Traces, is a series memorialising unmarked and marked graves in the desert. The handmade graves belong to people with relatively few economic resources—peasants, nomads and other inhabitants of remote villages in Western Rajasthan; and from both the Muslim and Hindu communities, pointing to a more heterogenous complexity underlying national thought and religious traditions.
Created from materials found in Nature, the graves exist lightly upon the earths surface. They might include personal offerings from the home, or individually hand-inscribed gravestones. Over time, they are reabsorbed by the landscape as they are imbibed by other creatures of the earth, or erased by sand and the elements. Either partly embraced or nearly wholly immersed, each site is as unique and significant as a monumental work of art, although free of the heavy subjectivity of permanent historical record.
Untitled (26) Silver gelatin print. 11 by 14 inches.
The Mark on the Wall (1999 - ongoing)
The Mark on the Wall is a set of photographs in which Gill documents drawings made by local artists, children and teachers in government schools in Rajasthan under the now lapsed Leher Kaksha scheme, initiated by the state to help children learn visually from the walls in their classrooms. From the most tentative marks to those ever more sophisticated, from determined depictions of children making their way to school to individualistic expressions of nature, from maps of the village to symbols of the State, in what these fragments choose to express—to represent, point to, aspire to, or impart as learning—are offered revealing glimpses of the collective mind of a rural community.
Building the City
Ink on Archival Pigment Print, Unique Print, 42 x 62 inches,
Fields of Sight (2014/2016)
In Fields of Sight, Gauri Gill collaborates with renowned Warli artist Rajesh Vangad to present this recent—and ongoing—body of work. The series began in early 2013 in Ganjad, Dahanu, an Adivasi village in coastal Maharashtra. A new visual language emerged symbiotically from Gill’s initial experiences of photographing the landscape. Looking at her contact sheets, she perceived that although the camera was capturing the distinct ‘chamelon-like’ skin of the landscape, it was missing vital aspects of what was not apparent to the eye, yet was vividly relayed in the great stories narrated to her by Vangad. The photographs by Gill, inscribed by drawings by Vangad, reconfigure the photographic site both formally as well as conceptually, to arrive at new documents of multiple truths and knowledge systems.In the act of viewing the landscape through the eyes of Vangad, Gill rekindles the need to challenge the way we see things today, what our eyes capture and what may elude them. ‘As though one were photographing an old home, and the resident of the house came out, and began to speak’.
“We see here a photographer of and from contemporary, urban India (though of a land-centered community herself), and an artist/painter of the Adivasi community from Maharashtra, whose visual narratives work together to tell stories that demand to be heard as equally contemporary, and not as relics of a traditional, or “tribal” past, a term that the British as well as independent India have called Vangad’s communities. He is not a ‘lost” figure of what Renato Rosaldo called “imperial nostalgia,” asking us to mourn what we ourselves have destroyed. He is not destroyed, but there, producing a language and art practice that uses the modern medium – the photograph, the motorcycle – to assert presence rather than provide the possibility of mechanical replication of that which is lost. Gill’s own photographic practice of collaboration and presence (see her work 1984, for instance) uses the photograph as a memory practice that asserts that the moment of photographic capture can prevent closure of stories of violence and suffering. Her characters challenge us to remember that their stories are not over, much remains to be done, whether it is redress, reparation, or in this case, recognition that identities of those deemed to be un-modern remain to challenge the politics of the neo-liberal state that denies that minority communities have a stake in the country’s future.”
Excerpted from Inderpal Grewal’s essay: Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad, Fields of Sight, 2014.
This notebook about the anti-Sikh pogrom that occurred in New Delhi in 1984 contains photographs taken by Gill in 2005, 2009 and 2014 alongside captions from the Indian print media in which they first appeared and text responses by thirty five artists - including writers, poets and film makers. The photographs from 2005 appeared in Tehelka (with Hartosh Bal); and from 2009 in Outlook (with Shreevatsa Nevatia). The corresponding captions are roughly as they were inscribed in the published reports.
Izmat, Barmer Silver gelatin print. 24 by 30 inches.
Notes from the Desert (1999 - ongoing)
This extensive series is a photographic archive of the years Gill has spent visiting her friends among rural communities in Western Rajasthan, including Jogi nomads, Muslim migrants and Bishnoi peasants. The set of pictures is often structured around performance and portraits; some spontaneous, others created in collaboration with her subjects. It includes posed pictures made in a tent on the one hand (Balika Mela); cinema-verite style portraits on the other; and finally those photographs that were staged in people’s real life environments and so combined practices. The work references vernacular and popular practices of photography and image making often found in and around the village - including the studio portrait, passport photo, religious calendar art and Bollywood posters.
