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Gauri Gill: Play-acting the everyday

The Indian photographer collaborates with papier-mâché artists from a small village in Maharashtra in her most recent series. This article was originally published on Art Radar on 20 February 2018.

Image: Gauri Gill, Untitled, from "Acts of Appearance," 2015-ongoing. Courtesy the artist.

In “Acts of Appearance”, the faces of people are concealed by quirky masks of their own making. Gauri Gill (b. 1970, Chandigarh) often documents and collaborates with minority communities, as well as local artists, in her work. For “Acts of Appearance” (2015-ongoing), she involved a traditional Adivasi artist community belonging to the Konkana tribe in Maharashtra’s Jawhar district. A part of this series premiered at Documenta 14 in Kassel in 2017. 

A community of artists 

The idea for the series arose when Gill first heard about the papier-mâché artists of Maharashtra, who also wear sacred masks during festivals and rituals. She then commissioned the artist brothers Subhas and Bhagvan Dharma Kadu, as well as their fellow craftsmen and -women, to create assorted masks based on their contemporary reality. Eventually, these masks were donned by the villagers and artists to create diverse tableaux, with the village as the backdrop, photographed by Gill. 

This is not the first time that Gauri Gill is collaborating with communities for a project. According to the press release for “Acts of Appearance”, she “chronicles the life of those rendered powerless by state forces and societal structures”, frequently working with them to amplify their voices, stories and ways of representation. Previously, in “What Remains” (2007-2011), she included photographs and texts created by adults and children of the Sikh community in Afghanistan alongside her own photographs, while “Ruined Rainbow” comprised images developed from rolls of film used and rejected by children in a Barmer village. Among her other collaborative projects are “Balika Mela” (2003/2010) and “1984”. 

In “Acts of Appearance”, not only did the community’s artists create the masks, they were also involved in the staging of the photographs. Gill told Art Radar that, "The entire process was very improvisatory, there were many people involved, lots of interaction between everyone, and a constant stream of suggestions." 

Beyond tradition 

The masks usually made for the ritualistic Bahora procession depict various gods and mythological figures, both Hindu and tribal, portraying paradigms of good and evil. However, for this project, Gill asked the artists to create masks portraying contemporary life and the creatures, emotions and things that impacted their daily lifeworlds. 

Made of a paper pulp base, as always, these new masks present a whole range of faces, from animals that talk to expressions of horror, glee and surprise. Some go even further to portray valued – or perhaps desired – objects, such as a television, a mobile phone and a bottle of mineral water. As Natasha Ginwala writes in the accompanying essay “A Multitudinous Cast”, these masks and images "[…] virtually [rewrite] the rules of masquerade in accordance with local festivity, mythological role-play, kinship with the animal kingdom and daily conundrums performed as civic dramaturgy […]."  

Acts of concealment 

Perhaps the most interesting aspects for the viewer are the apparent investment and enjoyment of the participants being photographed: a woman portraying a cobra lies confidently on a bench, a horrified man stares at his grotesque reflection in the mirror, two birds seem deep in conversation. As the title of the exhibition suggests, they are very aware of their roles as performers, probably more so than if they had bared their faces to the camera, and their body language complements the emotions that the masks convey. Yet, though concealed by masks, their faces at the time of photographic creation “might arguably be as fully revealed and unselfconscious as they will ever be”. 

Visualising rural communities 

Interspersed through the exhibition with this series are two older but ongoing series that Gill shot in Western Rajasthan, entitled “Notes from the Desert” (1999-) and “The Mark on the Wall” (1999-). The latter comprises black-and-white images of drawings created by students, teachers and local artists under the erstwhile Leher Kaksha scheme as visual aids on classroom walls. 

These media of literacy lend a realism and contemporaneity to the portrayal of life in villages, and through them, Gauri Gill creates still another sensitised visual language to represent rural and remote communities.  

“Acts of Appearance” by Gauri Gill is on view from 20 January to 27 February 2018 at Nature Morte, A-1 Neeti Bagh, New Delhi 110049.