"Anamorphosis" is an art-historical term for an optical distortion, where an image is stretched so that there is only one vantage point in which the real image appears. The most famous example is in Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, at The National Gallery in London, which only resolves into a skull when the viewer sees it from high on the right, or low on the left.
Now, Indian artist Praneet Soi has taken the term as a metaphor for two countries with similar recent histories: Kashmir and Palestine. Soi's Anamorphosis, a rich, layered new book, offers a visual essay about life under distorted political climates, where several perspectives offer many truths.
“When I’m in a space like Kashmir or any entangled political situation you have so many different points of view that they create distortions," says Soi. "But just like with anamorphosis, there is one point where you can see the image, and you can see a position emerge that you can articulate and relate to yourself.”
The large-format book, made with London gallery The Mosaic Rooms, publisher Book Works and design studio Fraser Muggeridge, creates a visual essay about the land in each country, as represented through floral motifs, traditional craftwork and Soi’s own sketches and photographs. Images of Palestine, with its rocky soil and low-lying olive trees, sit adjacent to the intricate floral patterns of Kashmiri paintings, in collages and distorted views, with text overlaid or patterns breaking up the vistas. Even the paper stock changes from glossy to rough, tearable sugar paper.
Fragmentation is the unifying motif. “The book is an open-minded survey, of an artist trying to avoid the cliches, and trying to find my own feet in the area,” he says.
Soi was born in Kolkata and studied for his bachelor's and master's degrees at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda in 1994 and 1996, then in its heyday. The artists who had comprised the Radical Group – an Indian avant-garde group influenced by Marxism – were teaching at the university, and Soi describes it as the best education he had throughout his career. He left India soon after, first on a scholarship to San Diego and, eventually, in 2002, to Amsterdam, after gaining a place on the well-regarded Rijksakademie programme. He has lived in the Dutch city ever since.
Though he professes a deep dislike of travel – “I really, really hate it” – many of his projects involve long-term immersion in cultures and geographies that run parallel to his own life.
Anamorphosis was years in the making, tying together two projects: tiles, inspired by an encounter in Palestine and traditional Kashmiri patterns. In 2009, Soi was invited to work with the Palestinian agency Riwaq, which supports the reconstruction of homes with traditional craft techniques. On a research trip in Ramallah, he came across an artisan who worked to revive Palestinian tiles.
“He ran this huge state-of-the-art hatchery, with these little yellow chicks running all over the place – thousands of them,” says Soi, who is an affable, gregarious storyteller. “That was his business, but his passion was exploring patterns and turning them back into tiles, which he would do for the houses Riwaq was restoring. It was an amazing insight. I tried for years after to find him again, but I never have.”
Soi’s planned work with Riwaq fizzled out, as he encountered difficulties in entering the occupied territory on his Indian passport. But he retained the germ of the idea, and the tiles resurfaced a few years later in Kashmir, when he was working with craftsmen in Srinagar on the papier-mache objects the area is known for.
Craftsmen stiffen the soft paper in traditional moulds, and then paint the boxes, vases and bowls in rich floral patterns. The practice was brought over from Persia in the 1500s, via Sufi preachers who were travelling eastwards.
“They cover the papier-mache with clay from the river, the Jhelum, which flows through the city and the region,” he says. “Once they make it smooth, they layer the surface with tissue paper. So that makes the surface very absorbent, and then you can paint on it very easily with a brush. It’s a delicious surface to paint. It just sucks the paint from the brushes.”
The boxes are usually made for the tourist market, but Soi gave the craftsmen different images and forms to fill, drawn from the news media and his own previous paintings. Thinking back to his experience in Palestine, he asked them to make tiles instead of the bowls and boxes they had been making for generations.
It was a seemingly simple request but a logistical challenge. The objects kept breaking; it was difficult to keep the tiles uniform; and the surfaces were often too lumpy to paint on. Eventually, Soi and the craftsmen got the hang of it, and created the pared back, simple square works that he showed in 2019 at The Mosaic Rooms: a meeting of two traditions, of the Palestinian use of tiles to create an overall pattern, to Kashmir’s intricate, almost recursive motifs.
In the images they form, a third motif emerges: the political history of the region. One tile shows the famous image of the prisoner Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh, at Abu Ghraib, his head hooded, his arms extended with wires affixed to them. Another evokes a hand outstretched, or a body falling.
“The tiles are beautiful and I enjoy working on them,” Soi says. “But they are grounded in a very violent political climate, and I wanted something of that to show, too. But I didn’t want it to be like, 'Oh, life in Srinagar is horrible,' because there’s enough newspaper reporters who say that and it wasn’t my subject. My work is really working with the craftsmen in these motifs. But of course, I am affected by the climate, too. And so I pulled out aspects of it.”
Anamorphosis makes the connection between Kashmir and Palestine more explicit, and likewise toggles between traditional craft and political context. With support from the AM Qattan Foundation, in 2019, Soi travelled to the West Bank, taking his sketchbook with him. He drew faces, factories, but mostly trees: gnarled, wrinkled trunks, and tangled, overlapping branches. In Sebastia, Nablus, he encountered olive trees that were 1,500 to 2,000 years old – from the time of the Romans. They also appear in his book.
Literature relating to the administration of the two countries gestures towards the political backdrop that links both countries, such as a facsimile of the United Nations Resolution 47 calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir, or an outline of the divided Jammu and Kashmir territories.
Distortions, as the title signals, recur throughout. The cover shows a blue drawing of the village of Battir in Palestine, distorted into a choppy discus, as if a dog took a bite of a fine china plate. If you have a cylinder, he says – or reflective sheet of paper rolled up into one – you could place it on the image and the Roman-era village will appear. A diagram in the book, taken from Leonardo da Vinci's diaries, explains how the process occurs.
For Soi, it was speaking to the people and working with the craftsmen that ultimately provided the vantage point where he could see the situations correctly. “In these places, you’re always on someone else’s agenda, but when I was working with the craftsmen in Srinigar I felt I was speaking the same language,” he says. “From that position, I began to understand the struggle of everyday life in a territory that is so troubled and fragmented.”