Within it are contained various narratives; Gill hopes to eventually publish them as individual books; each book is a note from the desert. The first book Balika Mela, was published in 2012.
The archive includes the Birth Series and Ruined Rainbow Pictures.
“To set up a photographic project in rural Rajasthan, in black and white, stretching over a decade, goes against the grain of several stereotypes; and signals the maturing of a ‘voice’ within the corpus of Photography in India. Defrocked of its color and tourism potential, Rajasthan, is scoured at the nomadic margins; revealing lives in transition: epic cycles of birth, death, drought, flood, celebration and devastation, through which they pass. The extremity of the situation requires no illustration or pictorialism- those vexed twins of the colonial legacy- especially from an insider, or the one who is led by the hand. Her subjects take her into their world, and she goes there like Alice. Her method embraces ‘Time’- which does not ‘naturally’ exist inside a photograph, beyond the epiphany and commemoration of a moment (photography’s melancholy and limitation is precisely this)- within a structure of intimacy and relationships that unravel their mysteries slowly.”
Excerpted from Anita Dube’s essay: The Desert- Mirror: Reflections on the photographs of Gauri Gill, 2010.
In 2003 the non profit organization Urmul Setu Sansthan organised a Balika Mela - or fair for girls, in Lunkaransar town, attended by almost fifteen hundred adolescent girls from seventy surrounding villages. The Mela had various stalls, food, performances, a Ferris wheel, magicians, puppet shows, games and competitions, similar to any other small town fair. Urmul Setu invited the photographer to “do something with photography” at the Mela.
“I created a photo-stall for anyone to come in and have their portrait taken, and later buy the silver gelatin print at a subsidised rate if they wished. I had a few basic props and backdrops, whatever we could get from the local town studio and cloth shop on a very limited budget, but it was fairly minimal, and since it can get windy out in the desert everything would keep getting blown around, or periodically struck down. The light was the broad, even light of a desert sky, filtered through the cloth roof of our tent. Many of the more striking props - like the peacock and the paper hats - were brought in by the girls themselves. Girls came in, and decided how and with whom they would like to be photographed – best friends, new friends, sisters, the odd younger brother who had tagged along, girls with their teachers, the whole class, the local girl scouts. Some of those who posed for the pictures went on to learn photography in the workshops that we started in May of that year, and two years later they photographed the fair themselves.”
Gauri Gill, 2009
In 2010, Gill returned to attend a Balika Mela held after a gap of seven years, with an exhibition in a tent. Many of the girls portrayed in the pictures from 2003 were either at the fair or known to those who attended. She ended up making more portraits, this time in color.
"Critics like to cast Balika Mela as a modern replay of the emancipatory mid-nineteenth-century zenana photo studio, where mainly female Indian photographers shot performative pictures of elite Indian concubines from palatial harems who otherwise lived in purdah (wearing the veil). The comparison ignores the fact that her subjects have nothing to do with orientalist identity politics or feudal concubinage. The images do, however, have a feel for the region’s dizzying rates of female infanticide, but also for the corollary: that women just want to be. Their skits of aspiration and quiet daring, while certainly quite a bit of fun, would also become pragmatic weapons while they eventually struggle to get jobs, as some do. Indeed, one workshop participant, Manju Saran, who went on to reject purdah after marriage, also established a successful photo studio. The book concludes with Manju’s first-person account, delivered partly in the third person, like a split personality negotiating the gap between an ideal state of freedom and the knowledge it is not quite hers yet, not unlike Gill’s portrayals of the same."
Prajna Desai in Aperture Issue 225, On Feminism, 2017
The set of photographs was made when Gill lived some days with a great midwife in a remote village in Motasar, Ghafan. Kasumbi Dai had invited Gill to photograph her deliver her granddaughter. The photographer ended up both photographing, as well as assisting with the birth. Kasumbi Dai died in 2010.
“One room in the gallery contains a series of small photographs in which the elderly midwife Kasumbi is delivering her granddaughter on the sandy floor of their desert hut. The veiled mother-to-be, arms clad to the shoulders in ivory bangles, strains and pushes. The midwife helps by pressing the soles of her feet against the laboring woman’s and grasps her hands to create resistance. We see the infant’s emerging head and the outstretched hands guiding it into the world, and then the newborn gasping its first breaths in the sand.
