In a zone between documentary photography and performance art, Indian artist Gauri Gill’s images challenge the notion of portraiture by involving her subjects in the process of picture making. In one striking photograph, two men wearing masks of a sun and a moon amble down a village path, bringing the universe back home. Only on further inspection can one see that the moon man is missing his left hand — the victim of an accident, an all-too-common occurrence in the near subsistence-level existence of rural India. Another scene captures a doctor in the guise of an elephant using a stethoscope to examine a frail woman donning the face of an old man. The dreamlike moment is rooted in the reality of the examining room, a barebones affair that is barely antiseptic in this rudimentary hospital setting. These pictures, captured in vivid color, are just two in Gill’s series, Acts of Appearance, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art PS1.
To make these photographs, Gill recruited the cooperation of a village of traditional Adivasi paper mâché artists from the Konkana tribe in one of the most impoverished districts in Maharashtra in west-central India. In 2013, the photographer first encountered the Bahora procession in Maharashtra, a ritual performance in which the entire village enacts variations of a mythological epic, donning hand-made masks of Hindu and tribal gods and demons. Two years later, she located a particular village, meeting with the sons of the late legendary craftsman Dharma Kadu, and treating them as her artistic equals, she proposed that the tribe employ their creativity to make masks that reflect their present-day realities, rather than mythological beings. The result was a wide variety of masks — people, animals, and even objects like cell phones — that allowed the villagers to represent themselves as the talented artists that they are, rather than as “folk artists” or “artisans,” as they are often described.
“I went to them and asked them, ‘How would you think about making masks that represent life in the village as it is today?’ And they said, ‘Can you give us a sample?’ I said, ‘There is no sample,’” recalls Gill, speaking at the exhibition. Instead of providing examples, she initiated a dialogue with the local artists, asking questions such as, “Why are masks never made to represent someone with a mole or spectacles or grey hair or a big nose or someone who is overweight or sick or getting old? Why are the traditional masks so idealized?” The conversations sparked an array of responses and innovations.
Gill’s goal was to situate these new masks within the mundane and realistic details of daily life in Maharashtra. In one instance, wanting to highlight a particular community bench in the town square, she posed a man beside a woman wearing a goat’s head and holding a baby goat in her arms. In another, a shopkeeper wearing a giant cobra mask carefully weighs onions in his local grocery store. Other times, her choice of location required a subversion of authority, such as when the group took over a bus station on a crowded afternoon. In each instance, she persuaded her collaborators to pose for the camera, totally un-self-conscious behind the safety of the mask and among familiar settings, with suggestions coming from both them and her.
For Gill, collaboration is a key component in her photographic process. Born in 1970 in Chandigarh, she earned a BFA in Applied Art from the College of Art in New Delhi, then came to the States to study photography at Parsons School of Design. She returned to Delhi to work for a political weekly for five years before pursuing her MFA at Stanford, then went back to India to teach and continue making her own work. Throughout her career, Gill has supported and highlighted the works of others. For example, in 2003, she was invited by an activist group to participate in a girls’ fair, setting up an outdoor photo studio and encouraging her subjects to choose their own poses and props and to construct expressive mise-en-scènes, a rare opportunity for self-representation in a patriarchal society. Excerpts of two other earlier projects — Notes from the Desert, documentary photographs from her large archive of rural Rajasthan, and The Mark on the Wall, images of drawings made by local artists, students, and teachers on the walls of school rooms throughout the district — are also included in the MoMA PS1 exhibition.
“All the artists and actor volunteers have responded warmly to the photographs,” says Gill, who is now looking for a location to exhibit the series (which was also included in Documenta 14) back in the original locale to the wider audience in the village and surrounding areas. Although she compensated her collaborators for the time spent making the masks and collective improvisations, now that the photographs are for sale, a share of the profits go to the Konkana people in support of their art.
“I think maybe the artists appreciate the photographs as a kind of mask, too, because this is a very singular and personal interpretation of how things really are,” she says, noting that despite the dream-like atmosphere evoked by the images, they were often made in the midst of chaos, with many people on set drinking tea and offering opinions. She returned to Maharashtra several times in the past three years to complete the series, with three mask-making and filming schedules lasting for a month each time. “Bhalmati walking home from school, a distance of more than six kilometres, Osiyan,” a silver gelatin print from Notes from the Desert, depicts the back of a young girl facing an endless trek on a sandy path through the vast expanse of the desert. “Untitled (40)” from The Mark on the Wall series depicts a tube-like circle surrounded by five buckets, each containing a different grain, painted on a blank wall, a pictogram intended to teach women remedies for diarrhea.
“With photography, you set out to describe the world and honor your experience and make these observations about things you admire, but at the same time it’s always going to be a very distinct interpretation,” says Gill.
No matter how imaginative and creative the images in Acts of Appearance are, the viewer is also constantly drawn back to the details of life in this rural village and the circumstances of existence in a world too often overlooked by the media. It is just these particulars that keep Gill coming back to this locale.
“I think the real world is endlessly fascinating because you simply cannot make it up or confine it. It exceeds the individual imagination and is infinitely faceted,” she concludes.
Acts of Appearance is on display at MoMA PS1 (22–25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, Queens) until September 3.