Returning to India!

Every 30 minutes, a farmer in India, overwhelmed with debt, takes his or her life. Since 1995, over 250,000 farmer suicides have been recorded. Most of these farmers grow cotton.

In 2011 I received a Fulbright grant to study cotton farming in Maharashtra, India. A myriad of social, economic, and environmental factors contribute to this epidemic. In an effort to shed more light on this tragedy and better understand the context in which it is taking place, I spent 7 months in Mulgavan, a village in central India that is primarily comprised of small-scale cotton farmers living below the poverty line. My research culminated with two projects: a body of photographs and essays documenting cotton farmers’ experiences, and a narrative of a widow of a cotton farmer which was included in the Voice of Witness book Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy. Through both of these projects I went beyond statistics and considered the complexity and humanity of cotton farmers and their families in hopes of narrowing the gap between consumers of cotton and cotton farmers.

75percentCottonIn October I will return to India to embark on a collaborative art project with the farmers that I worked with in 2011-2012. Since moving back to St. Louis in 2013 I’ve been envisioning a series of art pieces that play with products of cotton that we use daily (q-tips, tampons, t-shirts, bed sheets, dollar bills, cotton balls, etc) to represent the struggles of Indian cotton farmers and the overwhelming number of farmer suicides. Hearing the statistics is one thing. Experiencing the scale of the issue is another.

I want to create a body of work that encourages viewers to consider their roles as consumers and passive participants in the systems and structures that perpetuate these human rights violations. I want to draw connections between social justice issues in St. Louis and the human rights issues of cotton farming in India. The history of cotton in the U.S. is rooted in slavery and capitalism. With each passing day it becomes clearer that this history has had a long lasting effect that we haven’t fully dealt with. This project will explore ways in which the struggles of cotton farmers in India relate to the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S.

I received an Artist Support Grant from the Regional Arts Commission to cover the majority of the costs of this project (like travel expenses, paying other project contributors, etc). On Sunday, July 26 I will present my project at Sloup, a monthly soup dinner that crowdfunds arts & community impact projects in St. Louis, MO. I’ll also be launching an online crowdfunding campaign in the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned for project updates and ways you can support me as I embark on this next chapter of my journey!

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The Power of a Story: An Oral History Workshop

Drawing on my experience as an interviewer and assistant editor for the Voice of Witness oral history collection, Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy, I will lead an interactive workshop at Yeyo Arts (2907 S. Jefferson) on July 24 from 4-6pm.

Participants will each receive a copy of Invisible Hands. Space is limited to 15 people. If you already have a copy of the book and are interested in attending the workshop, you can purchase a “workshop only” ticket for $10. RSVP on Eventbrite.

Power of a Story: An Oral History Workshop

Film Screening of Bitter Seeds at Yeyo Arts Gallery

Bitter SeedsJoin me at the Yeyo Arts Gallery (2907 S. Jefferson Ave, St. Louis, MO) on Monday, July 13, at 7pm for a screening of Bitter Seeds, the final film in Micha X. Peled’s Globalization Trilogy.

Bitter Seeds was filmed in Vidarbha, the region where Aaron lived and studied in 2011-2012 while in India on a Fulbright research grant. I will open the screening with a brief description of the work I did in India. After the film there will be a Q&A session.

If you are unable to attend, you can always rent the film at www.teddybearfilms.com

Bitter Seeds explores the future of how we grow things, weighing in on the worldwide debate over the changes created by industrial agriculture. Companies like the U.S.-based Monsanto claim that their genetically modified (GM) seeds offer the most effective solution to feeding the world’s growing population, but on the ground, many small-scale farmers are losing their land. Nowhere is the situation more desperate than in India, where an epidemic of farmer suicides has claimed over a quarter million lives. Every 30 minutes one farmer in India, deep in debt and unable to provide for his family, commits suicide.

Following a U.S. complaint to the World Trade Organization, India had to open its doors to foreign seed companies. Within a few years, multinational corporations had taken over India’s seed market in a number of major crops. Now only GM seeds are available at the shops, requiring India’s farmers to pay an annual royalty. The GM seeds are much more expensive; they need additional fertilizers and insecticides and must be re-purchased every season. While large farms have prospered, the majority of farmers find it increasingly more difficult to make a living off their land.

Bitter Seeds follows a season in a village at the epicenter of the crisis, from sowing to harvest. Like most of his neighbors, cotton-farmer Ram Krishna must borrow heavily in order to afford the mounting costs of modern farming. Required by a money-lender to put up his land as collateral, he gambles on everything he has.

When his crop is attacked by pests, Ram Krishna must do whatever he can to avoid losing the family land. Adding to his burden is another duty – his daughter has reached marrying age, and he must find the money for an expensive dowry. Ram Krishna has just become a candidate for joining the ranks of the farmers who commit suicide in despair.

