Post 12: Art

An example of the arrogance of the West—or possibly of the New Yorker that still forms my core—is assuming that major, cutting edge art spaces could only be found in New York, LA, London, Berlin, Paris, Venice and perhaps a few other cities. This of course is nonsense. There are vibrant centers of creativity all over the globe and they are to be found not only in the US and Europe. They may not garner the attention or the sales, but they are genuine places where serious explorations are taking place, often in superbly designed spaces, where there is a history of accomplishment, sometimes going back for generations.

We arranged for our exhibit to coincide with the Delhi International Art Fair, in the hopes that we could entice a few visitors to see Following the Box. We also wanted to begin conversations with other institution as potential future hosts for our work. Jerri was recovering slowly and the fair was a considerable distance from our B&B, but she nonetheless gathered her strength and we toured the enormous fair, easily comparable to art fairs in Chicago, New York or LA. The majority of dealers were from within India, but there was representation from Europe, America and Japan.

One local newspaper complained, however, that an enormous number of people were taking selfies in front of art works they found interesting; at least for the length of time it took to snap a photo. Apparently India has the highest number of selfie deaths in the world—people who step into oncoming traffic while taking a shot of themselves in front of something that seemed momentarily important, or fall of off trains, or out of windows or whatever. As a young community photography instigator, back in the sixties and seventies, my goal was to put photography—this magnificent tool—in the hands of the masses. Technology caught up with me—and now we have billions of photos of pussycats; no understanding that the frame isn’t random; no awareness that all moments are NOT equal. And of course, no physical prints, no albums, no possibility that someone 70 years from now will find a box of photos and follow them half way around the world.

After putting Jerri in a cab so she could get some rest, I went off with two of our participating artists, Aditya Basak and Chhatrapati Dutta to Lado Sarai, a street filled with art galleries. There, in the midst of used tire dealers, roaming cows, sleeping dogs, an occasional religious shrine, street food vendors and assorted evidence of vibrancy, were some 20 first-rate galleries, all with openings to capitalize on the art fair visitors. And of course, there were parties to go along. Art and wine seem to go together universally. An occasional samosa thrown in doesn’t hurt. It was the last day of the fair, and the last day of Following the Box in Dehi.

The next day, we took the show down with the help of Mamta Bhatt from the IGNCA Conservation lab and packed up the exhibit. Through the generosity of Sanjoy Roy, we were able to load everything into a truck and have it securely stored. It now rests safely in a Delhi warehouse until the next venue is identified.

As I was leaving, I went to see the other major exhibit then on display at the museum. It was a retrospective of 90 year old Satish Gujral, a major Indian artist, who studied with the great Mexican muralists Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco, and who went on to do significant work in painting, sculpture, even architecture. It was an enormous show, but in gallery after gallery, I saw no one—I was the only visitor. Finally, at the last gallery, I saw 2 people in wheelchairs talking with a young woman. It turned out to be Gujral and his wife Kiran themselves. It was sad to see this magnificent and important artist, with a beautifully designed exhibit…and no visitors. Art is a very strange life. We work so hard, grappling with our inner demons; mastering techniques; probing our minds and souls; struggling with whether we wish to communicate with others or simply explore with no regard for reception; struggling financially; understanding finally that success is a chimera but that it doesn’t really matter. We have to seek joy and appreciate whatever gifts we might have along the way. Perhaps those are some of the lessons learned in India.

Kiran and Sarish

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Post 11: Jerri’s Musings # 2 – The Man on the Other Side of the Curtain

I’d been feeling very sorry for myself. Almost as soon as we got to Kolkata, I got sick, possibly from making an egg-in-a-basket that didn’t cook right through. But after 3 days I got better – not so bad. Each previous trip has been the same – sick for 3 to 5 days, then done. I can take it.

After packing up the show in Kolkata, we flew to Delhi to install it there. Within days I got “that feeling” again – not a good sign. At the opening, in a fine silk kurta, chatting to people, I had to frequently excuse myself to run to the bathroom. By the end of the week I was in hospital, with several tubes implanted in my arms, pumping saline, antibiotics, antibacterials, anti-nausea, antidiarrheals.

Needless to say I was quite sick and even more miserable. Why does this always happen to me when I come here, to this magical country? Is India telling me I don’t belong so give it up? All I wanted to do was go home. I had already lost 20 pounds and since I was unable to hold anything down, was losing even more. My doctors kept ordering blood test after blood test, each time coming up with nothing specific. I sunk into deep despair. There seemed to be no resolution.

