Photo: Gauri Gill

Gauri Gill "Acts of Appearance"

Gauri Gill (b. 1970) is recognized internationally as one of India’s most respected photographers and has spent the majority of her career portraying the lives of people whose existence is side-lined in India’s booming metropolises. Gill’s photographs have been exhibited worldwide, from MoMA in New York to Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. In her very first exhibition in Norway, Gill presents excerpts from her ongoing portrait series Acts of Appearance.

During one of her many journeys through rural India, Gill witnessed the annual Bohada festival, which takes place in several Adivasi (Indigenous) villages in the state of Maharashtra in Western India. The festival lasts for several days and nights and the entire community participates, with selected villagers donning sacred and elaborate papier-mâché masks that represent gods, demons, and other mythical creatures. Gill was struck by how distant this fantastical world seemed from the ordinary lives and everyday challenges faced by the villagers, whose livelihood is under constant threat due to drought, malnutrition, land confiscation, and global warming:

The masks were spectacular, but I began to wonder why they had to be so idealized. Why were there no masks depicting grey hair, large noses, or spectacles? Why couldn’t routine activities like sweeping the floor also be represented, as opposed to dramatizations of demon-slaying?”

Gill decided to invite two renowned local papier-mâché artists, Subhas and Bhagvan Dharma Kadu, both members of the Kokna and Warli communities, to work with her on a creative collaboration. Drawing from the traditional mask-making arts practiced for generations, Gill proposed that they, along with family members and local residents from their village, would create a new repertoire of masks depicting their own or familiar lives, inspired by living humans, animals, and cherished objects:

“I envisioned the freedom these masks could offer as a way to distance and reflect upon oneself, as a means to explore one’s own life and circumstances here and now, rather than a distant past.”

Working with Gill the villagers then staged themselves as they wished in front of Gill’s camera, wearing their new masks. A deer reading the newspaper, a rat diligently tending to hospital care, cockroaches immersed in cooking, and various human faces occupied with everyday routines became self-portraits, expressing the dreams, fears, truths, and absurdities of individual lives. During the photo shoots, crowds of curious onlookers would gather, eager to contribute suggestions for improvisation:

People came to drink tea in the background, joke around, and cheer, then everyone would pull themselves together for the next shoot. You cannot see any traces of this in the photographs, as they also remain small fictions of what truly happened—much like masks.”

Gauri Gill lives and works in New Delhi. She studied Applied Art at Delhi College of Art, New Delhi, and Photography at Parsons School of Design, New York, before earning an MFA in Art at Stanford University in California. Gill’s work is represented in museum collections worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate in London, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and the Fotomuseum in Winterthur.

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