Children open their eyes to see small details and observe oddities which elude their grown counterparts. Adults, at their most aware, step back to connect elements within a picture plane, detecting greater narratives and conclusions.
We are better off when we unite these ways of seeing, rather than pitting them against one another. This truth comes home again and again in the work of Priya Kambli; images by the photographic artist and Truman State University professor currently are displayed in the University of Missouri’s George Caleb Bingham Gallery.
The very title of Kambli’s collection, Buttons for Eyes, represents a gentle admonition handed down, she says in an artist’s statement.
The title refers “to my mother’s playful yet nuanced question, ‘Do you have eyes or buttons for eyes?'” Kambli writes. “It is a question laced with parental fear. Her concern was not only about my inability to see some trivial object right in front of me, but our collective inability to see well enough to navigate in the world.”
In this rich series of images, Kambli builds from childlike and familial observations to consider ideas of heritage and custom as well as “migration and identity” — and how these terms appear to people inside and outside the frame.
Born in India, Kambli moved to the United States at 18, “carrying her entire life in one suitcase that weighed about 20 lbs,” her website says. Seeing through her two eyes and singular experience, Kambli brings remarkable clarity and soul to the exhibit.
“Despite these weighty issues, there is playfulness embedded in the very title Buttons for Eyes, suggesting that perhaps seeing clearly calls for looking at the world in more unusual ways,” she writes.
Family history reimagined
Often Kambli introduces family photographs or artifacts as the starting point for a visual conversation. These images are altered, augmented or set in proximity to others, deepening and widening the viewer’s understanding of her natural circle and enfleshing the context within which Kambli’s family lives.
In several images, the faces in a family photo are partially obscured by exquisitely patterned measures of flour. In others, spices such as turmeric obscure a visage or are rubbed across the arms of a subject.
The image “Kambli Bros” documents a ceremony, perhaps a wedding, in black-and-white, save a prismatic strip of color that quite literally highlights ritual and gesture.
“Baba (Dodging Tools)” lives up to its name, as a series of portraits is altered to place the male subject in strange, glorious proximity to photographic implements.
“Play occurs in this work in my use of both color and natural light,” Kambli writes in her statement. “They are my materials to manipulate; split into sparks, smear into rainbows, and find shimmering back from the depths of powdered pigments.”
In simply-titled standouts such as “Sieve” and “Flour,” Kambli creatively captures the ingredients which make up a life. The former documents a sieve in repose, turned on its side, temporarily stained with deep red and yellow spices; in the latter, a large measure of flour sits on a spoon, resembling a glacier or snowy roadside cut.
Kambli masterfully handles pattern and light in pieces such as “Dada Aajoba and Me,” which joins two photographs. The first, exposed in sepia as well as black-and-white tones, portrays a male relative, dignified yet divided into shapes which comprise the plane; the second focuses on a pair of nyloned legs stretched beside the shapely shadow a nearby window casts upon the floor.
“Soha (Flour Pattern on Back)” traces a lovely series of flour blooms across a woman’s bare back, the gooseflesh on her shoulders completing the textured, sensual portrait.
In these and so many other images, Kambli transcends one way of seeing to apply an expanded yet intimate vision — of people set against their history, of loved ones as they couldn’t possibly see themselves, of the worlds in which we grow up, then grow to unite.
Buttons for Eyes both fulfills and flips the words of Kambli’s mother, demonstrating the artist’s clear capacity for navigating life on the power of her senses.
A ‘satisfying’ step forward
Kambli plans to give an artist lecture Jan. 26 in 101 Swallow Hall. Her appearance is the first officially funded and presented through the Eric Sweet Memorial Exhibition and Lecture Series Fund, which gallery director Catherine Armbrust created nearly seven years ago in honor of her late husband, an artist and educator who taught at MU.
Sweet’s connection to the gallery dates back to his undergraduate years when he worked in the space, even building art pedestals that remain in use today, Armbrust said.
“The gallery was really, really important to him,” she said. “When we were both teaching there, he would always bring his classes in to talk about the work.”
A fund like this must reach a baseline of $25,000 to be endowed by the university, as it is now, Armbrust said. The fund is both flexible and specific, she said, designed to introduce outside artists to the campus and broader community.
After several years and numerous faithful donations, it’s rewarding to step forward and support projects the fund was established to spotlight.
“It’s really satisfying to not have to jump through the hoops of scrimping and scraping, to be able to fund really interesting work and interesting people to come here for our students to see and our community to see,” she added.
While Armbrust maintains little interest in relating each event back to the fund’s memorial purpose, Kambli’s work — with its abiding interest in family, connection, loss and remembrance — was a fitting first exhibit.
“That feels very poignant to me,” Armbrust said. “… That’s not what I want all the shows to be, right? It all happened to coalesce really beautifully.”
Sweet would have responded to the nimble balance in Kambli’s work, uniting visual richness and a sort of minimalism, Armbrust said.
“There’s so much texture in these photographs,” she said. “… It feels like the objects are there. … It takes you a minute to realize that paper or those rice grains or that jewelry isn’t there.”
Buttons for Eyes remains on display through Feb. 3. Learn more about the exhibit at https://visualstudies.missouri.edu/gallery/bingham. And see more of Kambli’s work at https://www.priyakambli.com/.
Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by calling 573-815-1731.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Artist unites childlike, mature ways of seeing in MU exhibit