Collaborative, liberating, resistant: The SCHIRN presents photographs by the artist Gauri Gill in the first major survey of her work.
Far away from India’s urban centers, the photographer Gauri Gill (*1970) has been exploring the modes of survival and daily lives of the country’s rural population for more than two decades. From October 13, 2022, to January 8, 2023, the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt is presenting the first extensive survey of the artist’s multifaceted photographic oeuvre, bringing together around 240 works from major series.
Gill’s quiet, concentrated images focus the viewer’s gaze on barely perceived peripheral areas of Indian society. In an open, collaborative process that resists documentary conventions, the artist devotes her work to themes such as survival, self-assertion, identity, and belonging, as well as conceptual issues relating to memory and authorship. Along with the dimension of time and serial continuity, tenacity and empathy are decisive factors in her practice of art, in which she seeks to overcome outdated narratives and stereotypes. Through her dialogic use of the camera and intense, personal communication across classes, religions, and generations, the artist explores a new form of “collective vision” as she searches for diverse voices.
A collaborative Process
The foundation of Gill’s work and the starting point for several of her photo series is the long-term archival project "Notes from the Desert", in which she has used photography to engage with marginalized communities in Rajasthan in the border region of western India since 1999. In this series, as across her entire oeuvre, the artist particularly expresses her long friendships with women, whom she highlights in intimate portraits. A counterpoint to her projects in the desert is the photo series "The Americans" (2000–07), devoted to the diverse lives of the Indian diaspora, especially in terms of migration, homeland, and connection to culture. The exhibition at the Schirn also highlights Gill’s collaborative approach, which includes working with artists from rural regions. In her most recent series, "Acts of Appearance" (2015 onward), for example, she incorporates masks made by papier-mâché artists from the Kokna and Warli communities in Jawhar, Maharashtra, into improvised scenes of daily life, devising a fascinating dialogue between reality
An open archive of resistance and personal encounters
Since 1999 Gauri Gill has been a freelance photo-artist traveling through the barren regions of western Rajasthan. She captures the lives of marginalized rural communities in the intimate scenes and portraits of "Notes from the Desert", an open archive consisting of several thousand mostly black-and-white photographs. Free of sentimentality and folklore, she draws a picture of resistance and survival in an environment characterized by extremes. Personal encounters and long years of friendships with local populations comprise an elementary part of her practice of photography. "Notes from the Desert" gave rise to several major series in which Gill seeks to redefine the relationship between the photographer and those photographed, in particular expressing her solidarity with girls and women.
Her concern about giving visibility to women, especially those from rural regions dominated by patriarchal power structures, can also be seen in "Balika Mela" (2003 and 2010). This series assembles portraits of girls and women from various village communities taken in a tent studio as part of a workshop initiated by Gill in the city of Lunkaransar. Because the people portrayed also took the position behind the camera themselves, they also participated in determining the conditions of their representation.
testimonies to places between the rural and cosmopolitan
Other series deriving from Gill’s photo archive "Notes from the Desert" have a more pronounced documentary character. For example, the ongoing series "The Mark on the Wall" (1999 onward) shows hand-drawn diagrams on the interior and exterior walls of remote schools in the hinterlands of Rajasthan, relics of a government-sponsored program to support education. Another alternative archive is the series "Rememory" (2003 onward), whose title alludes to Toni Morrison and which features photographs of abandoned, newly constructed, or decaying buildings, gates, and paths taken by Gill on her travels through India. They are testimonies to places between the rural and cosmopolitan that subtly focus on gentrification and its effects on the reality of people’s lives.
New Dimensions of collaboration
In her more recent projects, Gill has added new dimensions to her collaborative approach. The group of works titled "Fields of Sight" has been jointly authored with the Indigenous artist Rajesh Chaitya Vangad from the Warli community since 2013. This project combines Gill’s black-and-white photographs with Vangad’s delicate drawings. The images are inscribed with memories tied to the place, as well as traditional local stories.
In addition to Gill’s major series, the exhibition at the Schirn presents Gill’s selection of individual pieces by some of her artistic partners and people who have been of significance to her work. This includes photographs of migrant life in London made by her father, Manohar Singh Gill, as well as drawings of nature by her mother, Vinnie Gill. Documentation of her collaborative projects include her films "On Seeing" (2020) and "Paper to Figure" (2022, with Pradip Saha), as well the magazine Camerawork Delhi (2006–11), which she coedited, provide insight into Gill’s development as an artist and how she sees herself as a photographer.