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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

URI art professor focuses a loving but critical eye on India

KINGSTON, R.I. -- June 28, 2001 -- Annu Palakunnathu Matthew discovered she was an artist while at Women’s Christian College in Madras, India, majoring in mathematics. She took an optional course in photography.

It was love at first click. The class had one instructor, 20 students, one camera, and two rolls of film. "We were given three frames each," recalls Matthew, an assistant professor of art at the University of Rhode Island. "So we had to think very carefully about what we wanted to shoot and how to capture that slice of reality onto one frame of film."

Her strong math background helped Matthew easily comprehend the technical aspects of photography.

Born in England, raised in India, and now living on the east side of Providence, Matthew’s varied background shapes her life and art. Matthew uses the medium of photography to focus on India, her cultural homeland, in two very distinct ways -- with loving nostalgia and criticism. Her work is currently on exhibit through September 3 at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, Mass.

"When I visit India, the minute I step off the plane, I recognize the smells, the sounds, the gestures of being home. I try to capture that in my black and white work," she says.

Matthew uses a $20 Holga camera for this work. The camera’s simplicity -- it has one shutter speed and two F-stops -- allows the artist to focus solely on capturing the intimate moment. She prints the photos dark creating a mood that draws the viewer directly into the center of the photo. The plastic lens distorts the edges of the photo and sometimes creates lens flares. Images -- saris billowing gently in the wind, fishermen moving slowly downstream, a young boy praying – make time seem to stop. The universality of memory is invoked and recalled places are revisited not only for the photographer but also for the viewer.
Matthew uses her colorful, digital poster work as a social commentary, criticizing India’s attitudes toward women.

Her latest digital portfolio, Bollywood Satirized, takes jabs at traditional gender roles, behavior, and societal expectations as Matthew experienced them growing up in India. The jabs, however, are delivered with a velvet glove.

Bollywood is India’s equivalent to Hollywood. To create Bollywood Satirized, Matthew took Indian movie posters, which are dramatic and stereotypical. Scanning the posters onto a computer, Matthew manipulated the images by removing some and adding others to create 48 inch by 72-inch parodies and satires on such customs as arranged marriages and dowries.

Recent exhibitions of Matthews’ work include the Houston Center for Photography, Texas and Sepia International, New York City. Her black and white photos were called "ravishing yet unprepossessing" by The New York Times.

She recently received the Aaron Siskind Photography Fellowship from the Rhode Island State Council of the Arts, a photography fellowship from the Houston Center for Photography, and is currently an artist in residence at the Woodstock Center for Photography, Woodstock, N.Y.

Her work has been published in Exposure, LensWork, Nueva Luz, Photo Metro and The Photo Review.

Matthew came to URI three years ago. It’s been a good match. "Teaching is a wonderful opportunity to be a mentor," says the artist whose husband, David H. Wells is also a photographer. "I have had some great students. It’s exciting to see their talent uncovered and developed."

Matthew’s e-mail address is 18percent@uri.edu. When asked why the percentage she explains that when a camera meters a scene, its light meter averages the light in the scene to be equivalent to the light reflected back from a middle gray object or a 18 percent object.

"My skin is the same tonal value, 18 percent," says the artist. "I guess that means I was born to be a photographer."

For Information: Jan Sawyer, 401-874-2116

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