Jonas St. Michael explores nature of representation in his newest exhibit, Bandaneira
The Bandas are a remote group of volcanic islands in the Indonesian Peninsula that were once an important hub of the global spice trade.
This is where artist Jonas St. Michael first imagined the idea behind his photography exhibition Bandaneira.
The centre of the island patchwork, Banda Neira—where Bandaneira borrows its title from—was the administrative centre of the trade hub. But in relatively recent history, the area’s vital position fell into obscurity most often as a mere tourist destination, with the local population living much different lives from its Western visitors.
“Those scenes were in the back of my mind when I was making these pictures—the idea of the Western photographer and this kind of exchange I was very aware of when I was doing the pictures,” he says thinking back to the visuals of trade exploitation that he had found in Indonesia. “It was sort of problematic for me at the beginning, but I wanted to confront those problematics in the work, like this sort of transactional exchange I had with people.”
The “problematics” St. Michael speaks of are complex questions inherent to photography for as long as the medium has been around: questions of personal encroachment or violation, power relations, transaction, or captured existence as the subjects are put on display afterward in art galleries across the world for months and sometimes years.
Although he ended up shooting the images during an artist residency in Mumbai, St. Michael felt the ideas explored by the pieces is less beholden to place and more an abstract dissection of the nature of representation that is so inherent to his bodies of work.
“This problem is not just necessarily people who are in India or in Asia,” he adds, “I think it’s just a question of photography in general; it was more about an idea than a specific place.”
While much of his past work has been in North America and Europe, St. Michael’s artistic practice has always been inspired by the nature of photography and its ability to build new relationships between reality and appearance, or perhaps in this case, a semi-fictional reality.
Rather than wander around shooting what he saw on the streets of Mumbai, St. Michael decided to recreate images he had curated in his head with people he found in the area.
“My studio was based in … a sort of slum or shanty town, so there’s definitely a kind of social element that’s in all of the pictures,” he says. “All the images in this particular project are constructed using actors or figures to create a fictional element. It’s somewhere in between a documentary and fiction.”
By doing this, the images became more deliberate and thought-out, perhaps transposing a feeling of awareness and knowledge in each image, rather than an incidental exchange.
Though there isn’t a concise message, each large-scale photograph layers upon the last to create a narrative that St. Michael says is ultimately up to the viewer to determine for themselves.
Until Sat., Jan. 20
Harcourt House Main Gallery