HOBSON-JOBSON: an Indo-Anglian Conversation

For her first solo exhibition in Jaipur Stephanie Douet presents a site-specific installation of life-size portrait busts in the delicately arched and creamy architecture of an upstairs chamber in the Museum of Legacies. The paintings are arranged among prints of archive photos of 19th century maharajahs and the British political agents who served them, the various elements tied together with decorative motifs painted directly onto the walls. The name ‘Hobson-Jobson’ comes from the Victorian slang glossary, and is a corruption of ‘Ya Hossein! Ya Hassan!’ which is cried in commemoration at Moharram* and symbolises the shuffling together of two different cultures.

The exhibition is the second in a series of works begun in 2016 with Douet’s solo exhibition ‘Roar Like a Paintbrush’ in Udaupur City Palace where she exhibited 16 small portraits, together with the original 19th century photos of the political agents who worked at the Mewar palace in the mid 19th century (portraits and prints at the Museum of Legacies are life-size busts all 84 x 63cm in size). The subject of both exhibitions is the artist’s ‘conversations’ with these images of the past, charting her discovery of a part of Britain’s history about which she had till then known nothing. The paintings in both exhibitions are trying to make sense of several aspects of Indian-British relations at the fascinating period - between Britain and India, between past and present, between technology and imagination, between architecture, decoration and art.

The architecture of the room at the Museum of Legacies is regularly punctuated by shallow recesses, pillars, jalousie windows and doors; this, and the different scales of the work with the room demands an active and dynamic hang. The use of decorative motifs places each separate set of works within the architecture, at the same time as giving unity to the entire installation; it gives each zone an individual presence and character, and disturbs the formality of the room. Douet has treated the installation as one big painting in which compositional relationships are created between the works, which look at and past one at another one; the viewer’s eyeliner disrupted by setting one portrait lower than its neighbour, finding different planes of space in which to site the paintings by means of decorative devices such as spots or borders. Motifs such as a moustache, a couple of pairs of feet, a green nose, act like beauty spots to draw the eye and punctuate the flow.

The paintings were all made in Douet’s studio in East Anglia, using old photos she had taken at Udaipur City Palace and images taken from books. Setting the works up on site involved much adjustment to her preconceptions about the display; the move from the flat white of her English studio to the complex rhythm of the havelli came to feel like the adjustment Europeans make when they encounter Indian culture. The artist’s presence intrudes on the prints in - her reflection can be seen in several of the prints of British officers, and pencil marks and paint spatters also appear. The flat texture of the paint, the use of borders and the rich colours come from Mughal painting, painted with a cartoonish style and humour. Faces and bodies are distorted or truncated with three eyes, insufficient limbs, hinting at the violence of the collision between the cultures of Asia and Europe.

*The cry ‘Ya Hossein! Ya Hussan!’ got scrambled into Hossein Gosein, Hossey Gossey, Hossen-Jossen and finally Hobson-Jobson. The glossary was written by Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell and published in 1886.