A peek into the project

Hello friends, known and unknown to me!

It’s been awhile. I’ve wanted to update this blog for over a month, but the flow of life here in India mixed with the availability of internet and a decent computer to type up a blog post has left me content to wait until the right moment comes to me.

I’ll admit, there were a few opportunities prior to today for me to write. But I was overwhelmed with all of the experiences I’ve had. I didn’t know where to start and how to say all of the things that I want to say in a clear and eloquent way. Or even what all the things that I wanted to say were! Should I try to lay it out linearly…get chronological for you all and start from the very beginning of my time in Mulgavhan — going back to Nagpur and reuniting with Yogini and her family; driving up to Mulgavhan for the first time in 3 years and being greeted by a crowd of kids shouting “Aaron-tai! Aaron-tai!” (Aaron-sister); the highs and lows of reconnecting with the farmers; the challenges and successes of working on an abstract and creative project with them?

And then there was the question of whether or not to include my experiences in the time since solely working on this project. I finished working with the farmers of Mulgavhan back in early November. Since then I’ve visited friends, taken my first Vipassana course, served my first Vipassana course, and done a little bit of sight seeing. Are these experiences relevant? They feel like they are to me, but how to share them in a way that honors the totality of the experience but also connects them to the purpose of this blog, my work with cotton farmers in India?

As an artist, how much of my process do I want to share with my followers? This body of artwork currently evolves and exists in my mind and has yet to be fully realized. How much of a sneak peek am I willing to give you all?

The questions just seemed to multiply and it was easier to just continue putting off the blog writing than it was to try to sort through answering them one by one. I kept waiting for a moment of clarity when I would be swayed by the inspiration goddess within to sit down and write an epic post that laid it all out clearly and with a natural flow. That didn’t happen.

I still don’t know how to write about everything or what exactly to say. I want to share photos. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Sadly, most of the photos that I’ve taken here I plan on using in this body of artwork and I don’t have the capacity to slap a watermark on them so that the originals are safe and sound with me.

So for now, I’ll sum up my time in Mulgavhan and post a few photos of the process (see end of post). Hopefully this little window into my experience here in India satiates any longing you may have to know what’s up with this project and how I am doing. At least until I have another opportunity to write with more detail and depth about the process.

I went to Mulgavhan with the intention of spending three weeks with cotton farmers coming up with a collaborative creative way to represent the issues that they deal with daily as they put an extraordinary amount of work into making a living as a farmer. I intentionally did not outline what I thought that creative expression might look like, fully aware that I was returning to Mulgavhan after three years, that I didn’t know how busy everyone would be as the harvest season kicked off, and that I didn’t have the slightest clue what types of creative expression would resonate with farmers and what they would want to express and how they would want to do that. I was nervous that three weeks wouldn’t be enough time to bring the project to life. I didn’t know what the dynamics would be between my translator, Shubhada, and myself. I wanted the project to evolve organically, something that proved to be extremely difficult when relying on a translator (only because of the lag in communication…Shubhada was a fantastic partner to work with!). I hadn’t anticipated how challenging it would be to try to explain my thoughts on the value of art and using creative expression to tell a story to farmers who had been working hard in the field all day.

It was super challenging. So much so that half way through my time in Mulgavhan I actually had a conversation with Shubhada about leaving early. I was very skeptical that we would be able to do anything remotely close to what I had had in mind when I set out. Maybe we would be more successful visiting another community and trying there? Maybe it wasn’t worth the time and grant money to stay for another week?

We stayed. And a lot of really fruitful things came of our time there, although I had to let go of the vision of collaborating on a piece of art with the farmers. Instead we ended up doing a photo series that the farmers participated in (more on this later, I promise!). In the last week that we were there, we discovered several farmers’ musical talents and recorded some traditional Gondi songs about farming. They even organized a performance of drumming and dancing and a few songs (although not many related to farming, but still really amazing!). If we had been able to stay a bit longer, I would have liked to work with these musicians to write some contemporary songs about farmers’ struggles. And then perform them for larger groups. And have those groups respond to the songs… Maybe some day… I know I’ll be back!

