Photo exhibition: Gauri Gill collaborates with paper mache artists of the Kokna tribe | art and culture | Hindustan Times
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Photo exhibition: Gauri Gill collaborates with paper mache artists of the Kokna tribe

Gill’s latest work being displayed in Delhi is based on the idea that our faces are masks that we wear.

art and culture Updated: Feb 15, 2018 19:14 IST
Manik Sharma
A makhi gazes at a sleeping man, with a truck in the background. There is a sense of theatre and performance along with a dose of realism.
A makhi gazes at a sleeping man, with a truck in the background. There is a sense of theatre and performance along with a dose of realism. (Untitled, from Acts Of Appearance, Gauri Gill)

There has always been a perceived difference between the artisan and the artist. While the former is seen as utilitarian, the latter has revelled in distancing his or her work from that utility. When photographer Gauri Gill heard about the masks made by paper mache artists of the Kokna tribe in Maharashtra’s Jawhar district, for the ritual Bahoda procession, she saw a way to bridge that distance. Gill, who has worked before with adivasi artists and in the hinterlands of the country, sought out the makers, asked them to make new masks, commissioned actors from the village including some of the artists themselves, and put them all together to create something unique. Acts of Appearance, her latest exhibition, is both performance and personification of the idea that our faces might be the only masks we wear.

As soon as you step inside Nature Morte gallery and see the giant photograph of a woman sitting at a teaching desk with a mask on, you are intrigued. Is this a socio-political story, a subversion of the circumstance of the adivasi, of poverty, of ritual? Gill is quick to clarify that it is neither. “I am not telling a scripted story about any particular issue. If at all, the series only represents the idiosyncratic process of engaging with fellow artists, of trying to have a dialogue through our work, our personal mediums of photography and paper mache. We came together because we wanted to create something. The paper mache artists brought their own imagination to the performance, as did I,” she says.

Gill has listed the entire crew as her collaborators, from the artists who made the masks to those who wore them. There is a sense of theatre here, of staging and crafting shots, of improvisation and imagining an alternative reality. “All of the performers were commissioned as actors, and we improvised different scenarios inspired by real life in and around the village. What I had initially proposed to the artists (before they made the new masks) was that we think about contemporary reality, but not in a literal way…sort of across dreaming and waking states. To think of people of different ages, of universal human experiences like sickness or aging, to incorporate the different rasas or emotions like fear or love. Animals very naturally became a part of this world, and later special objects entered too, those that we can’t do without, like books or phones,” Gill says. Once the masks were ready the team moved around spaces in the village, with the actors performing situations that were enacted with inputs from everyone.

Actors and directors aren’t terms that are usually associated with still photography. So what does a director even do here? “Say, if you look at the photo of the makhi gazing at a sleeping man, we had a few different ideas about how to portray those two figures. Then one of the artists suggested that the fly should be hovering around the sleeping person among the haystacks. The final image was edited from a sequence, towards the end the makhi who is all eyes is just gazing longingly at the sleeping man,” Gill says. The photo Gill describes does resemble a staging, but it is also neo-realist given how a truck in the background contrasts the dream-like staging; a mixture of many things.

A cat waits amongst humans at a bus stop. Ordinary reality turns into the comically absurd, with the simple use of masks. (Untitled, from Acts Of Appearance, Gauri Gill)

The project began in early 2015, when Gill invited some 30 artists of the village to make around 40 to 50 masks that not only appear in the series but also interchange roles across frames. “We sat together and talked about the masks to be made—those I wished to cast, those that interested the artists. Someone would propose an idea, but we had no idea what the actual representation would look like until it was actually made.” Gill says.

For generations now, the traditional Bahora masks have been used to represent local deities, Hindu gods and other characters from lore. The local artists also make decorative domestic objects that they try to sell in nearby cities like Nashik and Pune. Though there is tradition there, the artistic process is burdened by conformity – make according to need. Given a little freedom and the motivation, those shackles can be broken – an act of appearance of the artist’s imagination in some ways.

Acts of Appearance is a neo-magical experience encapsulated best, perhaps, by a photo of the sun and the moon going for a walk. At times metaphorical, there is wonderful absurdity to each situation captured by Gill. The word situation is the keyword, because each mask in its own unique way infuses a certain story. “Everyone has their own way of interpreting the images, what they personally bring to it. I have been getting all kinds of reactions, someone might see strength in the same woman that another might see as oppressed,” Gill says. The sight of a cat waiting amongst humans at a bus stop or three animals playing a game of carom is an imaginative construct that does carry with it a socio-cultural comment.

That said, someone bent on deriving that comment will find plenty to chew on as well. The photo of a man standing in a polluted and drying pond with a mineral water bottle as his head speaks volumes about climate change, and the socio-political profits of man-made crises. “There is an obvious and close connection with the landscape. The landscape is an important character in this story. Perhaps the masks draw our attention not just to themselves but also help sharpen our attention to everything else in the frame, including the gestures that people use, how the actors perform with their bodies, and imbue the inanimate masks with life.”

WHAT: Acts of Appearance, an exhibition of photographs by Gauri Gill.

WHEN: 10 am-6 pm, till 27 February.

WHERE: Nature Morte Gallery, A-1, Neeti Bagh.

CALL: 4174 0215

NEAREST METRO STATION: Green Park.