Artists

The mask is a continuation of selfhood, a mirror of dream states but also a means of rendering a face to characterize those disjunctive life scenes that become alluring and haunting refrains, as inevitable remainders. It is that grey terrain where lucid interplay between reality and fiction ensues. Fernando Pessoa has written, “Masquerades disclose the reality of souls. As long as no one sees who we are, we can tell the most intimate details of our life.” In Acts of Appearance (2015-ongoing) Gauri Gill initiates a collaborative process among an intergenerational group of Adivasi papier-mâché artists from the Konkana tribe in Maharashtra’s Jawhar district. The creation and donning of masks is constituted here as a collective practice deploying show-and-tell, co-acting and improvisational scripting with the entire village: from the water pump, public hospital, shopping stalls, to private homes and the bus stop, which operate as animated backdrops.

In virtually re-writing the rules of masquerade in accordance with local festivity, mythological roleplay, kinship with the animal kingdom and daily conundrums performed as a civic dramaturgy, the protagonists in Acts of Appearance encounter us frontally, while embedded within communitarian ties. Gill cautiously manoeuvres her return to colour within this series of performative photographs that are expressively charged and life-like, while still delving in the realm of the absurd. Led by characters opting for subversive humour and lore to chart surreal tableaus that emerge from the wider social imaginary. In contrast to the black and white chronicles in her long-term series Notes from the Desert (1999-) that detail family life and lasting friendships, birth at the hands of a great midwife and the aftermath of flood in arid geography, this series carries a more playful stance yet locates a fragile balance between estrangement and belonging. Let us consider here, the words of Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, “Dignity is not located in seeking equality with the white man and his civilization: it is not about assuming the attitudes of the master who has allowed his slaves to eat at his table. It is about being oneself with all the multiplicities, systems and contradictions of one’s own ways of being, doing and knowing. It is about being true to one’s Self.” The mask allows for games of friendship as well as solitude, while navigating a return to bodily thinking and to what might be called a corporeal “I.” Two friends take on the garb of the parrot and the owl, walking hand in hand on a dusty road…

The Mark on the Wall (1999-) plots scenes from the visual pedagogy and didactic exercises mapped onto the outer and inner walls of rural desert schools and Proof of Residence (1999-) unfolds as a portraiture of ‘pucca’ (concrete) homes of the Jogi community that are locked up and abandoned, while circuits of migratory labour, nomadism and dispossession remain entwined and persist. In these series, there is an eerie absence of the human figure and still the transient nature of home-the dwelling that is carried upon one’s back-and exclusive claims made over habitation and learning, are some of the provocations these works unleash each time they are shown. The uneven terrain of neoliberal development is an obvious fact and yet how are we to reckon with the wilful blindness and amnesia of privilege that results in an asymmetrical representation of the everyday across rural India’s built environment? In the latest work, Gill carries on with investigating the contemporary paradoxes of rural dwelling, but here the village inhabitants project meaning from their experience as construction labourers, inhabiting partially finished houses and posing in newly furnished living rooms. The woman reads the local newspaper at her front porch, knowing the farcical reports and journalistic parodies only too well.

Acts of Appearance opens the path toward egalitarian staging and the mode that is considered Sahrdaya, which implies for the viewer a sense of oneness with the authorial voice. According to Rasa theory a viewer does not think of herself as an audience but as part of a community of believers [1]. In building a taxonomy of emotional states over the years, that maps union and separation, bliss and despondence, attraction and rejection, Gill and her collaborators bestow a sublime poetics to the technical life of photography. Eventually, we are made aware in those moments of Pravrtii (activity) and Nivrtti (repose) how counter-publics are formed, and the radical potential of arriving at wholeness through the performative route of incommensurability.

At documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel, where Acts of Appearance was first exhibited last year, the mask became a liminal trope interwoven across several artistic positions [2]. In K.G. Subramanyam’s paintings and murals, the mask is a tool of transformation that bears theatrical purpose conversing with myriad paradoxes in the human condition and the legends of chimerical creatures. In Khvay Samnang’s Preah Kunlong (The Way of the Spirit), a choreography of masks composed of woven vines asserts a “queering” of identity camouflaging with forest ecology, sequences in ‘becoming animal’ and foregrounding indigenous life-worlds that rupture the colonial relationship toward ownership of natural resource. In Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief and carver Beau Dick’s practice, masks are vital ingredients in the long arc of storytelling and ceremony. They spoke of wildness and protection while narrating the legend of a young boy who fell into the oceans and discovered another entrance into the netherworld. Masks are danced and then ceremonially burned at Alert Bay; hence also a temporary abode and cipher of passage. Inevitably, masks re-codify the processes of naming and being named into an interrelated act-one that is more equanimous than the binary of self and other.

A face with greenish tones and neatly parted hair, somewhat like a Noh theatre mask, is pictured within the narrow mirror hung over a dry stonewall. He is lean, appears slightly cross and stares back in a reversed gaze. This solitary stance leads one to deliberate over the masks we adorn daily that highlight individualistic tropes while immersed in a sea of digital interfaces. The ‘filtered’ portrait is after all not merely a social media tool but also a mask-one that is entrenched in a vicious loop of alienation and boredom, while disrupting the very notion of truth and self-image. Gill’s portrayal with masked beings proposes an alternative mode of engagement that inculcates what Elizabeth A. Povinelli has regarded as an “ontology of the otherwise” [3]. There is a direct address tocollective survival and vulnerabilities that navigate between the hidden and the revealed, shattering the assumed hierarchical spectrum of hyper-visibility. In this bind of intimacy and double consciousness, the photograph becomes the groundwork of resistance.

“Masks! Oh Masks!

Black mask, red mask, you black and white masks,

Rectangular masks through whom the spirit breathes,

I greet you in silence!

And you too, my panther headed ancestor.

You guard this place, that is closed to any feminine laughter, to any mortal smile.

You purify the air of eternity, here where I breathe the air of my fathers.

Masks of maskless faces, free from dimples and wrinkles.

You have composed this image, this my face that bends

Over the altar of white paper.

In the name of your image, listen to me!”

Prayer to Masks - Léopold Sédar Senghor

[1] See: South as a State of Mind ‘Silence and Masks’, #7 (documenta 14 issue 2) eds. Adam Szymczyk and Quinn Latimer, Spring / Summer 2016

[2] Vijay Mishra, Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime: Lacan's Return to Freud, SUNY Press: 1998, p. 19

[3] This refers to Elizabeth A. Povinelli’s writings on the concept of geontology as has been developed through her collaborative work as a member of Karrabing Film Collective and an academic committed toward an anthropology of the otherwise. See: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/465-geontologies-of-theotherwise

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