Bridging Differences: Art for Change

by Aakshat Sinha



On 15 March 2021 opened What to do with difference? - an international group exhibition at the Art Gallery, Kamladevi Complex, India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi. The show features the works of 12 international and nine Indian artists along with a mentor who had attended the International Artists Residency 2020, organised by the Art for Change Foundation at NIV Art Center, Neb Sarai, New Delhi as also with works from the Foundation collection. The residency titled What to do with Difference? Art and Artist as Bridge took place in March 2021 during the tumultuous pandemic period when the national lockdown was in force. For two weeks the diverse group of national and international artists came together to engage with the issue of difference, ranging from the more limited, personal and individual relationships to the wider, perennial questions of community and social identity.


Art for Change Foundation is a New Delhi-based arts organization founded with the conviction that art plays a profound role in exploring questions of human dignity and the common good. For the last 12 years Art for Change has pursued a vision that sees the role of art in shaping society with beauty and truth and to support artists find their due and get their rightful place in society. They do this by providing space, opportunity and encouragement for more socially responsible art to be created; help and encourage artists to grow professionally; invite the public to meaningfully engage with the art created; and by inspiring and providing benefit to the people whose issues the art is concerned with. The international residencies further create collaborative cross-cultural interactions that result in new learning and long-term friendships.


Art for Change has its genesis in an informal gathering of four artist friends in a New Delhi apartment in 2004 to spend a week together painting about communal violence. The combination of intense reflection, creativity, and community was so stimulating they just kept on going, meeting each subsequent year to tackle a different theme, and eventually giving birth to an arts organization in 2008. Now in their 12th year of formal existence, they have run 27 artist residencies (seven of which have been the annual International Artist Residency), held 58 exhibitions for audiences ranging from people on the streets of New Delhi to Members of Parliament, and run art workshops on a regular basis for some of the city's most vulnerable citizens. They have launched the monthly Delhi Artist Studio Tour to promote emerging yet struggling young artists, run Art Melas to "make beauty affordable" for the middle classes while supporting artists in the process, and hold art classes and workshops among other activities that result in art playing a positive role in society that promotes harmony and well-being.[1]

Artists are observers, listeners, and storytellers. Through their art, they invite others to engage these stories, generating empathy and reflecting truth. Although solutions to the problems we face are not always clear, art can reveal the complexities of an issue that provide clarity and better understanding. Looking at the strife that differences have caused in the world around us, it is easy to become discouraged. Yet art can provide hope and direction, even when it addresses the worst of circumstances or the things that divide us.

The Residency Press note says, “The idea of bridging differences has struck the resident artists in multiple ways. Informed by the collective conversation, their work in this exhibit explores many topics in individual and collaborative artworks. In just two short weeks, in spite of their diversity, the artists found that art has created something that transcends their differences: a community founded on love’s creative nature.” [2]


This year the Foundation introduced a two-day cultural orientation for the 12 international artists with a mentor to get to know each other while they got over their jet lag. This proved to be a great experience for the international artists to learn more about India, go on a cycling tour of Old Delhi, visit local galleries and museums, do some shopping and eat Indian food. The mentor Dr Rachel Smith unravelled the most appropriate theme in our troubled times. The program saw speakers and specialists from diverse fields ranging from gender studies, disability and youth nurturing to art presenting their perspectives on the topic. Over the weeks all artists were able to complete a few works that spoke about the theme in their unique visual language. The residency culminated in an Open Studio which gave free access to the public which generated wide and encouraging response to the cause. Khandakar Ohida from India was at the residency for video documentation and filming.


International Art Residency 2020 video (courtesy of Art for Change Foundation)


The ensuing exhibition to be held at IIC had had to be postponed owing to the lockdown restrictions, but with easing of restrictions has now been put on display for public viewing. after a year. The past year saw many challenges for humanity across the world beyond all borders and the theme of the residency and the exhibition has added relevance.


The photographs from the residency and open studio present a glimpse of the engagement created for the participating artists by the mentors and the Foundation.


