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Birmingham Museums Trust acquires new photographic works by Arpita Shah, exploring South Asian female identity
Nilupa, Modern Muse. © Arpita Shah



BIRMINGHAM.- Birmingham Museums Trust has acquired a series of ten new photographic works by the internationally-recognised artist Arpita Shah for the city’s collection. The Modern Muse series depict young South Asian women who live in Birmingham and the West Midlands, and was originally commissioned by Birmingham-based arts organisation GRAIN Projects.

The Modern Muse portraits draw on the tradition of Mughal and Indian miniature paintings from ancient to pre-colonial times, but with the narrative reframed. In these traditional images, women tend to be seen as passive, muse-type figures, often facing away from the viewer and depicted in sensual and subservient terms. The male Mughal emporers, meanwhile, were always pictured in positions that demonstrated their power and authority.

Arpita Shah’s portraits offer a different perspective, with women expressing their confidence through a direct gaze and pose. Their clothes and jewellery form an important part of the image, much like the richly coloured gowns and swords worn by emporers and sultans in traditional miniature portraits. Many of the women pictured wear a headscarf, which also challenges the idea of veiled women being oppressed.

The Modern Muse series captures images of many women, including an artist, academic, activist, dancer and educator, all of whom live in and around Birmingham, and are aged between 18-30. By photographing her muses in this way, Arpita Shah is allowing them to be seen in their own terms, offering an insight into the identities of modern, young, British and Asian women. Arpita also interviewed her sitters as part of the work, and their words form an important part of the series. By giving a voice to these empowered young women, Arpita Shah is diversifying the notion of who and what a muse is, on a museum’s walls.

Victoria Osborne, Curator (Fine Art) at Birmingham Museums Trust, comments, “Arpita Shah is an artist of international note and we are delighted to acquire works from the Modern Muse series to form part of the city’s fine art collection. Commisioned by the Birmingham-based arts organisation GRAIN, and foregrounding images of Birmingham women, these photographic works help to tell the story of our city whilst holding their place within the global story of South Asian art.”

Arpita Shah is a photographic artist and educator based in Eastbourne, UK.
She works between photography and film, exploring the intersection of culture and identity. As an India-born artist, Shah spent the earlier part of her life living between India, Ireland and the Middle East before settling in the UK. This migratory experience is reflected in her practice, which often focuses on the notion of home, belonging and shifting cultural identities. Shah’s work tends to draw from Asian and European mythology, using it both visually and conceptually to explore issues of cultural displacement in the South Asian diaspora.

Arpita’s work has been exhibited across the UK and internationally, including at the Detroit Center of Contemporary Photography (2013); Tramway in Glasgow (2014); Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, India (2015); Chobi Mela IX in Dhaka, Bangladesh (2017); Autograph APB in London (2018) and Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow (2019); Harbour Front Centre in Toronto (2019) and Impressions Gallery in Bradford (2020). She is the recipient of the 2019 Light Work + Autograph ABP Artist-in-Residence programme in Syracuse, New York. Her work is held in the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Arpita Shah comments, “Modern Muse is for South Asian girls and women, for them to feel inspired and represented. So having a selection of this work acquired by BMT and become part of Birmingham’s permanent collection, alongside traditional muses like Rossetti’s ‘Proserpine’ and Bunce’s ‘Musica’, feels like a very pivotal and special moment for me as a South Asian woman and female artist. It is so important for museums and galleries to reflect the varied narratives and histories of our culturally diverse communities.”

The Modern Muse series was originally commissioned by GRAIN Projects, the Birmingham-based arts organisation, in 2018.

Nicola Shipley, Director, GRAIN Projects, comments: “I met Arpita at UNSEEN Photo Festival, Amsterdam, in 2017. I immediately liked her work, ideas and ambition and could see where it would fit into our GRAIN commissioning programme. I was aware of emerging South Asian artists and photographers, especially those that were studying at regional universities and what a powerful role model Arpita would be, given the themes she was exploring in her work and her achievements. It felt important to invite Arpita to make work in Birmingham, to meet some of the emerging artists and to begin a conversation that saw the creation of these significant portraits which were a collaboration with the sitters.”

A new photobook accompanies the acquisition, available from December 2022. The publication is beautifully and uniquely designed, and features the collection of portraits and texts by Arpita’s muses alongside newly commissioned writing by Alina Khako, Modern Muse and South Asian Feminism. The book is published by GRAIN Projects. Modern Muse can be ordered from https://grainphotographyhub.co.uk/portfolio-type/arpita-shah/ as well as from the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery online shop.

Arpita Shah will give a free online Artist Talk on 12 January 2023 at 6pm. Places should be pre-booked at https://grainphotographyhub.co.uk/portfolio-type/arpita-shah/

This acquisition for Birmingham’s collection was made possible by a gift in the Will of Tessa Sidey, formerly Curator of Prints and Drawings at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.










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