Weaving in and out of Ram Krishna’s story is that of his neighbor’s daughter. Manjusha, a college student, is determined to become a journalist and tell the world about the farmers’ predicament. Her family opposes her plans, which go against village traditions. Manjusha’s ambition is also fueled by her personal history – her father was one of the suicide victims. When a newspaper reporter agrees to look at her writing, Manjusha takes on Ram Krishna’s plight as her first reporting project. Armed with a small camera from the production team, her video becomes part of the film.

back in the game!

This past April and May, I participated in a Group-Centered Leadership mini artist residency with the Yeyo Arts Collective in St. Louis. Throughout the residency, each participant worked on envisioning an art project, going through the process of creating an elevator pitch, working out a budget, and coming up with a plan to see the project through. It was an incredible experience to work with local artists who were starting the process of honoring their identities as artists by working to bring their dream projects to life. Each artist’s project was a reflection of a central truth of theirs.

Like with most things, I applied to the residency based on a gut feeling, knowing that it would be a rewarding and enriching experience. I did not, at that time, have a project really planned out. But for the purpose of applying to the residency, I created one. Well, I committed to finally taking seriously an idea that I’ve been mulling over for some time.

Ever since returning from India and moving to St. Louis, I’ve wanted to create art that

  • reveals the struggles that cotton farmers in India face daily
  • connects their struggles to consumers in the United States by highlighting all of the cotton we consume daily, and
  • connects Indian cotton farmers’ struggles to Monsanto, a locally based multi-national corporation that sells cotton seeds to farmers in India and funds really worthwhile art, education, and community programs in St. Louis.

For a myriad of reasons, I’ve never moved past the brainstorm/envisioning stage of this. And I’m glad I was stuck there for a long time, because over the last few months I’ve realized that there is a whole new dimension to the project that I want to highlight.

Many of you know that I’ve been involved in the activist community in St. Louis since moving back to the city in 2013. And since last August, when Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, that my involvement has centered around issues of race and inequality. Rampant racial disparities in St. Louis were one of the main reasons why I was compelled to work on food justice issues in St. Louis. Mike Brown’s death re-centered race issues in my work. I participated in the YWCA’s book club “Witnessing Whiteness.” I found a group of creative thinkers to plug into actions with – helping to create and enact #chalkedunarmed, the symphony action, FoodSpark potlucks centered around discussing race and privilege, and various banners and art used in protests spanning from August to today.

In February we hosted two FoodSparks, one in Ferguson and one in Shaw. These FoodSparks focused on creating a space for protestors and activists to creatively process the last 6 months in St. Louis and Ferguson and collectively envision the next 6 months. Participants added thoughts and artwork to placemats at each potluck, as well as to a blank storywall that was added to a collection of storywalls created in August in response to the things our communities were experiencing in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s death. We collected these works and exhibited them at the Atelier D’artiste 14 Community Gallery in Old North, St. Louis.

artwork by William Burton Jr.

artwork by William Burton Jr.

When I walked into the gallery to meet with William Burton, Jr., one of the gallery owners, I immediately noticed a vase with cotton. As I took in the artwork on the walls, I saw cotton, cotton, cotton. I began to realize that cotton has an incredibly important history here in the United States. The history of slavery and racial oppression in the United States is bound up in the economy of cotton. I began to think about how capitalism and today’s economy enslave small-scale cotton farmers in India and what the threads connecting these seemingly separate social justice issues are.

artwork by William Burton Jr.

artwork by William Burton Jr.

As I got into my residency with Yeyo, I began to envision ways to visually draw these connections and create a critique of the racist and oppressive nature of capitalism that could span centuries and continents. It was around this time that I received an email from JetAirways alerting me of a one-weekend only deal on flights from Newark to Mumbai. The deal was too good to pass up. So I bought a ticket and began planning a return trip to India for October-November 2015.

This catapulted my project into the beginning stages of action!
I applied for (and received!) an Artist Support Grant from the Regional Arts Commission (RAC). Leading up to leaving for India in October I will exhibit photographs from my work in India in 2011-2012 at the Yeyo Arts Collective Gallery (2907 S. Jeffereson Ave). “cotton: the fiber of our being” will be up in the gallery from July 3 – July 31. On Monday, July 13, I will screen the film Bitter Seeds, a documentary about growing cotton in India. Bitter Seeds was filmed in Vidarbha, the region where I lived and did my research in 2011-2012. We’ll screen the film and I’ll speak briefly about my experience in India and field questions related to the film and cotton farming. On Friday, July 24, I will lead an oral history workshop at Yeyo.

Although I received a generous grant from RAC, I need to raise more money to cover additional costs. I will be presenting at Sloup, a local monthly crowd-funding event in St. Louis, on July 26. And in August I will launch an online crowd-funding campaign to raise the remaining funding necessary for me to complete this project on the scale that I’m envisioning it!

Stay tuned for blog updates for all of the events I will be facilitating this July, as well as information regarding the fundraising (I’ll need your help, i.e. donations and spreading the word!), and project updates.

It’s good to be back!

-Aaron