Far from the urban centers of India, photographer Gauri Gil (b. 1970) has been exploring the daily lives of rural people for more than two decades. From October 13, 2022 to January 8, 2023, the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt dedicates a major public exhibition to the artist’s multi-layered photographic work, collecting around 240 works from a central series.
Jill’s calm, focused images focus on the barely noticed fringes of Indian society. In an open and collaborative process and contrary to documentary conventions, the artist addresses topics such as survival, self-affirmation, identity and belonging, but also conceptual questions of memory and authorship. The dimension of time and continuity of sequence, as well as perseverance and empathy, are crucial factors in her artistic practice, through which she seeks to overcome outdated narratives and stereotypes. In the conversational use of the camera and in intense personal exchange across classes, religions, and generations, the artist explores a new form of “collective vision” in search of polyphony.
The basis of Gill’s work and the starting point for several photo series is a long-term archival project Notes from the Desert, where she has dedicated herself to the marginalized communities of Rajasthan in the Indian West Frontier region since 1999. Here, as in all her works, the artist expresses her friendly relations with women in portraits Character. As a counterpoint to her projects in the desert, the American Photo Series (2000-2007) is dedicated to the diverse living environment of the Indian diaspora in terms of immigration, homeland and cultural ties. The exhibition at Schirn also shows Gill’s collaborative approach, including working with artists from rural areas. In her most recent collection of ‘Appearance Works’ (since 2015), for example, she has incorporated masks by papier-mâché artists from the Kokna and Warli communities in core, Maharashtra into improvised everyday scenes, thus developing a fascinating dialogue between reality and fiction.
Themes and works of the exhibition
Gauri Gil has been traveling to the arid region of western Rajasthan as a freelance photographer since 1999. In the intimate scenes and portraits of Notes from the Desert Series, designed as an open archive and featuring several thousand images primarily in black and white, she captures the lives of marginalized rural communities. Far from sentimentality and folklore, Gil paints a picture of resilience and survival in a world marked by extremes. An essential part of her photographic practice are personal encounters and long-standing friendships with groups of local residents.
Based on the working group Notes from the Desert, several photo-centric series have been created where Jill attempts to redefine the relationship between the photographer and the person photographed and express her solidarity with girls and women in particular. Jannat series (1999-2007) is a testament to close friendships. The 52-part cycle of small gelatin silver prints accompanies Muslim girl Jannat and describes the precarious life of her family, abandoned by her father, in everyday situations that often seem casual. Jill’s interest, above all, in highlighting women from rural areas shaped through patriarchal structures of power, is exemplified in Balika Mela (2003 and 2010). This series collects theatrical images of girls and young women from different village communities, created in a studio tent as part of a workshop initiated by Jill in the city of Lunkransar. By taking the position behind the camera themselves, those who are filmed also participate in the conditions of their representation. The seven-part series Ruined Rainbow (1999-2010) comes from a project with children and youth from the Barmer district of Rajasthan. The improperly exposed and supposedly unsuccessful shots of the presented Kodak camera reveal a playful and experimental encounter with moments from childhood and a different view of their village.
Another series of works from Gill’s photo archive “Notes from the Desert” has a more documentary character. For example, the ongoing series The Mark on the Wall (since 1999) shows hand-drawn charts on the interior and exterior walls of village schools in remote areas of Rajasthan as traces of a state educational support program. An alternative archive is also the Rememory series (since 2003), named after Toni Morrison, with photographs of abandoned, newly built or dilapidated buildings, gates, paths, gates and paths that Jill captured on her travels around India. They are testimonies of places between country and city that subtly look at gentrification and its effects on the realities of people’s lives. Furthermore, the Traces Project’s large photographs (since 1999) depict the burial sites of both Muslim and Hindu communities from hand-excavated stones, branches, pottery pieces, and personal objects, reflecting the cycle of life, growth, and decay embedded in the landscape. Counterpoint to Trace, The Birth Series, created in 2005 and comprised of eight micro-photographs, captures the intimate event of childbirth under the supervision of an experienced midwife in a remote village in the Thar Desert.
Unlike her projects in the desert, which are shot in black and white, Jill’s color photo series The Americans (2002-2007) focuses on the living environment of the Indian diaspora in the USA. On her photographic journey from New York through California and the Midwest to the Southern states, Jill has documented personal moments of meeting relatives, friends, and new acquaintances—and based on the landmark work of the same name by photographer Robert Frank from 1958, Success and Exhaustion, Grief and Joy, Religion and Culture from a Multicultural Perspective.
In recent projects, Jill has added new dimensions to her collaborative approach. Since 2013, the work group Fields of Sight has been co-authored with original artist Rajesh Chaetia Vangad of the Warli community. Gilles’ black and white photographs are combined with Vangad’s delicate drawings applied to them. Thus, location-specific memories and locally transmitted stories are captured in the images. Schirn presents the Jal, Jungal, Jamin (Water, Land, Forest) trilogy created in 2021 for the first time. The title refers to the three core values of Warli’s life, which the indigenous political movement across India use as slogans in their protest against displacement and environmental destruction.
For his portfolio Acts of Appearance (since 2015), Gill collaborates with papier-mâché artists from the Kokna and Warli Adivasi communities in Jahwar. As with Fields of Sight, Gill’s approach drives local craft traditions, with her depiction becoming a kind of stage for new forms of artistic expression. By means of the masks mass-produced for appearance works, a playful, experimental process of self-reflection and self-image develops based on the daily reality of village society.
In addition to Gill’s main series of works, the gallery at Schirn showcases the individual works Gill selected from some of her artistic partners as well as from people who played a major role in her work. These photographs by her father Manohar Singh Gill include Indian immigrant life in London and landscape drawings by her mother, Vinnie Gill. Documentation of her collaborative projects, her films On Seeing (2020) and Paper to Figure (2022 with Pradip Saha) as well as Camerawork Delhi (2006-2011), which she co-edited, provides insight into Gill’s artistic development and her self-image as a photographer.
Catalogs / Media on the topic:
– Art Basel Hong Kong 2018
– Ertubasil 2021
– Bangkok Art Biennial 2018
Venice Biennale 2019
– Document 14
– Frieze London 2022
Kochi Biennale – Muziris 2016
– Moscow Biennial 2017