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.

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!

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