While I was in Mulgavhan I found that in between conversations with farmers, whether out in their fields or in their homes in the evenings, I had all sorts of free time. After many walks and journaling sessions, I was able to be present and release any trace of self-doubt regarding the project. And like magic, without any major commitments vying for my attention, my mind began to collect all sorts of ideas about how to visually represent the stories of cotton farmers in India. When I return to the US in just over a month, a new sort of adventure will begin — how to bring to life the vision in my head (and now scattered on pages throughout my journal). Stay tuned! Hopefully it won’t be another two months before you hear from me again ;)

 

It’s all coming back to me…

After spending several days in Mumbai, I was feeling restless. I’m not totally opposed to the tourist experience; but given the choice between staying with friends or a behind-the-scenes tour from a local that leads to traveling to their home town outside of the original destination and meeting their family and staying with them for a few days or the conventional tourist experience, I’ll choose the former options, for sure. For me, the conventional tourist experience is more appealing with at least another tourist or two, and I wasn’t having any luck flagging any down on my jaunts around Fort, the area where I was staying. I also wasn’t giving off the “I’m-searching-for-companion-tourists” vibe, because, let’s be honest, I wasn’t really looking for them. 

I was feeling ready to get going with my project. I was more in the mood for…well, not continuing to spend a lot of money every night on a hotel and then more money to get around and do touristy things. I was beginning to feel like having no plans for a whole week in Mumbai was a waste of time and money. If I had had friends in Mumbai, it would’ve been a different story. Or even if I was more familiar with the city…but felt so big, so noisy, so overwhelming, and mostly, so expensive. I wasn’t feeling it. 

  Fortunately at the peak of my feeling ready to move on, two things happened. I found out that some friends from Pune had moved to Mumbai and I got the approval from AIIS to come to Pune for a few days and sit in on Marathi classes for a few days. I checked out of my hotel on Tuesday morning and headed to the Mumbai CST train station to buy a train ticket to Pune. A few hours later, I was enjoying my first India train ride of 2015 – sleeper class (no a/c and no designated seats, which means that you could have as many as five people sharing a bench in one berth, plus someone stretched out above you and five across and someone above them – and oftentimes more people than that!). I hopped on the ladies car – no men allowed. Just women and kids. 

 The train ride was a bit longer than expected due to some delay (who knows…) but it was pleasant enough. Five hours after leaving Mumbai, I had arrived in Pune. I had tried to make arrangements to stay with some current AIIS students, but relying on my Marathi teachers to communicate my request to students that I had never met before proved to be trickier than I thought it would be. About 3/4 of the way into the train ride, I did get a call from a former student named Jake who is completing his dissertation in Pune and has a flat in the Koregaon Park (KP) neighborhood. Unfortunately, due to the total last minute nature of my arrival, he wasn’t able to host me Tuesday night. So when I arrived in Pune, I whipped out the Lonely Planet and looked up a hotel (I’ve since decided that this book must weigh at least 5 lbs and why lug it around when I can easily buy a digital version?! I’m leaving it in Mumbai.) I ended up at a pretty nice place in KP…pricier than I wanted but it was close to school and it was only for a night. It’s all part of the experience, right?

I was able to sit in on classes at AIIS on Wednesday and Thursday. It was so good to be back and see my teachers, meet new students, share my 2 cents with current Fulbrighters, and try to articulate what exactly I will be attempting to do in a week or so. I was surprised with how much Marathi I remembered but also feeling overwhelmed with how much was locked away in the deep recesses of my brain under a rusty lock whose key is lost under a pile of three years of English and AmeriCorps and St. Louis… 

  Before coming to Pune I had been wracking my brain trying to remember how to say “to the right” and “to the left.” But hard as I tried, I couldn’t remember. Then Wednesday morning I checked out of my hotel and argued a rickshaw wala into driving me to school, saying I would pay him 10 extra rupees for my bags. I was anxious; would I remember how to get there? I had gone every morning for 4 months. Surely it would come back to me. Muscle memory is a powerful thing. The minute I was sitting in the rickshaw I remembered. “Oojwikade ani nunter dawikade. Ha, ha. Tithe za. Ha Deccan College ahe. To the right, then to the left. Yes yes, go there. That’s Deccan College.” 

I spent Wednesday and Thursday in class and getting to know a smattering of students (one of whom had actually read my blog before when he was looking into coming to AIIS). It seemed like hardly anything on campus had changed. Not so for the rest of Pune. There is now a Starbucks in KP. Globalization. Sigh. 

Friday classes were canceled and I headed back to Mumbai to meet my friend, Noor, and her family. After a brief scare of losing my phone (it fell out of my pocket when I stopped at an ATM) I finally caught a bus to Bombay. By 10 on Friday I was at Noor’s place, with a hot, home-cooked meal, a cool shower, and a freshly made bed waiting for me. It was the best sleep I’ve had here so far.

