The Fine Art of Heritage

SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR –

The elements that define a fine art photograph are difficult to fathom; still we instinctively understand and appreciate fine art photographs. They instantly connect with us, and leave something for us to ponder over. At the same time, without the refined and receptive mind of the viewer, a photograph can never become a fine art. Thus fine art photography is about viewer engagement and willing participation, which makes it a powerful and evocative medium.
Arguably, culture and heritage, as well as complex emotions that lie buried deep inside an individual can find no better medium than fine art photograph to be communicated. Where words fail in adequately describing these, it’s fine art photography that can talk to us and make us either feel blissful or agitated.
Rich culture and heritage, considered in an integrated manner, is the soul of a nation, and the thoughts that inhabit its people’s minds are also some function of these aspects. It’s interesting to analyse a few fine art photographs that have as their theme the Sultanate and its culture and traditions. They bring out an amazing treasure of unexplored realities that we can’t afford to ignore.
The amazing culture and heritage of the Sultanate opens up a treasure trove of possibilities for photographers. Be it the profession of fishing, the famed sea adventures of Omanis, traditional arts and crafts, forts and castles and other historical relics including ancient adobe buildings, or any unique cultural element like the ‘assa’ or ‘khaizaran’ (the cane stick).
It would be interesting to examine how the Sultanate’s ubiquitous cultural symbol of assa translates into brilliant fine art. Let’s look at ‘A Bend in Time’ by Hassan Shaboot. Why is it a fine art piece, and not just a photograph? Because, it awakens in the viewer deep emotions; and captures an array of historical, cultural, emotional, psychological and spiritual elements within a highly constrained 60×90 cm space.
But, in fact, ‘A Bend in Time’ transcends space and time. The image grows out of the frame and embraces infinity. The bend in the stick flawlessly transforms into a bend in the space-time continuum that the Omani man in his twilight years perceives in his mind. And, in the process, it overturns or even effaces the ordinariness that has latched on to the assa possibly through popular use and the power and reach of imageries. Old age and the associated feelings of loneliness and helplessness, fading memories and the pangs of separation, the cultural continuity bequeathed by ancestors, a world that is almost alienated yet connected, the solace and the ‘grip’ that the assa provides, and above all the identity it offers to existence… all blends beautifully in the seemingly dull black and white photograph.
‘Sur’, by the same artist, is another fine art photo that depicts traditional life in Sur in the context of the Omani dhow (boat). Is the dhow an extension of life, or life an extension of the dhow? That we must resolve ourselves.
Khalid al Rawahi speaks the language of frozen time through his colourful yet detached image of a middle aged Omani woman in his ‘In a World of Her Own.’ The side glance of the woman, covered in traditional attire, and the encompassing stillness and the deeply traditional ambience, offer a strong clue to her thoughts or lack of them. The lack of urgency of time adds to the intensity of being oneself.
In a totally different image, Khalid unravels the world of expectations and hope in the ‘A Look of Hope.’ The girl, in her traditional embellished and colourful clothing, clutches to the half-opened door, and looks out at the world of possibilities and uncertainties.
Fishing is a traditional economic activity in the Sultanate that still holds great relevance and potential. ‘At the Fish Market’ by Bassim al Mahdi is a fresh look at Oman’s fishing tradition. Not a single fish is seen in the frame; yet the overhead image smells fish. Apparently, the two fishermen who count the day’s collection and a third possible customer bring a unique dynamism to the photo.
Hussain Najem’s ‘Salt for Bread’ is yet another artwork that conveys the power of image in its fullness. In Oman, salt production dates back centuries, and is closely connected with the lives of people inhabiting the coastline. Salt literally fills the photograph, and it requires no description.
Oman, with its ancient culture and unique ways of traditional life, is a dreamland for those who know the fine art of photography.