Photographer, installation artist and activist, Sheba Chhachhi is known for her use of lens-based media to explore issues of gender, dissent and ecology in India, and especially notable for documenting protests around women’s rights issues that took place in the 1980s.
Chhachhi was born in Harar, Ethiopia, where her father was stationed as an engineer in the Indian Army, and moved back to India at the age of three. She graduated from Delhi University, after which she studied at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and the Chitrabani Centre for Social Communications, Kolkata. In 1980, she returned to New Delhi and co-founded Lifetools, a design studio that focused on creating graphic and audio-visual media for social upliftment organisations and campaigns.
In the early 1980s, Chhacchi began photographing protests and marches in New Delhi organised by women and feminist organisations against dowry murders and the acquittal of two policemen accused of raping an Adivasi girl in 1972. In 1984, she co-founded Jagori, an organisation that supported women’s agitations by distributing printed material, performance recordings and creating safe spaces for assembly and discussion. Her images of the protests were printed as posters and pamphlets to spread awareness and were recognised as important political and photographic contributions in the 1990s, when she carried her work into the sphere of fine art.
Much of the work Chhachhi undertook since the early 1990s has been collaborative. A major work is Seven Lives in a Dream, for which she photographed seven women activists she met during the protests in the 1980s. Taken between 1990–91, the staged portraits were shot in locations chosen by the subjects and feature several of their personal belongings. In 1992, she began photographing Shaivite women monks of the Juna Akhada sect in Allahabad. This decade-long collaboration culminated in the series Ganga’s Daughters: Meetings with Women Ascetics (1992–2004). She also began working with sculptural and installation art in the early 1990s for Wild Mother I and II (1993–94), which consisted of photographs of women ascetics framed in terracotta yonis.
For When the Gun is Raised, Dialogue Stops (2000), Chhachhi collaborated with conservationist Sonia Jabbar to create an installation composed of photographs and written testimonies centring Kashmiri women’s experience of conflict in the region. Her practice also gained an ecological dimension, and she critically examined urban development through works such as Neelkanth: Poison/Nectar (2000–02) and The Water Diviner (2008), an installation on pollution in the Yamuna river comprising books, video projections and light boxes with photographs.
More recently, Chhachhi has begun taking an interest in kinetic sculpture through works such as Temporal Twist (2017), which consists of hundreds of film strips strung between the floor and ceiling on an apparatus that turns in such a way that the strips are twisted into the shape of an hourglass.
Chhachhi’s work has been exhibited at Horizon Gallery, London (1988); Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi (1994); India Habitat Centre, New Delhi (1998); National Museum, New Delhi (2004); Nature Morte, New Delhi (2004, 2007–08); Devi Art Foundation, Gurugram (2008); Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai (2011); and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi (2020). Record/Resist, a set of prints of her photographs from the 1980s, was exhibited at the Gwangju Biennale in the wake of the 2012 protests against the gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi. She received the Juror’s Prize for Contemporary Art from the Singapore Art Museum in 2011 and the Prix Thun for Art and Ethics in 2017.
At the time of writing, Chhachhi lives and works in New Delhi.
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