At first glance, Seattle-based artist Don Fels (70) reminds you of Albert Einstein: there’s the mop of unruly hair, a thick moustache, and an air of eccentricity. Fels admits that he often hears that comment. “Unfortunately, my brain is the size of a pea as compared to Einstein’s,” he jokes. Fels is in town for his latest exhibition, Turning Blue, at Clark House, Colaba. He is dressed fittingly in a blue jumpsuit, blue jacket (both bought for Rs 100 each at Chor Bazaar, he says) and striped socks.
The exhibition delves on the various connotations of the colour blue, including its historical significance. In the pre-Independence era, India was one of the biggest producers of indigo. But after the Germans synthesised an alternative to indigo, there was a drop in demand and the British stopped paying wages. It led the indigo cultivators in Champaran, Bihar, to revolt, and, a young lawyer — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi — travelled from South Africa to India to support them, leading to the first satyagraha in 1917. Poverty also led to the emigration of indentured labourers to South Africa, Mauritius and Fiji. Even today, India continues to remain a leading producer of phthalo blue (a synthetic blue pigment) which is used to dye plastic, among other things.
One of the highlights at Turning Blue are two papier mache globes made using the pages of business newspapers. While one depicts the landmark sites in the history of indigo, the other globe indicates the places where pthalo blue and real indigo are traded, including Europe, USA and China. A video projector simultaneously broadcasts blue-tinted images of sites across Mumbai.
Some of the exhibits are by Mumbai-based artists Yogesh Barve and Naresh Kumar and Pakistani artist Seema Nusrat, which have been incorporated as they work on similar themes. Fels has also collaborated with Raja Sheikh, an 18-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant who works as a cleaner at the artist residency Space 118.
In August, as part of a project sponsored by Google, Fels was given a batch of GoPro cameras and he consequently gave a camera to Raja to showcase his view of the world. The images on display show spaces like Bhaucha Dhakka ferry wharf and a fish market in Mazagaon, spaces that are close to Raja. “People like Raja have a point of view just as valid as mine. It’s true he is not trained as an artist, but what he sees is interesting,” shares Fels.
Fels had originally come to Cochin in search of pepper, as a Fulbright senior research scholar in the late ’90s. “I had read about Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama who was the first person to sail from Europe to India, enabling access to India’s spices. But his voyage also led to colonialism and globalism. There were no European colonies anywhere before he came,” he says.
After this exhibition, Fels will head to Paris where he has been commissioned to work with the children of immigrants living in Saint-Denis (the locality of the November 18, 2015 Paris shoot-out). “I will give them cameras just like I did with Raja. I am interested in how they see their world because those who are not from there don’t see it that way,” he shares.
What: Turning Blue will be on display till February 28, from 11am to 7pm, open on all days
Where: At Clarke House, ground floor, 8 Nathalal Parekh Marg, opposite Regal Cinema