JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 framed and matted gelatin silver prints and 49 framed pigmented inkjet prints hung against walls variously painted white, saffron, indigo, and maroon in one of the museum’s second-floor galleries. The gelatin silver prints are from the series “Notes from the Desert” and “Mark on the Wall,” both 1999–ongoing, and measure either 11×14 inches (or reverse) or 24×30 inches (or reverse). The pigmented inkjet prints are from the series “Acts of Appearance,” 2015–ongoing, and measure 16×24 inches (or reverse), 28×42 inches (or reverse), or 60×40 inches. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Delhi-based photographer Gauri Gill documents the lives of individuals and communities in her native India, particularly those marginalized by state and societal forces. Over time, her interest in personal and collective experience has led her to increasingly collaborative ways of working. In 2003, and again in 2010, for example, she set up a photo studio at a fair for young rural woman, inviting them to choose their own props and poses. In 2013, she worked with Rajesh Vangad, a maker of traditional Warli paintings, photographing him in places that have meaning for him and then inviting him to draw directly on the prints.
Gill’s most recent series of color photographs, a selection of which is now on view at PS1, was produced with the help of members of an Adivasi (indigenous) community in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. The artisans of this community are famous for their papier-mâché masks, which are worn by Adivasi villagers in annual performances of Hindu epics. Instead of depictions of gods and goddesses, however, Gill commissioned a local family of craftsmen to produce masks representing familiar kinds of people and animals, as well as various physical, mental, and emotional states, and even inanimate objects like television sets and cell phones. She then asked volunteers—many of them the artists themselves—to wear the masks in their daily lives as she photographed them.
In one of the resulting pictures, a doctor in an elephant mask attends to an elderly woman in a sari, who wears the head of a worried-looking man. As the doctor listens to his patient’s heart with a stethoscope, the wide painted eyes of her mask telegraph her anxiety. In another, the sun and moon masks worn by a pair of friends emphasize a connection already made clear by their body language. Still other photographs read like folk tales. In an image of three men—one with the face of a smiling youth, one with a wrinkled visage, and one with the head of a monkey—the first man is industriously moving rocks with a hoe; the second is sitting cross legged, clearly feeling old and tired; and the third is seen relaxing in a window, gleefully indolent.
The settings of the photographs—a schoolroom, a shop, a courtyard—have much to say about the outward lives of the people in them; the masks tell us about their inner experience. The gap between them accounts for the surrealistic quality of the images, in which ordinary physical and social situations are transformed, as in dreams, by the protagonists’ imaginings.
Organized by Lucy Gallun, an assistant curator in MoMA’s photography department, the exhibition also includes selections from Gill’s photographs of rural communities in the northern Indian province of Rajasthan. Made over the course of many trips to the same locales, this body of work chronicles the precarious lives of people Gill has come to know as friends. Culled from two series—one documenting the drawings made on schoolroom walls by teachers and their students, and the other following the daily round of nomads, migrants, and peasants in western Rajasthan—these black-and-white images serve as a counterpoint to the color works in the show.
While the color prints depict a transitional zone between reality and fantasy, the former show life as it is. Near a photograph of a woman in a bird mask hangs a picture of a child’s drawing of birds; beside an image of a woman on an examining table, her mask’s painted-on lines clearly broadcasting her physical distress, is a smaller photograph of another patient, this one in a rural hospital ward with few apparent comforts.
Like many of her peers, including Farah Al Qasimi and Deana Lawson , Gill is a photojournalist as well as a fine art photographer, and her pictures are equally formally accomplished. More important, along with Lawson, Zina Saro-Wiwa, and other contemporaries, Gill is one of a cohort of younger women photographers whose work flows out of an earlier generation’s distrust of the so-called documentary photograph. Like them, she combines photographyand performance to produce something at once both more imaginative and more truthful.
Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Gauri Gill is represented by Nature Morte in New Delhi (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.