Inetrnational Art Residency 2020 (the photographs are courtesy of Art for Change Foundation)


Finally, this exhibition is a collection of the artworks by artists of Art for Change Foundation led by Dr Rachel Smith, Stefan Eicher, Joshua John, Shalem Kallimel and Isaac Gergan. Artists on display are Bernard Cargay, Isaac Gergan, Mohammed Intiyaz, Navya Sah, Ravi Chaurasiya, Sakshi Yadav, Sangeeta Pathak, and Sanjeev Mirajkar from India, Dan Cooper, Heather Harper, Jennie Kimbrough, KW Bell, Laura Stevenson, Marianne Lettieri, Moriah Miller, Sedrick Huckaby, Shamira Wilson, and Stephanie McDairmant from USA, Elizabeth Braid from Australia, and Elizabeth Kwant from UK.


All the works on display attract and hold attention and prompt the viewer to question, which is a critical response for understanding art. The artists address diverse ‘differences’ that exist today through their expressions in a wide variety of art styles and forms using mixed media, video, installations, collages, photographs and interactive works.

Each one of the works is engaging and has a story behind it and it’s well-nigh impossible for me to cover each in detail, much as I’d like to. So, I’m sharing my thoughts on some of the works that really stood out for me and if you’re based in Delhi and can step out (given the sudden rise in the number of new cases in the city) do visit the show over the weekend (27 and 28 March 2021). Isaac Gergan, Director, Art of Change Foundation, would probably be at the exhibition and he’d be happy to give you more insights into the works.

Sedrick Huckaby is from Texas, USA. Painting and drawing from live sitters, he aggrandizes ordinary people by painting them on a monumental scale and recording their conversations. His work on display comprises 21 frames that carry live sketches of the other artists who participated in the residency. Each work also features short notes as text which seems to be from Sedrick’s conversations with that particular artist. Created using charcoal, dry pastels, and colour pencils, the sketches are very personal and evocative and present an insight into the persona of each of the artists. In some cases it is the words that speak while in others it is the imagery (mostly the expressive eyes) that speaks volumes. Sakshi Yadav’s work is not something I must confess did not at first glance appeal to me but on reading her conversation with Sedrick on the sketch that he made of her compelled me to realize my prejudice and address it. This not only jolted me but hopefully it’ll help me to be more open to ‘differences’ around me.


Sedrick Huckaby's series of live sketches


Sedrick Huckaby's live sketch of Sakshi Yadav


Incidentally, it is again a series of portraits of Sakshi by Michigan-based Jennie Kimbrough that spoke to me quite emphatically. This is an evolving life portrait series in which the face and features keep getting clearer and more discernible with each subsequent iteration. In Jennie’s own words:

“The farther removed we are from another person, especially when you cross both physical and cultural borders, the more likely we are to generalize, make assumptions, and stereotype who someone is. We categorize people into groups, and in doing so, remove their individuality, and in some ways their humanity. We create a flat caricature in our minds, and are able to disregard their humanness, their thoughts and feelings, and ultimately their soul. But the more we engage with someone, even someone vastly different than us, the more we can see who they are, the spirit within them, and connect with them on a human level. That connection is not something that just happens, though. We have to be intentional in seeing others, looking for their individuality, and discovering who they are.”


My Name is Sakshi Yadav by Jennie Kimbrough, Graphite on vellum paper


Elizabeth Kwant from Manchester, UK, created two works at the residency. One of the themes is a cyanotype on paper titled Missing Girls. It seeks to understand the socio-political issue of female infanticide within the Indian context. For this work, she collected second-hand girl’s dresses and exposed them to the Indian sun, creating a negative print. The work speaks of the absence of girls from Indian society; at the same time, she uses delicate lace patterns to point to the beauty of raising girls. The work is cute and haunting – it is difficult to take your eyes off the work and remain ambivalent to the alarming situation of missing girls.


