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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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As art historian James Elkins observes, the gaze is “a treacherous concept” for theorists in different fields – it is “conceptually ambiguous, self-contradictory, occasionally too rigid, too abstract, too general or too loose or thin or simply unhelpful”.

The “gaze” has traditionally been explained by philosophers and scholars of the history of visual art in relationship to the pathology of narcissism. However, from the twentieth century onward visual culture criticism has actively traced the term’s varying resonance within different discourses. Thus, for Lacan the gaze was an extremely influential human force, because only in the meeting of the face and the gaze “do we exist for each other”, psychoanalytically. Foucault used the medical gaze as a means to describe the power dynamics between doctors and patients. Feminist critics and art/film historians have narrated how the male gaze relentlessly objectifies the female subject in overt and covert ways. A more detailed theoretical discussion of the “gaze” is beyond the scope of this presentation. I restrict myself here to what Elkins describes as one of the most “lucid and persuasive” summaries of the gaze: Margaret Olin’s definition of the gaze as part of a wider effort “to wrest formal discussions of art from the grasp of linguistic theory, to focus on what is visual about a work of art and yet address the wider issue of social communication”. Olin refers to the dialogic models of Mikhail Bakhtin, where the gaze creates a platform for communication and equality between the seer and the seen: thus, in every instance the gaze is both a determinant and instrument of relationship. Drawing on Olin, Elkin defines the gaze as “an indigenously visual way thinking about visual art, one that responds to the fundamental acts of seeing that constitute every work and is attentive to the political and social dimensions of visuality.” This social aspect of visuality, in which the collective gaze has central place, is what informs my art and research practice, and my involvement in community art projects.

A wall-painting initiative evolved through our discussion sessions with the group members. The idea was to paint a series of ordinary women doing daily activities and engaging in work that is customarily done by men in the locality. The intent was to draw men on the street into a dialogue about the gender equality in terms of the acceptance of women in male-associated professions, as well as dialogue about the visibility of women in public spaces.

Naseem, Nilofar and Azra did a series of drawings that indicated how they want paintings of women to be prominent on the walls of Khirkee and Hauz Rani. They selected certain walls in the locality for their renderings. It was obvious from the drawings that behind their simple demeanour and lifestyle, the girls had a capacity to powerfully visualize their personal aspirations.

Azra chose a wall in the main Khirkee lane where motorbikes are parked. She depicted girls like herself sitting on bikes and chatting, just like the teenage boys and young men in the locality do in real life – something strictly forbidden to locality girls. Naseema chose a wall next to Jha-ji’s tea stall, also in the main Khirkee lane. She depicted girls like herself running the tea stall, where girls could sit and spend their free time, chatting, playing cards and other games, etc. She has experienced this at tea stalls on campus, but no women socialized at tea stalls in Khirkee and Hauz Rani. Nilofar also chose the wall next to Jha-ji’s tea stall. She imaged girls who cycled expertly enough to overtake locality boys cycling on the road. The girls would park their cycles by the stall, drink tea and hang out there like the boys.

The practice of active listening is the core of our dialogic method. Refining this into ideas and images for example, the wall painting, an ongoing process, has given us an opportunity to engage deeply with local people and gather content to be painted on the wall. This intervention has provided the opportunity to build a relationship with the local men. For instance, the cobbler who sat just in front of the wall was earlier very reluctant to talk to us, but through daily interaction and our promising to paint a dynamic signboard for his kiosk has given him faith in us, and he now communicates freely. He has gradually become a custodian-cum-curator of the wall painting behind him. When passers-by or his customers ask him what it is, he replies confidently, “Yeh kala hai!” (This is art!), to which many of the inquirers respond, “Hope it does not get damaged here…!”

We tried to negotiate with Jha-ji, the tea-stall owner, and the owner of a local workshop to give us permission to paint female figures on their walls. They were reluctant, doubtful and suspicious. However, after we painted a female cobbler on the wall in front of which the cobbler used to sit, Jha-ji and the workshop owner both agreed. The image depicts young girls enjoying tea at Jha-ji’s stall. We noted the various ways local men responded to these images. For instance, one man found it interesting that the “humans beings” painted “in costume” looked like women, not like men. Women socializing in public through a simple, traditional, natural act of tea-drinking seemed to be beyond his imagination. Some people asked the tea-boy whether they could bring their families to the stall and be painted on the wall while they were there drinking tea. Serving simultaneously as collective mirror, canvas, testament and repository, this wall painting is ongoing, and it has not only given us a chance to connect to most of people in the locality, it has created an environment for communication, and established a public space for community interaction.