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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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!

Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy

I am thrilled to announce that in a little over three weeks Voice of Witness (VOW) will publish it’s latest book, Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy and my name will be on the title page.

To pre-order "Invisible Hands" click on the photo. “The men and women in Invisible Hands reveal the human rights abuses occurring behind the scenes of the global economy. These narrators—including phone manufacturers in China, copper miners in Zambia, garment workers in Bangladesh, and farmers around the world—reveal the secret history of the things we buy, including lives and communities devastated by low wages, environmental degradation, and political repression. Sweeping in scope and rich in detail, these stories capture the interconnectivity of all people struggling to support themselves and their families. ” To read more about the collection visit http://voiceofwitness.org/labor/.

I first learned of Voice of Witness in 2010 while I was on a road trip with several of my best friends that I had studied abroad with in college. We stopped off in San Francisco in December and found out that Peter Orner and Annie Holmes were speaking about VOW’s latest book Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives. Already interested in checking it out, we discovered that the event was to be held at 826 Valencia – San Francisco’s only independent Pirate supply store (also a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students with their writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write). So naturally we had to go.

Peter and Annie’s stories of working on the book were incredible and moving. I had just submitted my Fulbright application about a month earlier and as I listened to them talk about how oral history is a powerful way to address human rights issues I had a moment of clarity. I felt, with almost uncomfortable certainty, that I wanted to do something similar with my work in India. I approached Peter and Annie after their talk and nervously told them about my hopes about getting the research grant to go study cotton farming in India. I asked with some trepidation how they got involved with VOW and what had led them to working on this book. Could random, inexperienced folks such as myself suggest book topics? Was it crazy to wonder if I could ever work on a book on cotton farmer suicides with VOW? I was filled with adrenaline and a curiously potent mix of nervous confidence.

But one step at a time. I had to get to India first. I had just submitted my application and it would be months before I would hear if I had received the grant and was going to India.

By the time I finally found out that I was going to India it was April, 4 months since I’d first heard of VOW and met Peter and Annie at 826 Valencia. I was so overcome with relief and excitement that I had gotten the Fulbright that I didn’t think of Voice of Witness until a year later when I was in Kochi at a conference for Fulbright researchers and scholars to present their work. I was speaking with a friend and he asked if I had ever heard of Voice of Witness. Yes. Mmmhmm. I had. He suggested that I get in touch with them; they were compiling narratives on human rights and the global economy.

So a few weeks later I emailed Corinne Goria, the editor of this collection, and told her who I was, where I was, and what I was doing, trying to be professional about how desperately I wanted to get involved with the book. After a Skype interview to discuss how I could contribute to the book, I set off to see if I could find a widow of a cotton farmer who would be willing to be interviewed by me for several hours on several different occasions. The timing couldn’t have been better. I was poised to attend a gathering for widows in the area that weekend. Subhag, my friend and translator, was able to come with me and we mingled with the widows during their lunch at the event. I had to find someone who could answer questions with great detail, who would talk about her childhood, who could give me enough material to shape into a rich narrative. At the very end of the day Pournima and her son came up to Subhag and asked who I was.

Over the next 6 months I visited Pournima every few weeks. At first I only visited her for the interviews. But after the third interview it was clear that she was very depressed and overwhelmed by her situation. I also felt overwhelmed and unsure of how I could help to ease her situation so she could feel peace and regain a sense of hope for her children and herself. You may remember this – I wrote about it in the post “Supari.”

I shared my fears with Corinne and with Ajay and Yogini Dolke, a couple that runs the non-profit SRUJAN, and who were instrumental in helping me with my research while I was in India. Corinne encouraged me to keep visiting Pournima without interviewing her to show her I cared for her well-being. Ajay and Yogini were inspired to reach out to their network of colleagues, friends, and family to raise money to purchase a sewing machine for Pournima. For more about how we were able to help Pournima, see the “Donate to Pournima” page.

My 25th birthday party at Pournima's house

My 25th birthday party at Pournima’s house

I became friends with Pournima and her son and daughter (whose names I have omitted to honor Pournima’s wish for privacy and protection). I traveled with Pournima to the village where she grew up. I met her mother, father, sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews. I saw her father’s cotton fields, where she spent much of her childhood. That same week Pournima found out it was my birthday and insisted that I come to her home and celebrate with her family and her neighbors. We filled ourselves with fried treats and sweets and filled the neighborhood with music and laughter.

Pournima never ceased to amaze me with her generosity. Every time I came to see her, whether or not I was coming to interview her, she fed me, gave me tea, and made sure I was healthy and happy. “You look skinny. Are they taking care of you in Mulgavan?” she would often ask.

It was hard to explain to her why I wanted to share her story with the world. “People do not know about the struggle of cotton farmers in India. It is important that they hear your story. We have to raise awareness,” I would tell her. And as soon as I would say this I would wonder how much of a difference her story could make. While she shared her story and I edited it and prepared it for the book, thousands of farmers were still killing themselves. One farmer every 30 minutes. How could this book improve this situation?

It’s a question I still live with every day – one that I am revisiting more frequently now that the book is almost available in print. I am, however, so honored to have been able to be a part of the process of helping Pournima share her story, and in that process, helping her to overcome her devastating past and start living a brighter, more hopeful life. Being a widow in India is not easy, but Pournima is strong. She is resilient. Perhaps her story can give others the strength that they need to overcome tragedy. I know her story is inspiring, and I am looking forward to see how that inspiration is manifested as more and more people get to read her words.