Broken Foot, an exhibition featuring 60 artists, records socio-political fallout of India's migrant workers crisis

In the absence of an official, comprehensive record of the coronavirus lockdown-triggered exodus, an exhibition curated by artists Rumi Samadhan and Prabhakar Kamble foregrounds and responds to the Indian migrant's long journey home.

Anvisha Manral September 30, 2020 10:24:00 IST
Broken Foot, an exhibition featuring 60 artists, records socio-political fallout of India's migrant workers crisis

Above: Jaab & Muzzle | Umesh Singh

On 24 March, as the nationwide lockdown was put into place to battle the spread of COVID-19, thousands of migrant workers set off homeward, some to their families and some with. For the next few weeks which eventually turned into months, the workers, marooned on unknown streets, battled hunger, disease, and apathy from the state and public. It was unimaginable that these were the same bodies that had helped build the houses we live in and the hospitals that stand tall amid the coronavirus pandemic. At the end of their perilous journeys, some of the 1.04 crore workers made it home while others didn't. However, perhaps the greatest mockery of the crisis was made when the government said it had no data of the number of migrant lives lost during the lockdown.

In the absence of an official, comprehensive record of the exodus, an exhibition-fundraiser curated by artists Rumi Samadhan and Prabhakar Kamble foregrounds and responds to the Indian migrant's journey home. A collective act of solidarity and dissent, Broken Foot — Unfolding Inequalities contextualises the works of 60 artists within larger frameworks of politics, governance, environment, laws, and culture. Excerpts from an interview with the curators below:

The exhibition touches upon the varied implications of the pandemic. What was the thought and reference point behind it?

This exhibition is a thought of lending a helping hand for the artists who are in trouble due to the rise of pandemic. Initially it was started with a discussion of how to raise a COVID-19 artist relief fund; we came up with the idea of exhibiting online in collaboration with Mojarto.

Very early on, a series of intense discussions began as the migrant labour crisis unfolded in simultaneity with the economic impact of the pandemic on the lives of artists. These talks led the making of Broken Foot — Unfolding Inequalities where 60 socio-politically conscious artists have been invited to build a context for the curatorial vision, as they help us create a fundraiser for the artists in need.

How would you define your curatorial process? The exhibition merges different art design and elements together; how did that convergence play out?

The curatorial process was research-based and a process-driven engagement. A topographical view of curatorial vision, artists and direction  converged organically after a point. We were observant and moved by the ‘spontaneous solidarity’ shown by a few artists as a critical response to the migrant-labour crisis.

The invitation to the artists was non-hierarchical, keeping in mind an inclusion of different forms of aesthetics, such as spontaneous line drawings, conceptual works, experimental sculptures-paintings, inclusivity of art of the indigenous, as well as photography. Through this curation we look at interrelations of socio-political, economic-ecological as well as technological aspects that build our milieu, where ‘existential social realities’ become the core aspects of life.

A bit about the works featured — Umesh Singh faced a rough journey home from Varanasi to Bihar, an arduous 40-hour travel. He documents this cathartic escapade —  undertaken with migrant workers — through a series of works within Acts of solidarity.

Broken Foot an exhibition featuring 60 artists records sociopolitical fallout of Indias migrant workers crisis

Escapade - a journey with the migrants | Umesh Singh

Sunil Awchar’s black and white drawings are a sensitive responses to the turbulence the migrant workers faced, embodied in works such as ‘We just want to somehow get back home’, Disinfection and The Constitution.

Vikrant Bhise’s 'A journey with hunger - I' unearths a vitriolic projection of starvation and helplessness, conjoining the intestines and legs of those travelling homeward.

Kerala-born, Baroda-based visual artist Anil Thambai retrieves the erased ideas of collective labour through They were walking, as he traces architecture in history to question the absence of labour.

Moreover, photographers T Narayan and Aparna Olwe captured real-time images of the pandemic. Narayan documented the daunting journeys the migrants undertook in precarious conditions either by foot or through transport — an estimated 1.04 crore labourers had gone home by road across India by then. Aparna Olwe captured an unthinkable scene of Mumbai's barren roads and as well as vignettes of Dharavi where anxieties about social distancing and the sustenance of small scale industries were increasing.

Broken Foot seems to aim to start a new discourse on labour, politics, and economy as understood in the post-coronavirus world. How much of that discourse has been achieved in the Indian context?

The pandemic enabled us to witness the interdependency of labour, politics and economy. Though the exhibition is multi-vocal in its radius, the locus of the exhibition is within the subject of labour. It seeks to identify the unaddressed interconnectivity of the labour crisis with indigenous communities, the farmer crisis, urbanisation, ecological conflict and so on.

Within India, Broken Foot enabled us to bring some of the strongest figures representing forms of labour as a collective voice. Some of these artists not only represent but also hail from labourer families. They respond to their existential conditioning, or their surroundings as observations.

Birender Yadav, for instance, reflects on his identity of being the son of a coal miner from Dhanbad. The struggles and plight faced by illiterate labourers has been his lived experience. His works reflect the appalling conditions faced by them, while experiences allow him to lend an empathetic eye to these ‘unnoticed masses’, and give viewers a vantage point to the narratives of their survival against all odds. An academically trained painter, he works with different materials which help him to explore the physicality of toil — the painstaking task of a labourer.

Broken Foot an exhibition featuring 60 artists records sociopolitical fallout of Indias migrant workers crisis

Identity Crisis from the Angootha Chaap series | Birender Yadav

His Angootha Chaap series is a documentation of the lives of the uneducated masses, children, men and women employed in brick kilns. Through the curation, he questions the welfare schemes for the upliftment of the poor. He questions the identification processes — biometric markers like thumb and fingerprints — as well as how someone who can’t read or write due to lack of access to formal education can access these provisions.

Ambedkarite ideas are a large part of the overarching theme. What does working with such powerful iconography which challenges hierarchies and dominant narratives, both in the sphere of art and outside, entail?

For the first time in visual arts, the role of Dr BR Ambedkar in the social sphere, through his engagement with the labour movement, has been consciously centralised.

Broken Foot an exhibition featuring 60 artists records sociopolitical fallout of Indias migrant workers crisis

Ambedkar and a labourer | Vikrant Bhise; Dr BR Ambedkar | Mohsin Matwal

Ambedkar's crucial contribution [to India] was not just the Constitution, but also his effort towards a specific concern of the working class — the labour laws. He brought in the eight-hour working day, bringing it down from 14 hours. Additionally, on 8 November, 1943, he introduced the Indian Trade Union (Amendment) Bill demanding for the compulsory recognition of trade unions. He symbolises the Constitution and notions of equality, a quality which becomes the fundamental reason to invoke him in current times.

Some of the works in Broken Foot register the existential fallout of the migrant labour crisis as a rupture and a shifting form of inequality, unfolding a trajectory of an inheritance of those very forms of inequalities. The pandemic itself centres around ‘touch’, which brings us to the subject of untouchability — an aspect explored in Unfolding Inequalities, represented by Arun Vijai Mathavan and Palani Kumar.

Broken Foot an exhibition featuring 60 artists records sociopolitical fallout of Indias migrant workers crisis

Millennium of Oppression by Arun Vijai Mathavan documents Dalit mortuary technicians.

How vital is it to engage with art in the time of a pandemic, specifically as a commercial activity? Is it time to look beyond art as a 'luxury'?

The intention of this activity is to help sustain artists in need; we have to make such attempts to revive ourselves, as we lend our voices to a cause. Engaging with art at any time is an artist's most important role; art is always a commentary on the time they live in.

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