Spanning India, East Africa and the UK, Nalini explores the connected histories of Arpita Shah’s mother, her grandmother and herself. The exhibition reveals ancestral intimacies across space and time, and how their histories, memories and bodies are intertwined.
Nalini is a personal journey for Arpita Shah, which has allowed her to reconnect with the past through her maternal lineage and explore how migration, distance and loss have shaped their lives. The artist herself was born in India, grew up in Saudi Arabia and Ireland, and now lives in Scotland. Shah says, “My grandmother was born in India but grew up in Kenya for 12 years before moving back to India. Although I visit my grandmother every couple of years in India, I have realised how little I really know about what she was like as a young woman, her memories, experiences and what her relationships were like with her own mother and her daughter.”
Shah’s photographic journey led to discoveries of old forgotten family photographs, shared and individual memories of objects, places, and family stories. The portraits physically connect the artist to her mother and grandmother, allowing her to visually explore how connected their lives really are. Her contemplative approach to portraiture reveals telling details: strands of silver hair caught in a lilac plastic comb; the skin of her grandmother’s legs, scarred when her sari caught fire.
The exhibition is titled after Shah’s grandmother, Nalini, a name which has a double meaning. ‘Nalini’ comes from the ancient Sanskrit word meaning ‘lotus’. This iconic plant symbolises purity, femininity and fertility in Hindu culture. The artist performs floral offerings to her mother and grandmother, and some of her images feature symbolically significant flowers adorning old photographs from family albums. A passport photo of Shah’s great-grandmother is decorated by bougainvillea, a plant introduced to India during the British Empire.
The exhibition also includes family heirlooms, such as a sari from East Africa, and a well-travelled suitcase passed between generations. A 1950s image of the Taj Mahal, taken from a battered sweets tin, has been transformed and presented in the gallery as a large mural allowing visitors to imagine themselves in another time and place.
Arpita Shah says, “Nalini explores the intimacy, distance and tensions between the generations of women in my family. I hope that viewers, whatever their background and wherever they come from, will find parallels with their own family story.”
A Street Level Photoworks touring exhibition supported by Creative Scotland and Hope Scott Trust.