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Fields of sight: Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad

Reviewing an exhibition with fresh ways of seeing in Gallerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke (Mumbai).

Stuti Kakar
2 August 2016

A project where urban life intersects with rural landscapes — the collaboration between photographer Gauri Gill and Warli artist Rajesh Vangad takes the audience to places beyond their imagination, on a visual trip away from cityscapes. Creating a dialogue between two people from different walks of life, this hybrid creation amalgamates photography and indigenous Warli painting. 

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Fields of sight. Author's photo. All rights reserved.

In 2013, Gill was invited to an Adivasi district in Maharashtra, Dahanu, where she was to create works for a primary school. During the visit, she was welcomed by Rajesh Vangad who let her reside at his place, and later on took her to various locations which had significance in terms of folklore and political activity. The series follows the duo moving from location to location, capturing different landscapes which speak volumes.  Done solely in a monochromatic palette, Gill places Vangad as the protagonist in each picture, to represent the sentiment of each location. However, the images were not simply of the Warli painter placed against the backdrop of a landscape, assuming a passive role. Instead, the images incorporate Vangad’s Warli inscriptions on top of each photograph, giving the painter a much more active role in that space. 

While John Berger, in his book Ways of Seeing has shown us the hidden ideologies prevalent in visual images from a western perspective, over the past few decades, the emergence of the Global South has encouraged a better understanding of multiple new ways of viewing the world. The coming together of Gill and Vangad on this two-person project is an attempt to dramatically change the way images from the Global South are viewed.

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Author's own photo. All rights reserved.

As a viewer, there are several elements which one must pay attention to. The monochromatic tones used in the photograph mimic the manner in which Warli paintings are traditionally done — white pigment used on a reddish-brown background. The artist’s choice of a monochromatic theme is a way of placing herself and Vangad on an equal footing, further acknowledging the style of Warli painting. Through Gill’s lens, the artwork underplays the artist’s corporeal presence — conjuring Vangad’s identity into existence. In an attempt to weave a unique visual language, we witness Vangad camouflaged in the landscape, yet standing out. The Warli painter is positioned as a walking poet who walking in the most diverse landscapes, adds a new dimension to an existing flat surface.

A closer look at the painting-photos allows us to see that the protagonist’s gaze never meets that of the viewer. This mismatch in the gaze could perhaps symbolise a sense of loss, desolation, and alienation. In each of the images in the series, the painter seems to be positioned in a certain manner in the landscape, where he seems to be engaged in deep thought, speculating over a series of events which have already taken place in each respective landscape. There is a sense of nostalgia which can be sensed through the body language of the artist present in the frame, reminiscing about a certain “there and then” as contrasted with a “here and now”. Perhaps, this sense of melancholy stems from the socio-political conditions which are inseparable from this environment. 

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Author's photo. All rights reserved.

The uninhabited landscapes in Gill’s painting-photographs, are suggestive of a dramatic seclusion through a single pair of eyes: Vangad’s own. The heavy dose of silence in the frame gives viewers the space to visualise the destruction that eroded these visually serene landscapes. We are made to empathise with Vangad as he is lodged between the space of the past and the present, in search of equilibrium. It is clear that the monochrome photographs are a reflection of an otherwise invisible activity performed in the landscape.

In the past, Adivasi villages have been through continuous political turmoil. During the 70s, this village was invaded by gangs and political parties, leaving the locals displaced and traumatised. Apart from the raids conducted by mobs, the village witnessed forest fires, landslides and other such natural calamities that must leave any protagonist who is also a member of the village bereft. 

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Author's photo. All rights reserved.

Warli paintings traditionally depict themes of harvest, fishing, fertility, festivals, earthquakes, tsunamis and other events which impact the lives of community members. So the inscription of such themes in the pictorial frame brings a sense of life to the pictures, giving them a narrative, about a particular scene. This hybrid vocabulary fills the vacuum which occurred between painting and photography, enabling the viewer to re-visualise and re-conceptualise the way we see the Warli style of painting as an art form today. 

The choice of landscape has both a historic and an autobiographic resonance, which is remarkably captured through this two-person collaboration, thereby creating a memorable experience for the viewer.

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Author's own photo. All rights reserved.

We come to understand that one must not look at tribal art in complete isolation, and locate it in another time frame, thus rendering it as stagnant and static. As viewers, we should acknowledge this art form as we acknowledge any other. This indigenous art form has navigated its way from inscriptions on manure-coated walls to canvases, and has truly left the viewer with an indelible experience.

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