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Unmasked: Gauri Gill's Acts of Appearance at MoMA PS1

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Unmasked: Gauri Gill's Acts of Appearance at MoMA PS1
Untitled, from Acts of Appearance, 2015-ongoing. Copyright Gauri Gill

Captured: a doctor with the head of an elephant checks the heartbeat of a female patient whose face is masked by that of a frowning man.  Elsewhere a woman with the head of an eagle sweeps the entrance to her house.  In the shade of an alcove, a man rests against the wall, his face replaced by an enlarged cell phone, about to a take a bite of his meal.  A smiling mouth cut out in the screen greets onlookers with a full frontal view.

Untitled, from Acts of Appearance, 2015-ongoing. Copyright Gauri Gill

These whimsical images containing bizarre visual twists on the familiar comprises eminent artist Gauri Gill’s (b.1970, Chandigarh, India) acclaimed series Acts of Appearance, currently on view at MoMA PS1, New York.  A part of The Elaine Dannheisser Projects Series, initiated with aims to “challenge and expand viewers’ notions about art,” these projects present experimental and innovative artwork.  Projects 108: Gauri Gill fulfills this intention by displaying works that push the limits and play with the boundaries of photography as a fine art medium.  The remarkable show chronicles the complexities of identity and cultural richness of an indigenous community in modern day Maharashtra, India.

Untitled, from Acts of Appearance, 2015-ongoing. Copyright Gauri Gill

Inspired by papier-mâché́ masks worn while dancing and reenacting pivotal scenes from Hindu epics and tribal myths during the Bahoda festival, Gill initiated a collaborative venture between herself and the local Kokna tribe during a visit to the Jawhar district of Maharashtra. She sought out two renowned artisans, brothers Subhas and Bhagvan Dharma Kadu to commission them, their families and volunteers to create a new set of masks.  As opposed to the masks made for the festival, which are symbolic Hindu gods or tribal deities, the new ones would represent animals, objects, and individuals relevant to lives of the artists, and their community, often expressing varying phases of life (i.e. relationships, emotions, illness, and ageing).  Actor volunteers from the tribe would then wear them, and compose and act in scenarios, in which they engage in routine activities.

Untitled, from Acts of Appearance, 2015-ongoing. Copyright Gauri Gill

Some playful, and others bordering on the absurd, the resulting tableau like photographs reveal the distance between contemporary realities and tribal traditions, which have perhaps been altered to adapt to modernity.  Viewers are confronted with relatable, commonplace scenes from everyday India, but with a distinctive tribal spin.  Epitomizing this sense of familiarity is the work depicting two men sitting cross-legged, playing cards in the shade, one with a mask with sunglasses, the other with a slightly cocky and mischievous expression, giving the audience side-eye.  Following this recreational theme, three animal masked players heavily concentrate on the popular game of carom.  Other daily occurrences depicted include a family of three be-masked individuals balancing on a scooter and a man with an arresting cobra mask weighing onions at his storefront.

Untitled, from Acts of Appearance, 2015-ongoing. Copyright Gauri Gill

Untitled, from Acts of Appearance, 2015-ongoing. Copyright Gauri Gill.

In the process of readapting this tradition, Gill employs two fine art genres to visually demonstrate the complexities of identity, straddling tradition and modernity, the visible and the unseen.  While the masks differ in physical representation, their function is essentially the same.  Once worn, they transform the character of the person wearing them, assuming a performative role, reinforcing it’s inherent theatricality.  Additionally, the construction of the mask reinvigorates the tradition of decorative arts and crafts, referencing Gill’s own background in painting and applied art.

Untitled, from Acts of Appearance, 2015-ongoing. Copyright Gauri Gill

The performative nature of the series, while insinuated in the title itself, is critical in providing Gill’s photographical practice a new dimension. Commonly considered a one-dimensional medium, capturing the photographer’s perspective of a given moment in time and space, here photography has been used to construct a new and continually changing image, giving the subject control of their depiction through their art. The significance of this is twofold, firstly the intent of the image goes beyond documentation, and secondly it gives indigenous, sometimes unrecognized cultures a platform to be visible.  There is an expectation from tribal and indigenous artists to perform their culture, especially from outsiders, rather than allowing an expression of individuality.  In this project Gill relegates that expectation and brings to the forefront a distinctive narrative created by the subjects themselves.

Untitled, from Acts of Appearance, 2015-ongoing. Copyright Gauri Gill

Alongside Acts of Appearance, selected works from Gill’s Notes from a Dessert are on display for project 108, the inclusion of which showcases the breadth of Gill’s aesthetic.  An extensive archive of photographs produced in silver gelatin print, taken since 1999 (and still on going), this series focuses on marginalized rural communities in Western Rajasthan, portrayed through a range of local photographic methods including those inspired by studio portraits, religious calendar art and Bollywood posters, at times collaborating with subjects, and sometimes not including them at all. The fluidity of her art is well captured from documenting landscapes to utilizing other visual art forms to enhance her photography.  Acts of Appearance represents the next tier in a highly diversified and rapidly evolving practice, featuring dramatic, confrontational works which challenge perceptions by staging the unexpected.    

Untitled, from Acts of Appearance, 2015-ongoing. Copyright Gauri Gill

Projects 108: Gauri Gill is on view till September 3rd. For more information please visit MoMA PS1.


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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