Narayan Mahon’s “Lands in Limbo”

Narayan Mahon’s photographic exhibit at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMOCA), Lands in Limbo, explores the social lives of border spaces. Shot over the years 2006-2009, the photographs document the everyday lives of those who live in the politically unrecognized states of Somaliland, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, and Abkhazia. Mahon finds these edges particularly interesting because they “maintain their borders,” and the government of each state “seeks—but does not receive—international recognition.”1 Each image depicts layers of history, borders, and contentious spaces.

Mahon is a Madison local whose work has appeared in the New York Times and The New Yorker. He began the project that became Lands in Limbo while attending graduate school in photography at Syracuse University. Inspired by documentary photographers photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, and Sebastião Salgado, Mahon’s project bridges art and documentary photography, blurring the lines between a dictated truth from a picture and an audience’s freedom to form their own interpretation of each image.2 Like Mark, Meiselas, and Salgado, his work is immersed in the social experiences of individual people. As he blurs artistic and documentary registers, Mahon highlights the seemingly banal experiences of those who live in these complex lands of limbo.

Mental Hospital, Hargeisa, Somaliland, 2008. Photograph by Narayan Mahon. © Narayan Mahon Photography.

Mental Hospital, Hargeisa, Somaliland, 2008. Photograph by Narayan Mahon. © Narayan Mahon Photography.

Mahon uses photography to portray the experiences of those who may not have the option to share their story with the world. His work highlights lesser known places, and thus people, in the world. The exhibit highlights areas of the world where local, daily struggles often become yesterday’s news.

Mahon reminds us about the power of definitions. How the international community defines borders strongly influences the everyday life of populations who challenge them. The residents of unrecognized states remain along political edges as they seek borders of their choosing. Mahon’s photographs remind the viewer of the lived difficulties of desired sovereignty. This narrative is enticing and the photographs weave the complexities of unrecognized independence throughout the lives of the subjects in the photos. Through his narratives, Mahon highlights the implications of the social and political edge effects that unify seemingly disparate regions. Isolation is an example of one theme that appears throughout the photographs: many of Mahon’s images show one person, and solitude of the individual becomes a metaphor for the unrecognized state.

Square, Tiraspol, Transnistria, 2007. Photograph by Narayan Mahon. © Narayan Mahon Photography.

Square, Tiraspol, Transnistria, 2007. Photograph by Narayan Mahon. © Narayan Mahon Photography.

All of the images in the exhibit have human subjects, which reveal Mahon’s focus on the daily, lived experiences of those who live in contested spaces organized by unrecognized states. He gently turns the camera on experiences such as going to church, to school, and to the sea.

Black Sea, Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 2008. Photograph by Narayan Mahon. © Narayan Mahon Photography.

Black Sea, Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 2008. Photograph by Narayan Mahon. © Narayan Mahon Photography.

For Mahon, the landscape of Lands in Limbo is a very subtle actor in the lives of the photographed subjects. While a focus may be on two women on a rusted ship stair, the black sea remains a magnificent backdrop, wrapping together the history of the land, the history of the rusting ship, and the present moment of two women sharing time by the sea.

Black Sea, Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 2007. Photograph by Narayan Mahon. © Narayan Mahon Photography.

Black Sea, Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 2007. Photograph by Narayan Mahon. © Narayan Mahon Photography.

Politics is an inherent theme in the subject matter in myriad ways. Sometimes the viewer must infer the political through as little as a title, while in other images, such as of voting and parades, the presence of the political is unmistakable.

Military Parade, Tiraspol, Transnistria, 2007. Photograph by Narayan Mahon. © Narayan Mahon Photography.

Military Parade, Tiraspol, Transnistria, 2007. Photograph by Narayan Mahon. © Narayan Mahon Photography.

Depressed infrastructure is a common backdrop in many of the photographs, which hints at other political themes like access. Worn structures are visible throughout the photographs, regardless of the location. In fact, several of the buildings look as though they have been through combat. While the exhibit documents a challenging situation, there is hope. Life continues even in the most unpleasant circumstances.

In blurring the line between documentary and artistic photography, Mahon also blurs the lines that define what a state “should” or “should not” be. The exhibit unearths some provocative questions. What is the cost of seeking sovereignty? Is fighting for internationally recognized statehood worth the difficulty? What is life like in an unrecognized state?

Lands in Limbo will resonate with anyone who is interested in the day-to-day politics of living in a state unrecognized by the international community. For those who reside outside of Madison, it is possible to view some photographs online at MMOCA’s website. But for Madison locals, it is worth taking a trip to the MMOCA to view the exhibit in person. Lands in Limbo weaves together Mahon’s photographs and narrative that, when combined, provide a nuanced engagement with each photo displayed. The organization of the exhibit is holistic; though the photographs are arranged by region, a viewer can begin to experience the exhibit through any one photo. A map painted onto one wall presents narratives about each region, providing a deeper context for the photos. Mahon employs his skill as an artist to capture the complexity of political edge effects, bringing attention to the contemporary challenges and subtle beauty of over four million people living in limbo.

Lands in Limbo is on display at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art through March 15, 2015.

Featured image: Store, Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh, 2006. Photograph by Narayan Mahon. © Narayan Mahon Photography. 

Ruth Trumble is a Ph.D. student in the Geography Department at UW-Madison working with Dr. Robert Kaiser. Her research explores the relationship between environmental disasters and peacebuilding initiatives in post-conflict areas. Currently, her work focuses on the spring 2014 floods in southeastern Europe. She received her B.A. in Geography from Hunter College-CUNY and M.S. in Geography from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Contact

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  1. Blaustein, Jonathan. “New Nations, Living in Limbo.” The New York Times. September 29, 2014. Accessed: December 30, 2014. http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/29/new-nations-living-in-limbo/ 

  2.  Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. “Narayan Mahon: Lands in Limbo.” Accessed: January 5, 2014. http://www.mmoca.org/exhibitions-collection/exhibits/narayan-mahon-lands-limbo 

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