From the deltas of Mumbai to the harbours of Auckland, Sanjay Theodore’s exhibition Motu captures something of the grit and grime lived everyday in our big cities.
The word 'motu' (which is also title of two of the photographs in the show) refers to island life, to being surrounded by waters, or being cut-off and separated from others. For the last three years Sanjay has been based in Mumbai, home there from New Zealand, a lone visitor from Aotearoa – an archipelago at the bottom of the world.
Witness Mumbai then – a large landscape photograph (called Between this world and the next) encountered immediately upon entering the show. This was the view from Sanjay’s digs. It has a soft, atmospheric, painterly feel with the tower blocks of suburban Mumbai rearing up towards a thundery sky. It is leafy too, with a sea view behind. But we are looking at Mumbai’s oil refinery (with broken pipeline billowing black smoke) and its saltworks. The atmosphere, whilst heavy with monsoon humidity, is also thick with grime.
So the photograph has a beauty that is also laden with more difficult truths. The same can be said of the other seven images in the show. The title work Motu almost makes beautiful a supermarket trolley lying in a suburban Auckland waterway. The lump of wood on its top seems a symbol of balance, a token of refuge in a difficult place.
Motu I presents more fluid, but blood this time. A goat has been sacrificed for holy day, and Sanjay photographed the aftermath on a Mumbai street. The cropping of these images is close, their compositions and viewpoints angular and unexpected. Although landscape subjects, they have an abstract quality and psychological aspects that lends them motu, resonance and life.
To do with as we please is similar. This photograph of a very new verandah collapse in Mumbai has the intensity of a compelling line drawing; but in matters material it points to the broken pinex ceiling panels arranged here on the floor of the back gallery.
As a trained volunteer fireman from North Canterbury, Theodore toiled in the red zone the first weeks after Christchurch’s deadly February earthquakes. The ceiling panels are debris from that series of events. Now they become a hearth, an altar, a barrier almost before the silvered boy who looks directly out at us from the photograph Pothos & Madana. Madana is a Hindu goddess of lust, whose earthly manifestation resides in the shimmer of silver. This urgent, haunting gaze is that of a rent boy – his demeanour the exact opposite of a recent client who lies languid in the half light behind. He survives. He lives – just.
Unicorns the photograph continues the silvered theme. But this is a full body paint as opposed to a mask. It is also, as the title suggests, fantasy, not documentary. The high theatrical viewpoint and angular foreshortening of the figure is thoroughly Theodore. But this is (in a bath in) Auckland; Sanjay is home again, and ready it seems to wash away, to distance himself from the 'sins' of India.
Press release courtesy Jonathan Smart Gallery.