Selecting a single, favorite object in PEM's collection is a nearly impossible task. In my role as Head of Collection Management, I avoid making value judgments and steward every object as if it were PEM's most treasured. It would be just as unimaginable to me, as the parent of two daughters, to pick my favorite among them. However, exposure to objects I care for has, over the years, elicited emotional responses as diverse as the collection itself.
One object I am thinking about in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is Monsoon Afternoon, the Gateway of India. This black and white photograph, taken by Chirodeep Chaudhuri in 1998, was exhibited in 2007–2008 as part of a PEM exhibition called Gateway Bombay. It depicts a group of locals walking along a popular Mumbai embankment. Prominent in the background is the eponymous arch-monument that rises above the horizon and faces out to the Arabian sea.
I find this image compelling because of the child (adult?) who is hurtling over the embankment. Rather than allowing my eyes to follow the edge of the embankment and ultimately to the Gateway as the artist seems to be instructing, my eyes are drawn to the somersaulting person (who, at first glance, might be mistaken for debris lifted off the ground in the wake of the monsoon or a bird swooping down to the sea below attempting to secure a meal). A compositional tension exists, as does tension from the question I ask but cannot definitively answer: Will the diver reach the water safely and continue his merriment or will something go terribly wrong, leading to injury or worse?
The topsy-turvy nature of this image creates a connection to my life during this crisis. The photograph captures the boy in a state of suspension, and I — like so much of the world — am suspended in light of radical restrictions imposed by state and federal authorities. The boy is clearly enjoying himself, but taking (in my estimation) enormous risks. I am heeding all health advisories and living a nearly sheltered life, adhering to social distancing guidelines and limiting time out of my home to small, necessary excursions. Going to the grocery store or walking my dog are much less innocuous recreations than that engaged in by the boy in the photograph, but is the potential for me to face a dire outcome just as real?
The tension between safety and uncertainty in our time of a global health crisis is the story I see playing out in Monsoon Afternoon. It is one of many varied and valid interpretations a viewer might bring to this image. I feel this is a hallmark of a great work of art. Formally, Monsoon Afternoon has a deceivingly complex composition and it asks compelling, relatable questions that do not have simple answers. If not my favorite object in the PEM collection, Monsoon Afternoon speaks powerfully to me at this moment in time.
The PEM staff wishes everyone health, safety and calm during the COVID-19 shutdown.Museums provide light and inspiration during challenging times. We will be creative in maintaining PEM’s relationship with you in this time of crisis. We look forward to welcoming you back to the museum when the public health crisis has subsided. For more information and updates, please visit pem.org and keep in touch through our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.