I had a lot of time to think, to shed tears, to feel sorry for myself. I thought a lot about my friends who were in far worse shape: a nonagenarian, who was coping with the aftermath of hip surgery; a friend who was making baby steps towards recovery after paralysis; another who was adjusting to a new life without a colon; yet another who was heading into a 5th round of experimental chemo. All of these people had such great humor and strength and willfulness, which I seemed to lack.

CurtainsThen there was the man on the other side of the curtain. He had been coming to the hospital since August, every month for 4 days of chemo. It was very evident that he had lost a lot of weight. His skin was pasty, his voice hoarse, he did not have much hair. He always cheerfully greeted me as I passed his bed, heading to our shared bathroom. He always inquired about my health. What right did I have to feel so sorry for myself, to be so miserable, when my situation was temporary and his so permanent and devastating? I had such trouble getting beyond the “temporary” – everything seemed to catapult into the “forever.”

When I was 20 years old I spent a winter in Switzerland, not really attending the University of Lausanne, skiing mostly. Very early in the season, I made a turn, hit a rock and fell 150 meters down the slope, on my back. I thought I was going to die – I actually saw my life rush past me. I thought, this is crazy, I’m 20, I’m too young to die. Eventually I was able to dig in my heels and come to a stop.

A couple of months later I was sitting on a bar stool, turned around and froze, unable to move, in horrid pain. This was the beginning of a lifetime of struggle with my sciatic nerve. One day, while in the physiotherapy waiting room, I started up a conversation with the man in the next chair. He had one leg and started telling me about how relieved he was to be rid of it. I was horrified! I was a skier, young and strong – the thought of losing a leg was anathema. He told me about years of excruciating pain. But now it’s over. He was happy. I thought how lucky I was to have both of my legs – I’ll get through this somehow.

I thought about this one-legged man from Lausanne, about my brave, struggling friends back home, about the man on the other side of the curtain. I thought about my remarkable children who called all the time to cheer me up, about all my friends and extended Indian family who called to encourage me, to say, “come home, we will take care of you.” I thought about how fortunate I was to be in a clean, semi-private room in one of the best Bed panhospitals in Delhi. I thought about the thousands of people in Delhi, in Kolkata, in Mumbai, who live on the street, who have no access to this care. I thought about how blessed I was to have a husband who would pull me out of depression and make me look at what I had in front of me, to make me understand that the “forever” is not forever.

My despair in the hospital was rooted in many things – my natural inclination to catapult, but more importantly, I just wasn’t sure how many more trips I’d be able to make to India, or how long I could stay there. I feel so alive here. I am able to think, to photograph, to create. We’ve made wonderful life-long friends here. Will all this now be in the past?

When Max was in Senegal, he also got very sick. It took him a long while to get healthy again. For a while we thought he might have a parasite. He nicknamed him Wally. He drew a little caricature of Wally on a piece of paper – a wormy creature with a smile. Emma captioned it: “He has Max’s eyes.” We have it pined up in the kitchen. Wally became a “thing” in our family whenever anyone of us got a gastro ailment.

So now I had an Uber-Wally, that just wouldn’t let go. After 4 days in hospital, they released me with no clear diagnosis other than severe gastro-intestinitis. I had many recurrences of “loose motions” (diarrhea), a forever present nausea, a revulsion to food, and extreme fatigue.

It took over 2 months to expel “Wally” completely. I hope to never see him again.

 

 

 

 

 

Post 10: Delhi Part II

Ever since we came to India, we have been struck by the tremendous number of serendipitous occurrences that happen here on a regular basis—the seemingly random meetings that have profound consequences; a chance event taking us to places of which we’ve never dreamed; the overheard word that leads to entirely new chapters. That’s what happened at the Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata back in December. We were meeting there with Jon Ward, a friend from the US Consulate. He arrived before us, overheard the word “jazz” from a nearby table and joined the conversation. We are now good friends with Sudipto Sanyal (“Deep”) an English literature professor specializing in popular culture; Amitangshu (“Amit”) Acharya, an environmental reporter and his wife Sushmita Mandal, an expert on water quality. Amit and Sushmita live in Delhi. Not only did Amit come to the opening of our exhibit, but a few days later, he, Sushmita and their friend Swati Parashar, a professor of Women’s Studies at a university in Australia, took us to Purana Quila (the Old Fort) and the National Handicrafts Museum with its spectacular Lota Restaurant. This was one of the few days where we played “tourist,” where we did NO work and simply enjoyed our remarkable surroundings. Basically, we work all the time, not separating weekdays from weekends, even day from night. It takes a tremendous amount of work to organize a show such as ours. So despite being in remarkable surroundings, we often fail to appreciate what is in front of our eyes. This is why we need friends—to wake us up.

