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On Belonging: Photographs of Indians of African Descent | London Calling

9 May 2015 | Laura Stevens

The National Portrait Gallery are putting on a ground breaking display of India's Sidi community. The photographs by Ketaki Sheth have never been displayed in the UK before.

For the first time in the UK a selection of ground-breaking photographs of the Sidi community are going on display. One of India’s most celebrated contemporary photographers, Ketaki Sheth, has taken residence in one of the National Portrait Gallery’s rooms in this intimate exhibition.

The Sidi community is an African minority living in India, and On Belonging explores the heritage, identity and representation. Compromising of only 35,000 to 70,000 people, a drop in India’s 1.22 billion estimated population, the Sidi community is nonetheless a distinct minority.

Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs Collection at the National Portrait Gallery said: “Sheth’s compelling photographs are true portraits – insightful pictures of personalities living in Sidi communities.

“The photographs explore the complexity of national and cultural identity and how this might shift over time, questions that resonate with many sitters in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.”

Scholarship on the Sidi is still relatively unknown, and this series of photographs was created when Sheth first stumbled upon a remote Sidi village in 2005. From this fortunate encounter, Sheth then spent five years travelling to remote parts of India to explore and visit different Sidi settlements.

The photographs on display have the sense of a family photo album with Sheth documenting weddings, matriarchs and Sidi gatherings. There are naked emotions of joy, thoughtfulness and curiosity on display in these insightful portraits.

The poignant photographs of Indians of African descent engage with universal and relevant questions about nationality and ethnic origin. The African Diaspora to India is far less well known than the Slave Trade from the other coast of the continent. The Sidi have their origins in historic trade routes, and they have assimilated into Indian culture sharing conventions of dress, food and ceremony.

However, the Sidi do have a distinct identity and culture and often live together in small settlements. Sheth has questioned many of her subjects and asked about their heritage, with some Sidi groups continuing to think of Africa as an ancestral homeland and others not associating themselves with Africa at all. Nearly all consider themselves Indian in every other way.

On Belonging illuminates an unknown community in the West, and the themes of community, heritage and representation explored are particularly pertinent and relevant to London today.

On Belonging: Photographs of Indians of African Descent is on at the National Portrait Gallery until August 31. For more information click here.

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