Centralia by Poulomi Basu 

July 9, 2024

Poulomi Basu’s striking photographic work ‘Centralia’ is now on display as part of the ‘Photography Now’ gallery rotation in the Photography Centre. Purchased by the Photography Acquisitions Group in 2021, the installation features a selection of works from the acquisition, exploring a decades-long geopolitical conflict in central and eastern India through a conceptual contemporary perspective. 

‘Centralia’ by Poulomi Basu. Installation image from the V&A Photography Centre ‘Photography Now’ display. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Poulomi Basu is an Indian transmedia artist, photographer and activist. She was raised by her mother in Kolkata, India, until age 17 when she was encouraged to leave the country. Basu’s practice has taken her to some of the most remote parts of the world to capture stories ‘of ordinary people who quietly challenge the prevailing orthodoxies of the world in which they live.’ Through her artist-activism she has played a role in reshaping policies relating to the health, safety and rights of women and girls, and alter how we think about contemporary photography. 

For decades, the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army has fought against the Indian government to protect rural communities’ access to land and resources. Basu’s colour photographs appear as dreamscapes, fragments and hallucinations. They depict histories and present-day narratives of corporate mining and the accompanying violence against local communities and the land. Photographed over the course of ten years, the pictures reveal the many truths and falsities behind this war waged by the Indian military-corporate complex against local communities. 

2, from the series ‘Centralia’, photograph by Poulomi Basu, 2010 – present. Museum no. PH.2012-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Centralia opens with a series of powerful and apocalyptic opening landscapes. Pale, barren rockface gives way to dark, nocturnal scenes in which fire bubbles up from below, as if the underworld is attempting to escape its inner core. The landscape is a reoccurring theme throughout the series. India’s forests, waterways, mountains and rural villages are the sites in which Basu sets the scene for our education into this historic yet overlooked conflict. The People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army comprises the Adivasis, a collective name for the many indigenous peoples of India. As with many historic conflicts, the Adivasi’s struggles can be traced back to colonialism and India’s period of British rule, which brought with it an encroachment on indigenous lands. Basu’s burning landscape situates this David and Goliath-style conflict, presenting a visual metaphor for environmental injustices and the historic impact of man’s greed on our natural world. 

Centralia’s exact subject matter and the precise details of this specific ‘far off’ conflict might be an abstract concept to many, but the repercussions are familiar. We know that during conflict, across the globe, women, girls and minority communities are disproportionally affected. Basu has spent a lifetime dedicating her art and activism to upholding the stories and challenges faced by women, notably those in the Global South. It is unsurprising then, that throughout her publication women feature as a main protagonist and their stories create an integral part of framing this particular conflict. 

45, from the series ‘Centralia’, photograph by Poulomi Basu, 2010 – present. Museum no. PH.2019-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It is reported that around 60% of the PLGA members are women. Basu captures the array of women’s roles within this conflict; from active participant to unwilling bystander. Two young guerrilla fighters share a tender moment; dressed in fatigues and covered in an assortment of weaponry, they gently hold hands. Two barefoot women emerge onto a pathway, purple scarves billowing behind them. A mother gazes out of a flyscreen, clutching her child. Basu’s photographs represent those fighting in the war but also the collateral damage: the local villagers, residents, farmers and children caught in the crossfire between insurgents and paramilitary. 

33, from the series ‘Centralia’, photograph by Poulomi Basu, 2010 – present. Museum no. PH.2017-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Centralia also includes the powerful portraits of the female martyrs active in the conflict itself. In these pixelated, abstracted, found photographs we discover Nirmala, shot at close range in 1998 whilst defending her sentry. Padma, also killed in 1998, whilst sheltering to load her gun. Ruppi, raped and murdered in 1995. Aruna, struck down by a comrade who mistook her for a bear in 1996. The accompanying texts inform us that these women played important roles during their short lifetimes; creating organisations, demanding rights for workers and teaching their community to read. Basu’s thoughtful inclusion of these women’s faces and their stories provides them with agency and life after death. It reinforces Basu’s commitment to empowering women and highlights the significant roles women play in the defence of global land rights, evidencing the link between ecocide and femicide, particularly within native and rural communities. 

Martyrs 7, from the series ‘Centralia’, photograph by Poulomi Basu, 2010 – present. Museum no. PH.2027-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Basu’s highly cinematic photographs are tricky to decipher. It is unclear what is real and what is constructed; a sophisticated, purposeful tactic which the artist adopts to misdirect and (mis)represent the propaganda of war – for, she argues, the first casualty of conflict is surely the truth. It is a bewildering experience, resulting in an unusual and frantic reader analysis of imagery for clues as to their ‘truthfulness’. The use of photography as a ‘document’, and the medium’s complex relationship to looking and othering, has led Basu on a personal artistic journey spanning over 20 years. Increasingly uncomfortable with the limiting techniques of documentary photography and frustrated by the medium’s inability to flex, present nuance or attract the desired audience, Basu has moved towards a more dynamic visual language in which photography is just one tool, presented alongside VR, performance, film, photography and installation to engage a broader demographic in the debate around ecofeminism, gender violence and global justice. 

Photography Now is on display in the Photography Centre until May 2025. 

A wider selection of Poulomi Basu’s work can be viewed online or through an appointment with our Prints and Drawing Study Room 

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