Narayan Mahon: Lands in Limbo
December 6, 2014 to March 15, 2015

In December 2014, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art will present the first museum exhibition showcasing Narayan Mahon’s photographic journey through the unrecognized countries of Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh, and Somaliland. With a selection of photographs from each of the artist’s five geographically-based series, Narayan Mahon: Lands in Limbo explores the day-to-day realities of living in countries that remain unacknowledged by the larger international community. Mahon calls attention to complex geopolitical realities, while simultaneously giving poetic image to the human condition. He artfully captures the experiences of individuals grappling with matters of cultural and ethnic identity, economic devastation, and self-determination in the face of extreme international isolation. In doing so, he raises timely questions about the meaning of national sovereignty in the increasingly globalized world of the twenty-first century, and contributes to the ongoing dialogue about the role of documentary photography in contemporary art.

Mahon’s practice is situated within the socially engaged tradition embodied by such contemporary artists as Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, and Sebastiao Salgado, whose work fuses the aesthetic and formal integrity of fine art with the informational concerns of photojournalism. This process can be tied to an even earlier generation of twentieth-century photographers, including Magnum Photo’s celebrated co-founders Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who embraced a more expressive form of documentary photography that allowed room for personal vision and an authorial point of view. By establishing a formal means to challenge the very assumption of photographic objectivity, they also questioned the value, even the ability, of the photograph to deliver information in a neutral or unmediated manner. The goal of documentary photography, then, is not only to capture truth but rather, in the words of Cartier-Bresson, to uncover “the poetry of life’s reality.”  Mahon’s photographs subscribe to and celebrate this dictum.

In the context of the early twenty-first century and in the face of ongoing advances in digital technologies, photography has come to embody the ever-expanding slippage between document and art, fact and interpretation. Contemporary documentary photographers, in fusing subject with style and form with content, have succeeded in illuminating vital issues while also opening up space for dialogue, fluidity, and ambiguity. In his photography, Narayan Mahon inextricably ties medium to message. The historically contested boundaries of photographic genres symbolically parallel the ever-shifting borders of the countries he explores in Lands in Limbo. Both are malleable and indeterminate.

Narayan Mahon is an award-winning photographer whose editorial work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Economist, ESPN Magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Times of London, Ventiquattro (Italy), Focus (Germany), and PowerHouse Magazine, among many other national and international publications. Most recently Mahon was a winner of American Photography 30, Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward- Emerging Photographers (2009), a finalist for the International Reporting Project Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, and a grant recipient of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his work in Somaliland. He holds a Master’s degree in Photojournalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, and as a Bachelor’s degree in International Studies from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Generous funding for Narayan Mahon: Lands in Limbo has been provided by The DeAtley Family Foundation; McGladrey LLP; Dane Arts with additional funding from the Evjue Foundation, charitable arm of The Capital Times; Nancy Doll and Michael Bernhard; Dianne and Bob Gomez; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.

Related Programming

Saturday, February 7  ·  1–1:30 pm
Drop-In Tour
Examine Narayan Mahon’s beautiful and insightful representations of the people and places depicted in his photographic project, Lands in Limbo. Led by MMoCA docent Gil Hillman, this free guided tour provides tools to consider artists’ creative decisions and develop meaningful interpretations of their work. Meet in the MMoCA lobby.

Friday, February 13  ·  12:30–1 pm
Stuck in Limbo: Why do groups seek independence and why it is so hard to get?

Lands in Limbo documents the lives of people stuck in the liminal world of unrecognized states. Nadav Shelef will explore why groups seek independence despite the costs and the reasons they stay in limbo.

Nadav Shelef is the Harvey M. Meyerhoff professor of modern Israel studies and associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Shelef teaches and studies nationalism and ethnic conflict, religion and politics, Israeli politics and society, and Middle East politics. His current projects focus on understanding how homelands change and the conditions under which religious parties moderate their positions. His book, Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Religion and Identity in Israel was published in 2010 by Cornell University Press.


Kids' Art Adventures
Kids’ Art Adventures invite families to make art together in MMoCA’s classroom following guided discussion of art on view in the museum’s exhibitions. Six- to ten-year-olds and their families should meet promptly at 1 pm in MMoCA’s lobby; children must be accompanied by an adult. Space at Kids’ Art Adventures is limited to thirty children and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Kids’ Art Adventures is generously funded by American Family Insurance. more »

March 8  · 1–2:30 pm
The people pictured in Narayan Mahon: Lands in Limbo live in places that have formed their own countries for cultural, economic, or political reasons. If you could create a country, what would it be like? Who or what would live there? Create a playset featuring a land of your own.

Learning Centers
Learning Centers offer adults and families a variety of resources for exploring its exhibitions. Children’s books and a range of kid-friendly activities promote imaginative engagement with works of art. Families may also use the MMoCAkids ArtPack, a shoulder bag filled with interactive tools for use in the galleries and at home. 

For adults, books on photography, articles on Lands in Limbo, and an audio interview with Narayan Mahon complement the exhibition. 

Let’s look
These interactive handouts help parents talk about art with their children, encouraging them to think imaginatively about what they see while learning about art and artists. Use Let's look to explore Dividing Wall #1, Lefkosa, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on view in Narayan Mahon: Lands in Limbo.

MMoCAkids ArtPack
Stop by the reception desk in the lobby and ask for the MMoCAkids ArtPack, the museum’s hands-on discovery kit for exploring art. The ArtPack is filled with activities that tap into thoughts and feelings about a work of art, or encourage close looking at artists' creative decisions. Also included are drawing materials and other interactive tools for use in the galleries or rooftop sculpture garden. Don't miss the chance to make your own viewfinder and use it to capture an image.


Teaching Page
The Narayan Mahon teaching page provides analysis of Playground, Lefkosa, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, biographical information on the artist, discussion questions, and links to additional resources. Effective as an introduction to a museum visit, the page also is valuable as an ongoing classroom resource.

Bring your students to MMoCA to engage with Narayan Mahon: Lands in Limbo. Learn more about tours here.