The US premiere of photographer Gauri Gill’s work shows us unique portraits of an Indian community…

Text by: Fiammetta Cesana

Not to miss the last days of her “Acts of Appearance” at MoMA PS1 exhibition. A particular series of photos of individuals from Kokna tribe, in India, wearing masks while acting in their daily life… The collection engages us into the reality of Jawhar district, in Maharashtra, immersed in a dreamlike rural dimension. Gill asked members of the community to create the masks, which represent elements of their quotidian, including ordinary people, animals, natural elements and technological objects. 

These papier-mâché masks are inspired by those worn by the tribe during religious celebrations, depicting Hindu gods, in order to enact mythological scenes. In this way, Gill’s portraits build up a close relation between local people and the environment they belong to, also revealing a sense of spirituality in their everyday routines. 

The artist investigates how reality can be seen from different perspectives. By picturing these actor-volunteers amongst their familiar spaces, nonchalantly wearing masks, she shows their backward lifestyle with new connotations. They are no longer the mere representation of people “rendered powerless by state forces and societal structures”, but they get empowered by the mysterious casualness of their (weird) appearances. 

The analysis of the selfhood is crucial, since when someone is immortalized in his habits with the addition of unexpected elements, these ritual activities turn into something powerful, quasi solemn. The masked characters preserve their own dignity despite the poverty which embraces them, making the viewer particularly interested in their stories. 

Also the selections of masks explores the complexity of Kokna’s people, living in between old traditions and modernity, nature and technologies: we see a tiger headed women hand sewing in front of her home, a cell-phone headed man resting on a drawer, two headed birds men having a conversation, a group photo of animal and human headed characters…

The internationally awarded, Indian born, photographer has always showed a profound engagement with indigenous communities and local artists. “Acts of Appearance” is exhibited alongside another body of work, displaying photos of rural Rajasthan collected since 1999. Her production indeed goes beyond the MoMA exhibition, pursuing a consistent socio-cultural research. Gill, who currently lives in New Delhi, also commits herself in supporting other artists and incorporating their materials into her own works, as we can see in her latest photographic project where she used the masks created by Kokna artists. 

Projects 108: Gauri Gill – “Acts of Appearance”
MoMA, New York
Until September 3