Cartoon character Mickey Mouse painted upside down on a shanty in Dharavi, Disney Castle in utter ruin, Mickey as Satan — an American art teacher’s ‘Slumscapes’ find beauty in contrast.
Most of us have fond memories of watching the cartoon character, Mickey Mouse, or of visiting Disneyland as a child. And we often associate Mickey Mouse and other Walt Disney characters with happy surroundings. But USA-based artist Jeffrey Gillette hasn’t had the best of experiences with the characters and his artwork reflects that.
The 57-year-old, who has been a public secondary school art teacher for 25 years, lives in Costa Mesa, California — within earshot of the nightly fireworks at Disneyland. His childhood was spent in Detroit — a relatively poor city. Gillette never got to go to Disneyland as a child. When he finally got a chance to meet the characters, he was unimpressed.
While working on his Master in Fine Arts, from California State University, he started painting slums with Disney symbols. “Disney is such a big deal in southern California, so I felt the need to parody it. I wanted to vent some of the disappointment I felt,” he says.
There is a lot of symbolism associated with Mickey Mouse, the Disney Castle and the Disneyland signs: they represent childhood, innocence, fantasy and American culture. By taking those elements and placing them in a scene that is “too real”, Jeffrey gives weight and awareness to both — Disney and poverty.
AVENGING THE PROMISED LAND
Since Disneyland claims to be the ‘happiest place on earth’, Gillette likes juxtaposing it with scenes of poverty. He places symbols of the entertainment giant in compromising situations, in slums or landfills (think of Mickey Mouse defecating in a sewage area, shattered Disneyland signboards, the iconic Disney Castle in ruins, or Mickey as Satan). “I find the slums and the impromptu architecture of shacks to be visually arresting. Apart from the reality of the economic and political situation, there is a strange kind of beauty there,” he says, explaining his fascination for slums.
Gillette terms his paintings as ‘Slumscapes’ and paints with oil and/or acrylic on canvas. His art depicts impoverished areas in developing countries such as Mumbai (Dharavi), Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Thailand and Nepal — all of which he has visited. “Some are a bit frightening to be in, others are really difficult to have access to. I’ve been told by residents to ‘get the hell out’ in some areas, and warned that it wasn’t safe in others,” he says. The people in Dharavi are disinterested at worst or welcoming and friendly at best, he adds.
Gillette has been to India over 20 times. During his first visit in 1987, he travelled through India extensively, and was fascinated by the slums. When a local tour operator offered to show him around Dharavi, he agreed. “Soon, I befriended my now Dharavi resident guide, Hashim Abdul. He takes me around and gives me access to wherever I want to visit.”
Ask him if Disney has raised any objection to his artwork yet, and he says, “Thank Vishnu, no! But they know of me.” He admits that people often ask him if he is a disgruntled former Disney employee. The kids at his school love him for poking fun at something that has been so important to them in their upbringing, but the management ignores him.
Lately, he has painted stencils of Mickey Mouse, the Disney Castle and his character ‘Minksy’ (Mickey + Banksy — the face of Mickey, upside down) in Dharavi and Bandra.
Last year, when the popular England-based graffiti artist, Banksy, invited him to take part in his satire of Disney with his Dismaland Project, it boosted his exposure, and allowed him to exhibit his work in Europe (Lawrence Alkin Gallery, London; Nuart Gallery, Norway). He doesn’t have any plans of showcasing his work in a gallery in India as yet.
As for the future, Gillette wishes to get hold of hundreds of Mickey Mouse dolls and “litter the area (Dharavi) with them. Maybe print hundreds of Mickey Mouse T-shirts (upside-down) and distribute them throughout a community as well.”