The great dramas of life and death, love and longing, growth and change, captured in these images are presented with the same matter-of-factness that accompanies these great life passages is this place - with unadorned humanity rather than maudlin sentimentality.”
The series was created by the photographer from rolls of film taken by children photographing in the same Barmer villages as her, and discarded by them because they were ‘ruined’.
"The children were excited and enthusiastic, and photographed widely - from inside their homes to out in the fields. In the process of learning, they made ‘mistakes’. On one occasion they were horrified to see flashes of light streaked across the images I brought them - the photographer had accidentally opened the back of the camera and exposed the film to light. No one would claim the film as their own, and it was instantly discarded as it was kharaab, failed or ruined - I kept it in my bag.
Years later, in 2010, when I was editing my own contact sheets for an exhibit, Notes from the Desert, I found these rolls. I looked at them anew, and was moved to see long familiar faces and places appear in the photographs. I wondered which particular child had made the images, and at the precise exchange that might have occurred at that moment. I thought about photography, and how despite all of its superior claims to representing the truth, even completely undoctored images offer only a subjective narrative - this particular one quite different from my own - therefore there are as many possible narratives as individuals. As with life, the medium of technology introduces its own presence through chance and accidents.
I played with the prints, and when I looked at them again, the ruined images had formed an unexpected rainbow. A Ruined Rainbow, if you will. I decided to include this in the show."
Typing classes at Khalsa Diwan. Tilak Nagar, New Delhi, 2011
C - Print. 16 x 20 inches.
What Remains (2007 - 2011)
imgimgimgimgimgimgimgimgimgimgimgThis palimpsestic series documents the displacement of the Indo-Afghan community from Kabul to Delhi, over successive waves of migration, to question notions of identity, home and belonging.
The collaborative photo and text-based installation includes Gill’s own photographs, taken in Kabul and Delhi, photographs taken by members of the Sikh community in Afghanistan - overlaid with texts taken from interviews with individuals - and texts by some of the children within the community, drawn from writing workshops the artist conducted at the Khalsa Diwan Afghan Hindu-Sikh Refugee association school in Tilak Nagar, New Delhi.
“What we take, what we leave behind, who we were there and who we become here, and through it all what remains - what continues to live in and around us, or in our children. I am interested in the act of making such physical journeys, both by individuals and communities...
...I see the work as a series of facts or truths, building upon or colliding with each other, interrupting, competing or even plain arbitrary. I believe History is made of details that may or may not mean anything - or anything significant - the inferences are for us to draw. The thread is memory, the resistance provided by stubborn memory."
Gauri Gill 2011
"Social and collective memories are framed in these photographs and there is an evident nostalgia. The term nostalgia comes from the Greek for a painful longing (algia) to return home (nostos) . In spite of the wars, the destruction of their homes, the hatred of the people and government for non Muslims there is a yearning for the wonderful cold crisp air of Kabul, the snow, the food and most of all their way of life. In an article, “After loss what then?” Judith Butler investigates loss as a social, political, and aesthetic condition rather than as a psychological state. It is a trauma that afflicts collective rather than individual memory. Something was lost but no memory can retrieve it.
However, Gauri Gill has used in these photographs Max Weber’s Verstehen approach that involves understanding the object of enquiry, by means of empathy, intuition and imagination and has portrayed and preserved the identity of a very small group of people for whom there will never be holocaust museums or other learned works analysing the disappearance of the Sikhs from Afghanistan."
Alok and Sumati Patel-Parekh. Silicon Valley, California 2001
Archival pigment print. 27 x 40 inches.
The Future Infinitives
All over those bland, continuous states, in ghettos amalgamated beyond Sikh, Muslim, Hindu to one easy race- name, South Asian, one umbrella brand, Indian-American, in basement sublets, dorms, mortgaged cookie cut homes where god lights blare like truck horns, coatless or bundled, hardhat headscarf askew in cold sun, a mother and daughter slaughter ready at the register, or that man, rushed, clenched shut at Dunkin’ Donuts, at Apna Bazar Cash and Carry, on Roosevelt, a food-fragrant driver of a yellow taxi, those sisters, shy and not shy, rival sports trophies and photos arrayed, the dead one’s husband, emperor sized bed against uncurtained white wife light, empty house and he alone with remote, & the priests of the convention cathedrals, limp wrists extended over wine cocktails, suits and flesh glossy in the gloaming, wild glint of fossil fuel, DCs far domes winking yellow, oh all over those blonde, bland states, saying to Gauri’s camera, It’s me, barefoot in the ballroom of the dream, poised, posed, alone, almost American.
