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 ;)

 

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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!

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!

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!

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