  Today, Saturday, was a chill day. I slept in, read the paper, caught up with emails, did a bit of research, and then went to temple with Noor and her family. This evening we went out and managed to find some postcards. It seems in this digital age, the art of sending postcards is quite passé. But I promised about 30 people a postcard from India. And I will deliver! After a bit of walking and shopping, we had chaat (delicious Mumbai street food) and then walked home. Over some snacks and wine we reminisced on how we first met and all the adventures we had the last time I was here, missing our friend Robin who had been a part of it all. As we walked home from the market tonight, I told Noor,  “I am finally feeling relaxed and comfortable here.” With good food, the comfort of a friend’s home, and the familiarity of the pace of life here in urban India coming back to me, I am starting to feel at home.

Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up early to head to Jawhar, where I will meet Shubada, the woman who will be working with me as my “translator” (read collaborator, co-conspirator, companion) for the next several weeks. There is a seed festival in Jawhar in the afternoon. We will take a day or two to get to know each other and sort out the details for our upcoming journey. Then it’s on to Nagpur to reunite with Ajay and Yogini. And from there, back to see Pournima, and then Sangita, and all the rest of my Mulgavan friends. I. Can’t. Wait.

MoMA inspiration

I spent my last full day in New York visiting the Museum of Modern Art. What a great way to lead up to my departure and beginning this project. I was especially inspired by the exhibit Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960-1980. Artists use subtle and not-so-subtle visual alterations to tell stories. 

  
 In his piece “Memorial,” Luis Camnitzer digitally altered a telephone book to insert names of those who disappeared during the military dictatorship in Uruguay. At first glance, it seems to just be a telephone book. What does it mean, to have the names of those who disappeared between 1973-1985 inserted alongside other names that were originally in the telephone book? Is this a way of remembering them? Or forgetting them again? 

  

Mangelos (Dimitrije Bašicevic) | Manifest de la relation | 1976. What statement does a washed out globe with text on it make? What does global communication look like? How can words cross boundaries like countries? 

 

In her piece “Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart,” Kara Walker uses 18th century cut-paper silhouette. She transforms this traditional art form into one that tells a story that is more often than not ignored due to the uncomfortable process of acknowledging stereotypes, old and new, and the stories of marginalized and oppressed groups of people. 

  
The placement of pop-culture images makes bold statements. When I saw Love by Marisol, I immediately began to think about themes of addiction, love vs. lust, what is the connection between a blow job and Coca Cola, desire, control…all because of the placement of a coke bottle and the title of her work.

 
Doris Salcedo’s piece, Atrabilious, really stood out to me. ‘Atrabiliarios (Atrabilious) was conceived in response to testimony the artist gathered from relatives and loved ones of those who disappeared during the Colombian Civil War, an armed conflict that began in the 1960s. Worn female shoes in sealed niches are stand-ins for the missing bodies and evoke reliquaries for the remains of saints. “I believe that the major possibilities of art are not in showing the spectacle of violence but instead in hiding it,” the artist has said. “It is the proximity, the latency of violence that interests me.”‘ The symbolic representation of missing people was striking. 

I left the MoMA wondering

  • What kinds of ideas, feelings, issues, stories will the farmers of Mulgavan and I feel inspired to speak about through the art that we will create?
  • How can we use symbols, color, texture, scale, to tell these stories?
  • Can we play with traditional art forms, like block printing, and co-opt them to tell the untold stories, like Kara Walker did in “Gone”?

I suppose we’ll find answers to these questions over the next several weeks. Stay tuned!

Farewell St. Louis, Namaskar India by way of NYC

It’s hard to believe that this journey has finally begun. I booked my flight to India back in April and I am now sitting in the airport in Brussels, waiting to board my connecting flight to Mumbai. The sun is stretching its rays across this corner of the world and it is a brisk 4 degrees Celsius.

Just under one week ago I arrived in New York. Since my flight departed from Newark International Airport, I decided to head to New York a little early to visit with friends, most of whom I met on a study abroad program in college. It was a sweet experience, visiting with friends who can truly imagine and appreciate the adventures that await me. And I found comfort in hearing that, despite the drastic differences that are expected when one lives in New York and another in St. Louis, many of my friends are confronting similar questions about work, relationships, and life in general as we round out our twenties and approach our thirties. My visit was a perfect balance of moments of self-reflection And inspiration and time spent in the company of dear friends. By the time Wednesday came, I was feeling very ready to set off to India. I spent the afternoon at the MoMA which deserves its own blog post. Hopefully I can whip one out during the free hour of wifi that I have here at the Brussels airport, although it isn’t looking promising…

Before leaving for New York, I had a small get together with friends in St. Louis. A chat that I had with Joel, a dear friend of mine whom I met in St. Louis while working as an AmeriCorps VISTA, has stayed present in my thought. The nature of this project is very undetermined and unpredictable, quite fluid and depends on more visions than just my own. As such, it can be hard to describe what I am hoping to do when I return to Mulgavan. 

