What happens when 12 artists from 5 countries in opposite ends of the globe assemble together in Delhi, India to live together for three weeks and try and tackle a deep rooted social and humanitarian issue and make art about it?
Three months ago, I had the honour of being part of this International Arts Residency organised by the Art For Change Foundation. Our group had painters, sculptors, glass makers, installation artists, performance artists and two photographers and I was one of them.
The topic in hand was ‘Human Dignity: The Many Faces of Abundance’ and the subject in hand was a community of ragpickers and garbage segregators in a large landfill. A landfill so huge and intimidating that it’s called Delhi’s ‘trash mountain’. And it literally is. Spreading across 70 acres in Gazipur, this space, seemingly a post human world, looks straight out of an apocalyptic movie complete with thousands of eagles and vultures flying over the area. It’s something that eerily makes it’s presence felt miles away. In between this dark and difficult place, is this community who’s life is more messed up than the goods they deal with.
We made a visit there and with the help of a local non-profit and tried to get a window into how the people live there and what their struggles are. We’re talking about tiny huts made of plastic and metal sheets with 5-8 people and they’re smack in the middle of tonnes of garbage where there is literally no separation between life and trash. We’re talking about displaced and marginalised people who are at high risk from chemical poisoning, fires, cuts bruises, insects and dog bites, diseases and threats from the local mafia. Most importantly, the hazards here don’t just come from a civic problem but from the social and moral evil of the caste system in India which acts as the weight to the chains that binds them. They’re the lowest of the low and face extreme prejudice from every other community above them They’re not allowed the basic human dignity which every human being has been given by the Creator. These are the people who clear out our trash and there’s lots of them. Delhi produces over 10,000 tones of garbage daily and there are approximately 400,000 rag pickers in the city alone.
Once the visits were made, we had a variety of brilliant artworks forming up mostly from materials collected from the community. The artists started creating paintings about pure water coming down from heaven and cleansing them, we had a glass sculpture about the need for education among the children and installations signalling the deconstruction and a complete reconstruction of the system, performance pieces about identity and acceptance etc.
Over three weeks as the artists bonded with each other, the barriers came down and a shared identity came out of hiding. One of love and responsibility towards each other. The objective was to not just make art and have a show in the end but also about bringing beauty and truth into the lives of the people in the community which were literally filled with garbage. I have only words of praise for my fellow artists and especially for our mentor at the residency Berenice Rarig who gently guided us along the way. I also ended up doing a collaborative piece with her and the direction and counsel I got from her regarding it and my artistic journey is worth writing different article about.
My role in this story was a ride form the mountain to the valley or shall I say the valley to the mountain. Photography is generally a solo practice and a lot of the work is preconceived and generated within the mind of the photographers themselves. When I waked into the residency and saw the situation and topic at hand, I began to think what i’d like to do as my art piece. After the first visit, I thought I had it all figured out. I would make four or five visits to the place. Talk to the people and shoot pure documentary styled images. Dynamic and perhaps dramatic compositions of the people in the community… Great images in themselves and well within my area of knowledge.
On the first visit the I made with the group, I didn’t make any pictures of people there because I believe it’s best to earn the respect of the people and understand their vulnerability before making photographs. The trouble started when I realised that I wouldn’t be able to go there as often as I had planned to. Every attempt to go there didn’t work out because of lack of resources and access and every other obstacle you can think of. And here I was in the building where we were staying as a group and all the artists around me had already found their inspiration and were painting away, making sculptures and installations while I was sitting there with camera in hand and had nothing to do! Well, what could I do? I wanted to be in the field making photographs! This was a time where I was in a deep valley mentally and emotionally because I didn’t have the answers. I didn’t have control over what I would make. The burden of not doing something that I thought would be the best thing to do as a photographer started to be heavy. In a way, I felt underused and even wasted. Frustrations and desperations about the whole program was on my head and I shared it with Berenice. She assured me that I was growing and asked me to keep pushing.
Before the residency got officially over, I could go to the community just once. And it was a strange one at that. I didn’t shoot what I had planned to. There were many moments where I saw something and I just had to shoot it. And none of these were like the ones I had planned. I walked into an area and I knew that I just needed to shoot a particular thing or scene but didn’t know why. I did it anyways. I came back to the residency with a whole bunch of pictures but didn’t know what to do with them. My final selections ended up being well for lack of a better word… garbage… Pictures of garbage.. But as I began to edit and see them, I started getting the answerers one by one… And here’s the best part… The answers were not form me. But from the people who viewed the pictures. My final set for from the program included four pictures.
The three part series:
- Gold: What is the best that we can offer? And whats the best that we can keep? The many faces of abundance
- Frankincense: What is the best that we can offer? And whats the best that we can keep? The many faces of abundance…
- Myrrh: What is the best that we can offer? And whats the best that we can keep? The many faces of abundance…
And my main piece was
Manger: Giving His all and taking it all. A throne thrown, and the thrown on the throne; The many faces of abundance…
As I began showing my work to my peers, visitors and others, things began to unpack. The learnings and thoughts shared by others when they saw the photographs were like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which I didn’t put in… In fact it was evident that I was not supposed to put in these pieces at all. More often than not, these are pieces of the puzzle that I didn’t even know existed! But these people did. An amazing confluence of discovery wonder by not just the viewer but the photographer himself. A man from New Zealand after seeing the pictures spoke about ‘the journey of faith’ in the three pictures from material abundance to real fulfilment in the final image of the ‘throne’ (manger). A South African couple mentioned an essence of connecting arts, community and faith and a woman from Bangalore was given an invitation to come and sit and see the plight and condition of the people in the community through the photograph ‘manger’. I personally thought about realised about the sovereignty of the throne and the Christ figure over the trash that He has come down to.
As the opening of the show progressed and as as I heard these comments and feedback from people, I was reminded of the humbling truth that photography and all art for that matter is a gift. We as artists are blessed and privileged receivers of the gift of enjoying a window into the world that not many enjoy. While I was hearing all the comments from the people, my frustrations from the previous days of not being able to do what I wanted to unfolded into the precious thought that this project was not about my work and what I was trying to prove. An artist as a lone runner is a call impossible to follow through… A load too heavy to take up. In retrospect, the artist’s goal is not to take up the heavy burden of self achievement and success but to grow together in community and proudly be vulnerable broken vessels pointing other broken vessels to the perfect one.
This experience in failure and vulnerability is difficult for our proud hearts to accept this but it’s humbling and liberating because it’s God working His grand master plan though us and his work multiplies with every connection and touch we make in our work. This experience continues to teach me about the freedom of not having anything to boast about myself and that’s great because we as artists echoing the truth have something greater to boast about!
When I look back at all the resentment and limitations that I had within me, I see that in every shot that was made… In every picture that I didn’t fully understand while I was making them, God’s presence was closer to me than the viewfinder was to my eye. His plan for the work was much greater than mine. There were signals of transcendence over all the steps of creating the final artwork… In closing, here’s a treasured poem from the Puritans which well summarises the glorious truth that when we try climbing the mountain, we are sometimes painfully but always lovingly and graciously reminded that the mountain is actually the valley and the valley the mountain.
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.