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A Magazine for Sheffield

Alex Ekins: Sadhus of Sheffield

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I was recently moving some furniture around at a city centre venue, getting ready for a gig, and one of Alex Ekins' life-sized Sadhu paste-ups sprung into view.

If you've walked around the Cultural Industries Quarter over the last few years you've probably had a similar experience with Alex's work. Unexpected, out of place, even out of time, the Sadhus stand guard on the walls of abandoned buildings and street corners earmarked for demolition.

Alex told me more about his work, which is displayed throughout this issue.

What is your background and how did you get into photography?

I have always been interested in art and photography and began taking black and white photographs using film as a teenager, learning how to develop and print using traditional darkroom techniques. I went on to study photojournalism and began to get my work widely published in various publications, including The Guardian, The Independent, The Economist and Le Monde. I did a lot of political portraiture and took Nick Clegg's photograph for the Financial Times. I have been a climber and mountaineering instructor for over 30 years and began to combine this experience with the photojournalism to develop a reputation as a climbing and mountaineering photographer. More recently I have been increasingly influenced by street art and have diversified by looking for new ways to present my work, away from the traditional print and online media.

What's the story behind your Sadhu pieces?

The Sadhus are Hindu ascetics who have rejected work, materialism and the trappings of modern life. They live in caves, forests and temples throughout the Indian subcontinent. I find it interesting and heartening that Hinduism allows men and women to legitimately pursue a non-consumerist life and that Hindu society respects those who seek an alternative lifestyle.

I like the idea that paste-ups are real people

I was in Nepal in 2012, where I spent some time in Kathmandu developing a technique to take life-size portraits outside using a large studio backdrop. I met the Sadhu Shiva Das in Kathmandu and he agreed to be my first subject. He liked what I produced so agreed to introduce me to the other Sadhus. I initially produced a series called the Seven Sadhu, which were cut-out photographs pasted up life-size in Sheffield's Cultural Quarter.

In 2016 I returned to Kathmandu and was very happy to find both Shiva Das and another of the original seven, Ganga Das, who has the most extraordinary dreadlocks I have ever seen. I gave Ganga Das a life-size photograph I took of him and we pasted it up in the temple where he lives. I was also able to take photographs on the streets of Kathmandu of other Sadhus I hadn't previously worked with. This all added up to quite a significant body of photographic work.

Why did you want to present images of them in Sheffield?

Living in Sheffield, I was beginning to become influenced by the city's great street artists, such as Kid Acne, Florence Blanchard, Foundry, Phlegm, Coloquix and Jo Peel. I began to think about new ways of presenting my own work. Placing work in the street plays with the idea of people perhaps being somewhere that some may feel they shouldn't be. I like the idea that the paste-ups are real people, the life-size pieces are direct representations of the individuals photographed. I also feel that it's becoming increasingly important to present the great dignity, joy and imagination inherent in all human nature and challenge the growing fear of the other.

Tell us about your current exhibition.

The exhibition is in the new gallery and studio upstairs at Kelham Arcade on Burton Road in Kelham Island. It will run for two evenings alongside the Peddler market. It will be the first time all the Sadhu portraits will be shown together. I will also be showing photographs of the various Sadhu in situ that have been on Sheffield's streets over the last three years. Friday 1 December 5pm - 10-30pm and Saturday 2nd December 2pm - 10.30pm.

Sam Walby

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