As an immigrant, with a British, Indian, and slightly American accent, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, who lives in Rhode Island, is often questioned about where she is “really from.”
When she says she is Indian, she often has to clarify that she is an Indian from India to clear up the confusion between her type of Indian (from the country of India) and Native Americans, also known as Indians or American Indians.
The confusion between the two Indians was a source of amusement for Matthew and also the central idea for her photography series, An Indian from India, currently on display at the Smithsonian’s Beyond Bollywood exhibition.
Matthew, a professor of art (photography) and director of the Center for the Humanities at the University of Rhode Island, was born in England, moved to India at the age of 11, and left for the United States 20 years later.
In an interview with BuzzFeed, Matthew said the idea of her series came from her experience of having lived between cultures.
She said that while the difference between Indians and Native Americans was obvious to her, “I can understand the confusion, which was created by Christopher Columbus, who was looking for India but who found North America instead.” It was Columbus who first called the natives of America “Indians.”
Matthew said her series explores themes like assimilation, categorization, and about “finding a place for myself in the United States as a hyphenated, accented ‘Other.’”
She paired 19th century photographs of Native Americans with self-portraits “to playfully explore the assumptions, strange similarities and stereotyping connected to groups of people outside of the dominant culture.”
Matthew said her work drew parallels between the imaging of American Indians by Edward Curtis, a well-known 19th century photographer of Native Americans, and the imaging of Indians by British colonial photographers.
“I am playing on how Edward Curtis contrived the posing and dress of some of his subjects to make them look more exotic or more ‘Indian.’ This is similar to what some colonial photographers did in India,” said Matthew.
Central to Matthew’s idea is cultural icon Susan Sontag’s statement from On Photography, where she wrote, “there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”
Matthew said, “Through my portfolio of self-portraits paired with portraits from the 19th century, I try to expand the viewer’s assumptions, connections, and stereotypes, expanding our definitions of who is different.”