The Aura of Boxing : an interview with Max Kandhola
Max Kandhola is an established UK photographer who has exhibited widely in Europe and the USA. He is currently Head of Photography at Nottingham Trent University. Although his Asian working class upbringing is present in his work, he is one of the few photographers I know who is able to use photography to simultaneously speak about identity and aesthetics, without being trapped within their boundaries.
His current show at the New Art Exchange is one of the best presented exhibitions I have seen. Images are printed over six meters tall onto a textured canvas, and spreads over both the main gallery and the mezzanine area above. It feels like an old warehouse that may have been converted to a boxing gym, the bare spaces with huge un-bordered prints, stand alongside grey walls making the monotone images stand out from their surroundings with a sense of peace and harmony. We caught up with Max at the New Art Exchange to ask him about his work.
How would you introduce Max Kandhola ?
I practice photographic research methodology, by this I mean, I take an idea, the research in the work has been done previously, or is currently being done and I really think hard about the context in which the idea lives. This research process informs my, practice and from this I try to draw my own perspective and a new discourse into the research idea. Although I work behind the camera, I look at things conceptually, I studied design and photography, and drawing upon theoretical ideas from my reading into anthropology and ethnographic methodology it presents a quasi evaluation of how I attempt to make photographs.
So for example in the ‘Aura of Boxing’, I try to move away from how the paparazzi and journalists to speak about boxing, or the duel, and instead look at the person and the ring as a space for the art of boxing. I am drawn on similarities to other areas of life. I have very consciously isolated the person and the four corners of the boxing ring and by thinking about what the ring means, I drew inspiration from the idea about how my parents use the space in the Gurdwara to pray as equals, and the idea of the applying the five senses became important, the canvas in the boxing ring becomes a place where ones identify is made. I tried to understand boxing methodology, their state of mind, their backgrounds, who they are, and how they respond to the trials and tribulations, their ups and downs. This is something we don’t get to see often.
Why do you make references to ‘Middle Earth’, and by implication the midlands in the work?
I use ‘Middle Earth’ England because of my background and birth place Birmingham, and J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a reference to Moseley Bog. Birmingham is Middle Earth. I began photographing gyms in Balsall Heath, Digbeth, Sparkhill, Garrets Green, Moseley and Newtown. Then travelled up and down the country. The wider context of your work always bring you back to where your roots are, to gain the essence of life, this happens to be Birmingham. Dickens great novels traces lives of people at the edge of society and he is drawn back to the streets of London. In Great Expectations, there is an exploratory context of place and land some might say biographical, yet he is finding his place. Middle earth is where I am from, and the work came from a post-industrial inner city cocoon. The places I found were run down, deprived of money financial support, but spaces had became quite significant places for kids to meet and bond and be part of the community, and that community happened to be boxing, which historically as we all know always draws upon the down and out the kids. Often boxing images concentrate upon the duel, which is not always a pleasant visual spectacle. I wanted to step away from this, and looked at the idea identity and having a space where one excluded from society could go and feel at home. The place I used to go to were always on the edge of society, and the boxers were characters who came in with a code of conduct and discipline. The young guys had very strict family values, two or three jobs to keep them going, and what kept them going was the people they talked to, being part of a community, and being respected with dignity. So even though they were earning very little money, and no-one there came from a privileged background, they were respected.
How does race and class impact upon your work?
I think photography allows me to focus on issues and make reference to my own background, being born to Sikh family, who came to this country in the 1950’s. Race and class was very important. I was looked upon as a migrant, the colour was always pointed out to me, the ‘rivers of blood’ was thrown in my face from a young age, however I was not bought up with a chip on my shoulder, I was told about my heritage and to be very proud. However race and class is when we look at sub-cultures and the cultures of who we are, which can be many things.
I used to be introduced as a black photographer, but I networked within an international arena so my work did not become ghettoised. My work was seen in London, Europe and America, in fact I have never had a show in Birmingham, (only small be-spoke installations) and people just assumed I was based in London. I work with Autograph ABP, but I also work independently, with Dewi Lewis Publishing, Impressions Gallery Bradford, PhotoInk Delhi, India and the Arts Council, and venues such as New Art Exchange, because work should be seen and discussed at the community levels, as well with private collectors, commercial galleries and international art galleries. It is important to bring and discuss work to communities, which is why I am doing talks here, in Derby and with Rich Mix in London, but it is also important to be able to decontextualise the work for an international audience. When Susan Sontag wrote ‘Illness as a Metaphor’, she wasn’t talking to a predominantly white audience, but to everyone, my work in Illustration of Life published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, documenting the last few hours of my fathers life, is about a man dying from cancer, my father, a Punjabi man, but it was also about humanity.
The work has taken a long time to complete and the result is that it does feel monumental, has it been a long journey?
Yes, the work has taken over a decade to complete, and many different stages. Along the way my brother passed away, and my father and then I had to cope with my own illness. These histories are embedded in the work, for example I was on a shoot with Lennox Lewis when I received news of my brother’s death, and the period from 1996 to 2001 was being cocooned between these events and this project, and though progress was slow it enabled me to be clear about its presentation, how i would use the space in a gallery. Although the dark harsh environment of the warehouses I visited which had been converted into gyms, their was life there in the posters and the graffiti and the layering of stories, when I went to showcase the work I felt it important to have the greyness in the walls, and let the images cover the space. I have also used a soundtrack with various boxing noises and a tune composed by friend with a cello, this has been looped together to enhance the work in the gallery. My presentation in the New Art Exchange is different to how I will work in the space in London, and the space in Derby, so yes it been a momentum journey.
Max Kandhola is an established UK photographer who has exhibited widely in Europe and the USA. His work is held in private and public collections including Autograph ABP, London; The Deutsche Bank Collection; LightWork Syracuse New York; National Media Museum, Bradford; and Birmingham Library. Kandhola is currently Head of Photography at Nottingham Trent University.
The ‘Aura of Boxing’ is being exhibited at New Art Exchange, Nottingham from 1 Feb – 21 April 2014, at Rich Mix, London from March 6th – 30th March, 2014 and The Chocolate Factory, Derby from 8th March – 18th April, 2014
Copies of the book, published by Dewi Lewis and costing £30 are available here