On Saturday, the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens celebrates the centennial of its founding with an exhibition that looks back at the year “Nineteen Nineteen” with the assistance of 275 objects drawn from the institute’s library, art and botanical collections.
And, perhaps a lesson to be learned from another recently opened exhibit, this one called “Following the Box” at the USC Pacific Asia Museum, might be to not throw away old photos. That exhibit features works by 10 artists from India and two from the US, guest curated by Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral.
At the Huntington, the year was 1919, and Henry and Arabella Huntington signed the trust document that transformed their property into a public institution. World War I had just ended the year before and society was celebrating a return to community life, although there were still battles to be fought on the home front.
Organized around themes defined by the verbs “Fight,” “Return,” “Map,” “Move,” and “Build,” the exhibition showcases items like rare books, posters, letters, photographs, diaries, paintings, and ephemera. Many are on view for the first time. Highlights include a 37-foot map of a Pacific Electric (Red Car) route in Los Angeles, German Revolution posters, and suffragist pamphlets (the 19th Amendment was officially adopted in 1920), alongside important works acquired by Huntington in the lead-up to that year, including the original manuscript of “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” the journal of Aaron Burr and the memoirs of Gen. William T. Sherman.
“Nineteen Nineteen” is just one of several events that celebrate the Huntington’s centennial.
In “Following the Box,” each of 12 artists was given digital and/or print copies of the photographs and asked to incorporate the images directly into their work; deconstruct them; or simply use the images as a catalyst for their imagination, according to the museum’s website.
As the site explains, “Photographs are both windows to another time and place and mirrors of ourselves and the diverse worlds in which we live. The curators’ goal is to explore different methods of understanding the images, opening a dialogue about the ways in which American and Indian perspectives and memories might vary.”
As Zbiral explains about her work, “30 years ago at an estate sale we found a shoebox of old negatives and photographs all made of India apparently by an American soldier in 1945.” The photos were taken using a four-by-five Speedgraphic camera — standard issue in the Army at the time.
Shelved and forgotten, the box was pulled out for a class study in which the student narrowed down the area where the photos were taken. Then the box was neglected again, until their son went to study in India. Zbiral noted that they were eventually able to narrow it down to the Salua Airbase in Kharagpur — a secret airbase in Bengal.
Teller’s piece, “The Ruined Temple,” invites viewers to literally “fall into” a photograph in order to enter a space where a small film about their reception at a temple plays and one can read a poem by Bengali poet Rabindrath Tagore, from which Teller drew the piece’s title.
According to Teller, two photographs were really instrumental in providing the location. One location was found as they were in a taxi. A photograph of a temple is “a great photograph and a useless temple” but “now it is a useable temple and a lousy photograph.” The temple has been painted and spruced up but “is visually boring.” Nonetheless, people at the temple were delighted to have a historic photo.
The title of his other piece, “Where the Mind Is Without Fear the Head Is Held High,” is also taken from a Tagore poem and laments the loss of the photographic negative printing process.
Zbiral’s piece looks at the “What, Where, When, How and Why” of the photos, using six shadow boxes that fit together. “The what, where, when and how are known” Zbiral explained and includes her own photographs of Salua Airbase. The why will perhaps never been known — so many years have passed. The who box is left black but both Teller and Zbiral are hopeful that one day the photographer will be identified.
For the artistic process, however, it was better to leave the soldier unknown. Sanjeet Chowdhury in his “Letters to Rachel” and Prabir Purkayastha in his “John Miller” took on the persona of the photographer in their pieces. In other pieces, some of the artists incorporated traditional art forms with a modern twist.
Zbiral noted that “most of our artists dealt with the Bengal Famine in some way.” That’s the dark side of colonialism. “Churchill, who did not like Indians very much, decided to sacrifice Bengalis,” she explained. Aditya Basak’s untitled piece points the finger at the Allied Forces — the US, UK, France and Russia — and uses a skeleton of a guinea pig to show the kind of social experimentation that resulted in so many deaths.
Graphic novel artist Sarbajit Sen noted that the famine victims were people who were sentenced to death “without knowing why they are dying” under the imposition of colonial powers. His untitled piece is a series of eight archival pigment inkjet prints on rag paper that examines both the observer and the observed, putting both himself, the unknown photographer and the subjects into the story.
Other participating artists include: Alakananda Nag, Chhatrapati Dutta, Mamata Basak, Sunandini Banerjee and Swarna Chitrakar.
“Nineteen Nineteen” runs through Jan. 20 at the Huntington Library, Art Museums and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Tickets are $13 to $25. Call (626) 405-2124 or visit huntington.org. “Following the Box” runs through Jan. 26 at the USC Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $7 to $10. Call (626) 449-2742 or visit pacificasiamuseum.usc.edu