Joel was in the PeaceCorps in Tanzania in the mid-80s. When I speak  with him, both about his experience in Tanzania and mine in India, so much can be left unsaid. Joel understands why I was only just beginning to feel like I fit in, to grasp the language, that I knew my way around, only beginning to feel a deeper connection with everyone that I was working with in Mulgavan when I had to leave. He understands the utter importance of not outlining the specifics of this project before I have a chance to reconnect with the farmers that I lived and worked with in Mulgavan. He reminds me of the value of listening and observing, of slowing down and setting personal goals aside and embracing a collaborative communal vision – even when it is one that I may never be able to fully understand. 

And so, as I begin this next chapter of my time with cotton farmers in India, I am reminding myself of all these important lessons that Joel sweetly reminded me of on my last night in St. Louis as we sat around a campfire, enjoying one of the first chilly autumn nights of the season. 

It looks like this is where I have to end for this post today. My flight to Mumbai is boarding and my hour of wifi has quickly disappeared. 

Until next time, Aaron

One week left!

Hello, friends!

I have 7 days left to raise the remaining $3,300 for my Indiegogo project “100% Cotton.”

Now more than ever I am really feeling the urgency of raising this money.

I’ve spent the last week working on hiring a translator and project partner. I’m happy to say I’ve found a woman named Shubhada who has a background in working with farmers across Maharashtra on issues of sustainability, mostly through documentary films that she films and produces. Her husband helps farmers save indigenous seeds. She has a great interest in learning more about the experiences of cotton farmers in the Vidarbha region and she has even been through a few workshops on processing cotton, spinning, weaving, and natural dyeing. She is a great fit for the work and I am thrilled to have connected with her.

With Shubhada’s connections, there will likely be opportunities for us to travel around India to meet with her colleagues and other artists. With a few extra dollars, our budget will allow for the kind of flexibility that is so crucial in a fluid and ever-evolving project like this. Raising the additional funds will also allow me to work with Shubhada for 5 weeks instead of just 3.

If you can help by making a contribution, I would very much appreciate it. If making a financial contribution isn’t possible for you, I would love it if you could share my project with your friends and family. The more people that hear about the project, the better, even if they can’t contribute. One of my goals for this project is to raise awareness and use art as a tool to address the struggles that cotton farmers face. Sharing my Indiegogo campaign with people is the first step in this process and one of the reasons I chose to do a crowdfunding campaign.

Thanks! And don’t forget to subscribe to my blog for updates on the project.

Project Progress

Hello friends. Today has been a wonderfully productive day for my project preparation.

Part of my preparation process is looking to other artists and projects for inspiration and ideas. I’ve been exploring the Craft in America videos and stumbled across this one featuring several textile artists. The piece “Portrait of a Textile Worker” by artist Terese Agnew, really stood out to me. I love the way Terese worked with so many people to collect the clothing tags that she used to piece together this portrait of a woman who works in a textile factory in Nicaragua. The textile itself is intricate and beautiful and the story behind it and the material used is so thoughtfully crafted, perfectly symbolic of labor issues and human connection or lack thereof. The segment on “Portrait of a Textile Worker” begins around 46:25 in the video below. I encourage you to check it out!

I am also making progress with my Indiegogo campaign! As of today I am 40% funded. I have 8 days left to raise the remaining $3,300. If you can make a contribution, please head over to my page and do so!

15 days left to support my Indiegogo campaign!

IMG_1484The number of days till I leave for India are slowly winding down. I’ve got about one month before I am on a plane, flying across the Atlantic, on my way to India!

But before that, I am trying to reach my goal of raising $5,500 for this project. And I need your help!

Please visit my Indiegogo campaign page and make a donation if you are able. If you can’t make a donation, sharing this project with your friends and family is much appreciated! The more people that hear about the project, the better, even if they can’t contribute. One of my goals for this project is to raise awareness and use art as a tool to address the struggles that cotton farmers face. Sharing my Indiegogo campaign with people is the first step in this process and one of the reasons I chose to do a crowdfunding campaign.

Thanks for your support! Stay tuned for an update on how I’m preparing for this trip as well as some posts while I’m in India!