SHELLY BAHL at Lee Ka-Sing Gallery/Index G (50 Gladstone), to April 22, reception Wednesday (April 4), 7-10 pm. 416-535-6957. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Shelly Bahl's new photos are so plain, they could be mistaken at first glance for photos from a government brochure. Five South Asian women (a security officer, a janitor, an air hostess, a businesswoman and a holiday traveller with a baby) socialize and work in the utilitarian space of a contemporary airport.
Upon scrutiny, however, a whole series of uncanny and surreal touches forces you to ask questions.
Why are all the women hunkered down in a circle, chatting amiably and examining each other's passports? Why is the security guard changing the other woman's baby as she applies lipstick? What are the air hostess and the woman in a business suit doing examining a blue teddy bear on the floor of the public bathroom? And where are all the other passengers?
Bahl's work often examines the presumptions and dynamics of South Asian culture, especially as it relates to women. In the surreally depopulated airport, a sort of signifier of transitory and transcultural space, the women in Bahl's photos exchange social roles in ways that would be uncomfortable or unthinkable in actuality. The expensively dressed traveller, for example, is seen matter-of-factly mopping a toilet stall (considered an insultingly distasteful job in South Asian culture) in a complete subversion of her traditional status.
This gently off-kilter social commentary continues in her video piece Pink Is The Navy Blue Of India, in which Bahl again addresses notions of Subcontinental "exoticism" and the appropriation of South Asian culture. The sublimely goofy Rashmi Varma (whose own clothing line forms part of the installation), is shown in a sort of Queen West boutique-shopping delirium, hungrily piling herself with brightly coloured dresses and licking hems in a send-up of taste and cultural consumption.
Bahl's social critiques and inversions are mercifully free of finger-wagging. It's this lightness of touch that ultimately proves winning: we are playfully invited to examine the subtle contradictions of class and culture in ways that recall our own complicity in them.