The Virtual Immigrant: A sabbatical exhibition by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

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a sabbatical exhibition by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew


Fine Arts Center Galleries, University of Rhode Island

October 20 – December 10, 2006

Reception for the Artist October 25, 4 – 6 pm

Public Conversation with the Artist November 1, 4 – 6 pm

A new word has appeared during water-cooler conversations in offices across the U.S. The term is Bangalored. It refers to India’s high-tech hub, and it means your job has just moved to India without you. But in the shifting global labor market, vernacular can quickly become outdated. What is the term for a job that is outsourced to India only to be relayed to China or Romania?

-Aryn Baker, “In Search of the Next Bangalore,” Time Magazine, June 26, 2006, 42

KINGSTON, R.I. — October 10, 2006 — The relocation of jobs in a global economy is widely and passionately treated in the popular press, in films and in contemporary writing. Many and varied scenarios concerning globalization are publicly debated. In her own upcoming sabbatical exhibition, developed over the past year and a half in extended tours (funded in part by the American Institute of Indian Studies) to her mother’s home town, Bangalore, the place where she grew up and knows intimately, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew explores the fluid and multidimensional aspects of globalization from her own unique perspective. Matthew is a recently naturalized American citizen, photographer, and University of Rhode Island Associate Professor of Art.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew specifically draws on the experience of call center or “BPO” (Business Process Outsourcing) workers at 1-800, “24/7” call centersites in Bangalore, where the “virtual immigrant” condition expresses a new type of identity that is especially relevant as we consider the effects of digital technology in globalization. The call center “immigrants” respond to computer problems and offer other technical assistance to Western callers (predominantly Americans) in an exceptionally profitable, increasingly competitive telephone-support industry. They adopt American culture as comprehensively as possible, becoming Americans for the workday, complete with neutralized accents, American idiomatic language and American names. The potentially homogenizing nature of globalization (and along the way, tensions of economics, race, age, ethnicity, and gender in specific terms such as the caste system, karma or fate, women’s roles and arranged marriage) are treated in this special audio-visual installation, debuting at the University of Rhode Island this fall.

In these latest works, Matthew uses the morphing, fluctuating imagery of lenticular printing to suggest changing identity—from adopted American customs to indigenous Indian fulfillment and back again. As Matthew explains, “lenticular prints consist of two photographs that have been spliced and reassembled so that from one angle you view a portrait of the call center worker in his/her ‘work’ clothes, usually perceived as more Western. From the other angle the Virtual Immigrant appears dressed in clothes that he/she may wear on a more formal occasion, which is invariably Indian.”

As Western and Indian garb is worn alternately by her subjects/models, the relation of body language to changing costume is also remarkable and witty.

Excerpts from taped interviews that Matthew made with her subjects will be played continuously in the Gallery, without direct correlation to individual voices, intentionally to suggest by disembodied voices the remote, dislocated experience of communication in the call centers. There will also be a 3d installation of telephone receivers and a formal listening booth.

A portion of the installation is comprised of a related body of Matthew’s work. Ongoing since 1999, these images were made with a Holga or plastic camera and were digitally “remastered” from original gelatin silver prints or, alternatively, photographed digitally at the outset. “Exploring my Diaspora: Memories of India” was the name of Matthew’s first exhibition in Rhode Island, mounted in the Photography Gallery, Fine Arts Center Galleries, in early 1999. As proclaimed by its title, that earlier exhibition suggested those personal and cultural experiences that yielded lifelong impressions of Matthew’s Indian homeland, informing and giving meaning to the photographer’s life. These include Matthew’s “masala” status of being born in England, and thereafter raised in India.

In Memories, the cherished atmosphere of India is captured in dreamy, nostalgic images of backwater locales heavy with natural movement such as the artist’s sensation of “Silken saris that billow in the wind.” In tribute to those photographic effects, saris will be integrated in the upcoming exhibition as well.

Matthew studied at Women’s Christian College in Chennai, India, earning a B.S. in Mathematics. Later she graduated with an M.F.A. from the University of Delaware. Thereafter, she came to Rhode Island from Philadelphia to teach at the University of Rhode Island. Over the last 10 years Matthew has had many solo exhibitions, especially of her “Bollywood Satirized” work, and has been featured in numerous group exhibitions internationally. For a complete listing, see Matthew has held artist’s residencies in New Jersey, Colorado, Syracuse, Rochester and Woodstock, New York and recently at Yaddo, the Millay and MacDowell Colonies. She has obtained many grants and fellowships, has had her work selected for books and professional portfolios, gained a large critical bibliography, and her photographs have entered numerous collections. As a University professor, Matthew is also a devoted conference and symposium participant. She is represented by Sepia International Gallery, New York.

The original sabbatical project and its final exhibition-related programs have been made possible by: the American Institute of Indian Studies; the Corporation of Yaddo, NY; The John Gutmann Foundation; a New Works grant from The Rhode Island Foundation, a charitable community trust serving the people of Rhode Island; by the URI Departments of Art, Philosophy and Sociology; Center for the Humanities; Council for Research; Fine Arts Center Galleries, and Program in Women’s Studies. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with essay by sociologist Winifred Poster, made possible in part by a grant from The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rhode Island Foundation.


Reception for the Artist October 25, 4 – 6 pm

A Public Conversation with the Artist November 1, 4 – 6 pm

Led by Winifred Poster

Department of Sociology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Prof. Poster is a specialist in the globalization of labor in the context of changing information and communication technologies (ICT), work-family relations, intersections of gender, race, class, and nation, and transnational activism. Her book, Global Circuits of Gender: Confinement and Normalization in High-Tech Work Across India and the United States, is an ethnographic study of 3 high-tech firms in the U.S. and India in the mid-1990s.

To download the catalogue for the exhibition, link to

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Tuesday – Friday, 12 noon – 4:00 p.m.; Saturday- Sunday, 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. (closed holidays).

THE FINE ARTS CENTER GALLERIES are open to the public without charge

& are handicapped accessible.

The Feminist Art Project

“Recognizing the aesthetic and intellectual impact of women on the visual arts and culture.”

Beginning 2006, many museums, universities, and other institutions nationally planned to commemorate several historic anniversaries in the American Women’s Art Movement of the 1970s and to launch new initiatives that demonstrate the ongoing significance of women’s contributions to art.

The Feminist Art Project, based Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, invited participation in activities that celebrate women’s contributions to art and the Feminist Art Movement. Its purpose is to bring public attention to their significant impact on contemporary art practice, highlighting their international influence, and guaranteeing their inclusion in the cultural record, past, present, and future.

The Fine Arts Center Galleries, University of Rhode Island have joined in this celebration by mounting activities in its 2006/07 season that support this mission, and these events have been listed with the Feminist Art Project.