Another friend, Rahaab Allana, Director of the Alkazi Foundation, a remarkable archive of historical photographs of India from the 1840s to the 1940s, invited us to an exhibit of his grandfather’s work. Ebrahim Alkazi is one of the most important theatrical directors and teachers in India, basically bringing India into the 20th century of theater. The well-designed, inspirational exhibit explored his life and struggles.  It is such a privilege to enter these worlds, previously unknown to us. Aside from the general cultural knowledge base that surrounds anyone, there is a specific layer for artists and intellectuals, a necessary knowledge of the history of our chosen medium and its relationship with others. Knowledge an Indian artist takes for granted is new territory for us. On the other hand, most Indian artists are well versed in Western cultural history. This clear imbalance reflects centuries of inequality, a colonial legacy that is slowly withering away.

Jerri had not been feeling well for some time, some stomach issue that would not go away. She finally went to the doctor and was eventually admitted to the appropriately named Max Hospital, the best hospital in Delhi, an hour away from our B&B. I dropped her off at the ER, then took an Uber back to the museum where we had previously arranged a film screening, then, accompanied by Ramesh Jain, a trusted friend from the Embassy, made it back to the hospital. Jerri remained there for 4 days, a miserable time for all of us, despite the good care she received. SelfieEveryone asked her where her “attendant” was and were shocked to learn she was by herself. The tradition is for a family member to sleep at the hospital—they even set up a couch, bring food, blankets, etc. In the poorer wards, families roll our rugs and sleep on the floor. Nurses had a hard time understanding that I was working. Eventually, I ended up sleeping on the couch too.

My cousins Paul and Susan from New Jersey had arranged a trip to India around the dates of our exhibit, and were coming into town the next day. I took them to Following the Box, which they really enjoyed, then to the Craft Museum, our Pahar Ganj neighborhood…and then to the hospital to visit Jerri. Not exactly a planned part of the tour, but appreciated nonetheless.

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At Faruk’s store, which has had a loyal Israeli clientele for 30 years.

 

Post 8 – Delhi Part I

Here’s the problem with Delhi if you are a white-skinned foreigner—people assume you are a wealthy tourist, there to see the sights and buy things. So they try to sell you something. Anything. Incessantly. In Kolkata, they are genuinely interested in what you might be doing in their beloved city. They ask questions, are fascinated by the answers, love the fact that you love India and their city. Usually, within a few minutes, they invite you to dinner. This time in Delhi wasn’t as bad as last time, but I did have to yell at an auto rickshaw driver who stopped his “tuk-tuk” in the middle of a trip. As soon as he turned around and started talking, knowing what was coming, I forcefully interrupted and said, “I am sorry but no, I am not interested in going to your brother’s shop. I am not interested in going to your uncle’s restaurant. No, I do not have 5 minutes to just take a look. I am sure you are all good people. I just need to go home now.”

“Home” in Delhi made all the difference. We stayed at “Diya B&B,” a project of the Salaam Balaak Trust, a program to help street kids started many years ago by Mira Nair who made the film Salaam Bombay. Recommended by friend, early supporter of our work and board member Sanjoy Roy, a remarkable man who founded the #Jaipur Literary Festival, #Eye on India Festival in Chicago and perhaps 20 other such ventures, the place was a refuge. In the normally noisy and crowded Phara Ganj part of Old Delhi, this beautiful place was on a quiet side street, an easy 15-minute tuk-tuk ride to the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, home to our Following the Box exhibit. Because the place was new, we had a small apartment almost entirely to ourselves. Dilip and Danish, former street kids, ran the place. They were absolutely wonderful and Dilip’s daughter Diya, for whom the place is named, was a constant joy, talking non-stop in both Hindi and English, constantly pointing to things and naming them, rearranging the produce we had sitting on a tray, constantly moving. The place has a rooftop garden, which we would have used more if it hadn’t been so cold. I know it’s cruel to complain about temperatures in the 40s and 50s when everyone back in New York or Chicago is digging out from several feet of snow and struggling with sub-zero temperatures, but hey…

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The neighborhood alternated between the craziness of the main market street, as exemplified by a wedding procession complete with the groom on a white horse and the quiet beauty of an old building, with art-deco traces of its past still clinging to its surface. This place is simply magical.