The Americans (2000 - 2007)
"Nearly five decades after Robert Frank, Gauri Gill takes a series of solitary journeys through America traveling extensively from New York and New Jersey to California to the Midwest and five Southern states. She moves outward, from the nucleus of family and friends to their networks, through a map lined with the material and psychological presence of migrants. The resultant body of photographs. The Americans, emerges as a palimpsest that documents the new Americans – Indian immigrants. That Gill addresses her subjects with the transnational gaze of the traveling photographer brings her subject within the potent discourse of migration and diaspora, post-coloniality and the new world. Set in the chromatic intimacy of the candid photograph, it is inscribed by the material residue of two cultures, of the glittering flecks of Bollywood and Hollywood, the Indian and the American dream."
Excerpted from Gayatri Sinha's essay, New Delhi 2008
"Given Gill’s explicit invocation of Frank (apparent, as I’ve suggested at so many different levels), how should we understand the object of her critique? Does she intend to present Indo-Americans as part of a liberating counter-culture? Is she mounting a critique in part of a US consumerist dream that fails to deliver for most Indian-Americans? This seems implicit in a number of powerful images which take the viewer very close to the quotidian routines of low-paid manual work (for instance the moving diptych showing Laljibhai and Pushpa Patel cleaning the Days Inn West in Mississippi). But is she also mounting a critique from within of aspects of the Indic tradition, of targets such as religious orthodoxy, Bollywood and patriarchy? The display of cut-out victims from a benefit function for the subjects of domestic violence suggests this quite clearly. The serried ranks of Bollywood videos with peeling labels set alongside racks of salwarkameez may be intended to communicate the routinized repetitive actions of diaspora nostalgia. Or it may be intended to record its tenacity – its steadfastness, and endurance, in this new context. Such ambivalence, of course – and the power it gives the viewer to come to their own conclusions - is a considerable part of the power that Gauri Gill’s project offers. Like Robert Frank’s work, her images are not easily "selected and interpreted", but they speak of things that are there: "anywhere and everywhere"."
Excerpted from Christopher Pinney’s talk at Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago 2008
The photographer sometimes walks around in her neighborhood in New Delhi at night, with a camera, but without a flash or tripod.
"Gauri's intimately stark renditions of the area of Nizamuddin shot during the night time gave a beautiful gray-scale representation of winter in one of oldest areas of Delhi. Placed randomly across the still wet grey walls of the rooms the photos almost enacted a watery washed out collage rendering a psycho active tapestry of solitary socio-cultural glimpses of Nizamuddin. Charged with a prolific eye for the most visually self contained images from the vicinity Gauri's entire photo 'installation' assumed an appearance of a multi windowed black box with windows into a different space and time...very connected to the immediate area and yet completely ethereal in it's entirety."
Khoj Residency 2005
“I started to photograph my neighborhood in the year 2005.
Returning home late at night, I would notice things that I didn’t in the
day. Lit up by streetlights, houselights and moonlight, sometimes
diffused by the rain and fog, Nizamuddin became another place. One of
the first pictures I took was of a white van. Its precise location on
the road, its mysterious alignment with the shadows imprinted on it,
transformed it from an ordinary van into another creature altogether. It
was as if I had passed through a door into another world.”
"Gauri Gill constructs her images like a careful essayist, recording the urban metropolis in transition. In her urban landscapes her subject is the city in states of transition. In divesting her subject of people and colour, Gill sets up a psychological debate with her viewer, and investigation into the nature of desire and its uncertain outcome. Structures appear like accretions on the land, frequently silent, dark and forgiving. Against these, the pursuits of the metropolitan dream, nevertheless survives. When the interiors do reveal themselves, they bear marks of migrancy, aspiration and the imprint of the dream. Gauri places on the same scale of desire the interior of the pastry shop, and the anticipated wedding feast, the photo studio which feeds into masquerade and performance and the drawing rooms of middle class suburbia. We are looking from the outside into a (failed) utopia of demolished buildings, 'painted' scenes of happy domesticity.
Structurally, she is drawing on multiple photographic traditions, of the studio as a site for wish fulfilment, of the popular/vernacular tradition in India, as architectural structures as cultural readings, as documented in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Of urban sites of the "quiet and the commonplace" and the vast city spaces of detritus and waste, as recorded in the work of Michael Ashkin. In this way, the work hovers between nostalgia and strange absences, the promise of pleasure and its exhausted satiation."