The Peacock and the Cobra, a portfolio by artist and naturalist James Prosek (American, born 1975), forms the centerpiece of this exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Also on view are a variety of painted pages and other objects from the Museum’s rich collection of art from India and Pakistan. While Prosek is not himself South Asian, the narratives that compose The Peacock and the Cobra invoke a range of ideas and images from the subcontinent. The artist, a keen observer of nature, is best known for his portrayals of fish and animals, real and imagined. His technique—most often finely detailed watercolor—is closely akin to the realistic portrayals of local flora and fauna created by Indian artists for British patrons during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Yet Prosek also playfully inverts the documentary tradition of natural history painting. The portfolio takes the form of a colonial-era matchbox from Multanshire, a fictional amalgam of a South Asian and British region. Hybridity, a term used both in biology and in cultural studies, holds a special fascination for the artist. In the final folio of The Peacock and the Cobra, Prosek portrays the two creatures fusing into a single being. Although legendary antagonists, they are surprisingly alike: the peacock’s sinuous neck echoes the cobra’s body, and both are known for their aggressive posturing and hissing battle calls. Prosek’s visual reflection on their combined form is both thoughtful and provocative, and experiencing the work in a South Asian context probes the unexpected cultural dialogue that constitutes global art in a modern world.
Curator: Ainsley M. Cameron, Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art