Missing Girls by Elizabeth Kwant, Cyanotypes on Hahnemühle paper, 15 inches x 21 inches, Edition of 6


Elizabeth’s second work is a performance film Lady Justice done in collaboration with the performance artist Navya Sah. Elizabeth explains, “Lady Justice explores the body’s physical limitations of weight bearing, through the act of holding a set of weighing scales. The film alludes to the universal symbol ‘Lady Justice’, who is often depicted as blindfolded – holding a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other. Watching over the city, here she is seen carrying the burden of justice. How long can she hold the scales?”


Lady Justice, Performance, film, installation, Duration: 6.29 min

Concept/Direction: Elizabeth Kwant, Performed by: Navya Sah


Navya Sah from Bangalore, India, works in the realms of filmmaking, performance, sound and writing. Created at the beginning of corona times, the performative film values the feeling of touch and connection in the times of physical distancing. She’d rather we don’t become socially distanced because of the pandemic; even if physical touch is not possible at the moment, perhaps we could reconnect with our own bodies or with the person sitting beside us. And even if that is not possible, let's try to emotionally touch each other through our hearts to feel wanted, connected and valued. Touch is a two-part interactive series with a solo performance and a stop motion film installation. Her poem is spot on with our hopes today:

Touch If only, we could touch each other more, we could have, more connection, more love, more responsibility, more dignity and fewer wars. Shall we try that please?”



Touch, Performance film,

Concept/Direction, Performance, Edit - Navya Sah

Camera for Film - Elizabeth Kwant

Special thanks to Shabari Rao, Hari Narayan, Rachel Smith, Art for Change Foundation


Ravi Kr Chaurasiya is a Delhi-based interdisciplinary artist, working with installation, painting, sculpture, sound, site-specific video, and photography. He uses his work to explore relationships between human society, animals, and the environment. His work features a mountain of garbage that has been split along the middle horizontally, with images of daily routine from the society including the antics of the humans and animals, and the pristine (!) presence of nature. There are 16 works with a series of four colours – Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Brown.


Ravi Kr Chaurasiya’s series of 16 works


Isaac Gergan wears many hats. He is an artist, photographer, designer, writer, and art administrator. Though he resides and works alternately in Leh and Delhi, he believes that he is a global citizen – he speaks five languages, which brings a unique influence to his work. Scripts are a part of his oeuvre. The words create a visual narrative of their own and the overlapping text seems much like the life of an individual – each time a new part gets written, it hides a little of the past while some gleams through.


Isaac Gergan’s works


The show is big in terms of the number of works and also because each work deserves a lot of attention. But it is very engaging not the least tiresome It left me thoughtful and helped me reflect on my own association with the world that I see as ‘different’ from me. The exhibition forced me to question my ideals and exposed my own bias which creeped in unnoticed and became a part of my identity.


Stefan Eicher's works


Bernard Cargay's works


Mohammed Intiyaz's work


Closeups of Elizabeth Braid's work


Laura Stevenson's interactive works - Purity or Pollution and Inclusion or Ignorance

Mix of wood, plexiglass, color print, acrylic sheet, magnets and RGB light


Gallery view of some of the other displayed works


“Art can change things! Art can change how you see your world; change how you see others; change how you see yourself. Art brings people together, and shows us who we are and who we are meant to be. Art changes us. And art changes society!” – Art for Change Foundation

Art can facilitate change. I completely agree and this is one of the primary reasons we began the artamour blog. Do try to visit the show which is open till Sunday, 28 March 2021 and gift yourself the opportunity to reflect and meditate in an art exhibition.



References:


1. https://artforchange.space/ The details about the foundation have been sourced from their website.

2. The write-up on the residency theme has been sourced from the Residency press note by Art for Change Foundation.


(All images are courtesy of Art for Change Foundation and the respective artists. Photographs from the gallery display are courtesy of Aakshat Sinha.)



Aakshat Sinha is an artist and curator. He also writes poetry and has created and published comics. He is the Founding Partner of artamour.

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