Brothers outnumber a vintage disk of Memphis blues by Prince Gabe and the Millionaires. But briefly, in this second hand music store, white and black come together, and Johnny Cash can serve as an honorary emissary of the blues. In general, however, the recirculation of goods and services is not working too well: another picture features a large sign offering a “Store for Sale,” but there is no store to be seen, only a sagging depression in the ground where perhaps a building once stood.

The closest we come to economic vitality is in restaurants. Four customers pleasurably share a meal at a diner with nothing fancy about it. In another (and one of the relatively few pictures with both white and black people in it), a cook is pulling things out of a massive oven while the server is walking behind him to bring food out. But we know that eating is always about more than mere sustenance. Restaurants are about dreams—dreams of pleasure, dreams of community–sometimes substantial, sometimes evanescent. One photograph shows the front entrance to “Dad’s,” a small white shack of an eatery somewhere in greater New Orleans, which looks like it might also sell liquor and bait. There are no people in sight, but the owner, with perhaps a knowing sardonic manner, has posted a highway sign urging caution as people might be crossing. Perhaps there was a moment where the restaurant harmonized with Hura’s familial quest; a sign on the porch reads “Can’t Go To Mom’s/Come to Dad’s.” More typical for this series is a sign by a highway for a restaurant that features the text: “Wed Thr Fri/Fish Shrimp/Chicken.” There are, however, no cars on the road in either direction, no cars in any parking lot, and the part of the sign where the name of the eatery ought to be is entirely blank and empty.

The biggest crowd assembled for The Levee is an artificial one: on a table with a checkered tablecloth are some fifty formal portraits of young people mounted onto (or falling off) the pages of a scrapbook perhaps devoted to photos of high school graduates. Some pictures have been removed—somebody’s favorites? or the exact opposite?–leaving only the white corner hinges. Someone has been sorting through the visual record, making sense of (or perhaps revising a prior understanding of) a vanished crowd from the past. Their clothes suggest that the pictures are from the 1950s—an all-white assemblage from the days of Jim Crow. They were somebody’s children and are perhaps somebody’s parents, but on the tablecloth, they lack all context and identifiers. They live only in art, and are each perfectly isolated from one another, except for their having been anthologized by someone who found them worthy of being memorialized, at least at one time. In Hura’s picture, they are, for the second time, being remembered, if only by an outsider who cannot know anything about the past owners of all those faces.

The living people that we meet in these photographs tend to have some things in common. Most are black. Many are just about to come outdoors to meet us or otherwise engage with doors and thresholds. And many of them have dogs, which are at least as powerful a presence in these pictures as friends or co-workers. Hura’s South is a world that takes its pets very seriously. Some are big, some are little, some are calm, some are fierce. A half-naked young boy leans out of the door of his house to look at the howling family dog in a cage that looks as if it has just been washed out with a hose. A man makes his way down a street at dusk pushing a shopping cart (which suggests, unfairly or not, that he is homeless) to which his stoic dog has been chained, as the man gives his full and tender attention to the dog. A tiny dog stands watch in front of the otherwise desolate “Dad’s” restaurant. On another of Hura’s silent streets, where there are more flags fluttering in the wind than there are cars to be seen, a semi-fortified building has a huge doghouse next to it; it even sports its own address, 511 ½. It is hard to say just what sort of partnership these pictures are meant to convey. In one picture about which Curator Stein and I did not agree, a partly delighted and partly deranged woman seems to be stalking a cat. I did not feel that man and beast were partners or even colleagues. Domesticated animals seemed a way to bring something that once was wild into your life. It is to the animals’ credit that they endure our colonizing and sometimes oppressive love. It may be that we love them to death.

Sohrab Hura (b. 1981), India, untitled inkjet print from The Levee, a suite of 83 photographs, 2016 , © Sohrab Hura

In this world, there is no distinct world of nature to which humans might retreat. In one photograph, we see a landscape as disorderly as the pictures of the trashed rooms, marked by the snaky lines of cluttered piles of uprooted underbrush, like the pictures you see in the newspaper of the trail of a tornado. In the foreground is a large piece of siding. This is not a place in which to feel at home. In another picture, we see the lush and delicate spring growth alongside and in a translucent stream. In the middle of the stream swims a snake, curled and potentially dangerous. That whiff of the gothic awaits you, indoors and out.

Sohrab Hura (b. 1981), India, untitled inkjet print from The Levee, a suite of 83 photographs, 2016 (negative), 2018 (print), Gift of Sohrab Hura and Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata, 2019.110© Sohrab Hura

Hura seems to have made an exception of sorts for birds. Though he routinely uses flash to freeze motion and to oversaturate an image with detail, his pictures of birds are different. They never seem to have held still for him. Because of their movement or their distance, they are routinely blurred, a promise that there are things that humans can not own or sully. They make their own glory, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. In one picture, there is a muddy puddle by the side of a highway; across the road are low-rise warehouses or some other form of light industry. Just inches above the dirty puddle wheel a flock of white birds, all in a blur though flash would have frozen them. The birds resist visual domestication. To be sure, humans care about their birds. Two photographs show elaborate birdhouses. In one, the structure is leaning precariously and in the other, two have already toppled over, poles and all. Designed to be functional, they have become lawn sculpture.

But in Hura’s world, people seem drawn to transforming the functional into the decorative. In the context of a museum or gallery, the lesson of the 20th century is that all it takes to transform a soup can into a work of art is a pedestal. In Hura’s South, all it takes to transform a piece of outsized trash on your lawn into something personal and expressive and even monumental is to mow around it. In one picture, it is a junker car. In another, it is a full-size fishing boat, named “Miss Karen,” mounted on oil drums around which greenery has been permitted to grow unchecked. In another, it is a huge assemblage of bicycles, tricycles, and scooters. In yet another, it is simply a huge recliner chair, its fake leather worn through, now sitting on a residential lawn, its back turned to the street, leaning back so a dauntless sitter could behold the sky. It is trash; it is a throne.

Curator Stein has suggested, with some understatement, that Hura saw in the American South that “life here is real,” but he added that Hura also found it “a place of great optimism.” It is fair to say that this optimism was not of the sunny or sentimental sort. I sometimes found it hard to get beyond the photographs’ economic pessimism (itself, of course, a perfectly valuable thing to document) and the sense that the communities in which he photographed were at best a very small cog in a much bigger and slicker piece of machinery that operated with absolute indifference to the people who contributed to it or consumed what it produced. But to me, the most optimistic images—assuming that optimism is an important criterion on which to sort—were those that showed that people were making art. They mowed around their detritus. As Eliot wrote nearly a full century ago, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

Art, rather than despair, might be a natural end product of an economy where sooner or later, you are overwhelmed by trash, with no way for a resident—as opposed to a mere wayfarer—to escape it. In Hura’s familial quest, the father never steps foot on shore; he has the churning of some mighty waters for company, but never sees what’s on the other side of the levee. The son, by contrast, has gotten to see the range of things that people have made of their lives, whether by choice or because they have been backed into it. The people Hura encountered on his side of the levee have made something of their lives–literally. That, of course, gives them something in common with the artist who documented them.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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