URI Professor and mixed media artist Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s exhibit at the Newport Art Museum

ReVision re-writes historical narratives with photography and mixed media

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Images can tell stories just as profoundly as words, and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s ReVision, a sweeping exhibition of two decades’ worth of the photographer and mixed media artist’s work currently on view at the Newport Art Museum, shares an expansive narrative of stories left untold.

“We are at a crossroads in terms of re-looking at narratives we take as truth,” she says. “There are other people’s stories that need to be told and we haven’t allowed these voices to speak.”

Born in the United Kingdom, Matthew’s family returned to India when she was 13. “It’s the story of my life: an insider and an outsider,” she continues. “I have a combination of accents. People don’t know where I am from.”

It’s this perspective that informs much of her work. But nowhere is it more evident than in her photo collection called “Memories of India.” A collection of street photography (“the only ones I’ve done,” she notes), Matthew captures India and its people as seen through this liminal space that she occupies. “[The images] reflect an understanding of the culture, but you rarely see their faces.”

Faces are on full display in “An Indian from India.” Using images of Native Americans taken by early 20th century photographer E.S. Curtis, she juxtaposes each one with a self-portrait that mimics Curtis’ style. “Colonial photography in India is very similar to the photographs taken of the US Indigenous people,” she says, noting that Curtis used outfits and props to exoticize the people he photographed. “Since there is an uneven power structure between photographer and subject, I wanted to turn the camera on myself, to hold hands with the Indigenous, to reverse the gaze.”

For “The Unremembered: The Stories of the Indian Soldiers from WWII,” her most recent work, she turns her lens on the forgotten Indian soldiers who played a pivotal role in the Allied fight against the Nazis in World War II. Matthew traveled through India, asking people to share their family photos and stories. Those images are etched in crystals, which give the subjects a striking three-dimensional form.

“You see the photographs but they’re ghostly,” she says, reflecting on why she chose the crystal medium. “When the light goes through them, it feels like a memory.” A voiceover piped into the gallery narrates the stories while a Dhodi suspended from the ceiling billows gently behind the crystals, adding to the exhibit’s spectral quality.

Matthew credits her career in academia – she is a professor at URI – for her ability to cross mediums so fluidly. Not relying on selling art to make a living kept her from being pigeonholed. “An artist finds stuff that sells and becomes boxed in,” she says, noting that having a digital tool kit expands her work dramatically. “I feel this exhibit reflects the expansion of what
is photography.”

Matthew, who’s shown her work on the streets in India and at a public art space in Toronto, wants her art to be accessible to a wide audience. “I often start with images that people are familiar with: the Indigenous, family photos, movie posters. This is a way in for people who may not feel like art is for them.” ReVision is on display through January 9. 

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