 

Post 5 – The exhibit opens!

Both Jerri and I have been doing exhibits for many years.  Sometimes it’s our own work, sometimes that of other artists.  For the past 25 years, most of my exhibits have been done with my partner Frank Madsen through our museum exhibit design firm Teller Madsen. Even after hundreds of exhibits, there is something still magical about seeing ideas communicated through space, about choreographing visitors’ movements so they may have an emotional response, a new perception, an enhanced awareness of the world around them.  This has always been my goal in exhibit curation and design.  It has to look spectacular—and mean something.

I think we did it here.  Thanks to the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts for providing this large and beautiful space for our Following the Box exhibit.  Each of the 12 participating artists responded to a different aspect of the still-anonymous soldier’s photographs from so long ago.  Each brought their own creativity and culture to play as they interpreted the images.  The end result is a cross-cultural exploration of historical imagery, perhaps the first time this has even been done.  We are enormously proud and grateful for the opportunity afforded to us first by the Fulbright grant; then by two subsequent grants from the U.S. State Department; by the faith the Indian artists had in this project; and by the legacy left to us by an unknown soldier/photographer who unwittingly changed the lives of two artists seventy years after the end of the war.

 

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Post 4 – Unpacking the Crates & Installing the Exhibit

Everything actually made it in one piece–nothing broken, nothing destroyed, nothing lost. It took several days to set up the exhibit, hampered by the electricity going out and our sitting in the dark for hours on end, waiting for generators to be brought in, which proved difficult because of a recent terrorist attack that made fuel deliveries nearly impossible.  FYI–Installation by cell phone flashlight is not effective.

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Post 3 – An Unexpected Evening

I thought this blog would be about our successful unpacking of our well-traveled crates filled with art, how everything arrived intact and about our experiences beginning to install the exhibit.

But that will have to wait until tomorrow.

We had wondered whether, 4 trips into India, we had exhausted our quota of remarkable and unexpected experiences, that the Serendipity Gods might have turned their attention to other worthy souls. Not a chance. Things happen to us here that are hard to explain and that leave us smiling at the ever-expanding nature of existence.

We were just finishing our work installing the exhibit, progressing nicely by the way, when we started talking to Anil Verma, one of the art conservators at the Indira Gandhi Center whose office is in our gallery space. We mentioned that we were steeling ourselves for a likely confrontation with a more than likely avaricious autorickshaw driver (a “tuck-tuck”) when he offered to drive us back to our B and B in the Para Ganj neighborhood.   He then asked if we might like to join him for dinner, a home-cooked meal at his uncle’s house in that same neighborhood. We readily agreed…and got far more than dinner.

Anil drove us to a cramped side street in Old Delhi, where we carefully maneuvered past tiny stalls and street vendors, children, bicycles, motorbikes and assorted animals until we reached a building under renovation. We walked upstairs and found ourselves in a newly constructed Sikh research center, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat. Anil’s uncle, Avinash Jaiswal, was the national secretary of the group.

We were offered tea and sweets and began a conversation about Sikhism, Hinduism, religion versus politics, the nature of God. It was one of those memorable conversations that reinforce a belief that indeed we are really one, that differences are exacerbated by circumstance or manipulated by others, that brotherhood and sisterhood is indeed possible, that neither ISIS nor Donald Trump represent the future. We were then introduced to Sardor Chiranjeev Singh, the 85 year-old highly respected founder of the group, who has devoted his life to India and to creating a better world. We seem to find people like this…or they seem to find us.

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Sardor Chiranjeev Singh

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Anil then told us that they were so honored that we joined them, so pleased with the work we are doing, that they wanted to perform a special ceremony in our honor. We were given orange shawls and makeshift head coverings. They sang some brief songs, said things that of course we could not understand but intuited the meaning nonetheless, and took out their iPhones to photograph the event. We the sat down to an absolutely delicious vegetarian meal.

We invited all of then to the exhibit opening. We will no doubt see this group again. As we left, the power in the entire neighborhood went out and we walked carefully downstairs, passing people using their phones as flashlights. It was very dark. A thin, speckled cow led the way, foraging in mounds of garbage strewn in the narrow alley. We made it back to Anil’s car and he drove us home.

It looks as though this adventure is just beginning.