Prarthana Purkayastha | Decolonizing Capture: Race, Photography and Dance


Photographic documentation forms a significant part of many dance and performance archives, providing visual and material traces of events that once happened, or performers who once moved. Ontologically, however, dance and performance are understood to be exceptional because they are uncapturable (Peggy Phelan, 1993). Moreover, photographic capture is now understood to be a major tool used in the ‘science of race’ that congealed racial ideologies in the era of European and US imperialism (Amos Morris-Reich, 2016). How, then, can we read colonial photographic images of dance, when notions of dance as disappearance and dance as evidence are simultaneously brought into play?

Drawing on current historiographic concerns within dance and performance studies with archives and materiality, this paper calls attention to the remains of dancers captured in photographic form that help resurrect forgotten and suppressed histories of minoritarian dance practices. It deploys a body of archived photography to argue that the visual and material remains of dance not only represent or document past events but continue to activate semiotic, aesthetic and political possibilities for audiences today. A decolonized narrative of minoritarian performers in India is crafted by treating colonial-era photographs of nautch – a racialized and criminalized dance practice – as performative traces. Inspired by the work of African American scholars such as Tina Campt (2017) and Saidiya Hartman (2019), I mobilize photographic evidence of colonized dancers not merely as vestiges of a violent and racialized past but for the decolonized and equitable futures they animate. I follow, too, the work of British scholars and dance artists of African Diasporic heritage such as Tia-Monique Uzor, Jamila Johnson-Small and Alexandrina Hemsley and their notion of ‘avoiding capture’ as an artistic priority for making dance (Uzor, 2018). The paper, then, thinks through the limits, problems or promise of capturing dance into documentable, perceptible or permissible forms.