Contemporary Art

Notes from the Desert

Izmat, a personal friend of Gill's, stares down from a tree. Her gaze challenges the viewer. Izmat, from the series Notes from the Desert; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2010; gelatin silver print, 61 × 76.2 cm; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2014.16

Izmat, a personal friend of Gill’s, stares down from a tree, challenging the viewer’s gaze. Izmat, from the series Notes from the Desert; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2010; gelatin silver print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries; S2014.16

Tomorrow, we debut Notes from a Desert, comprising recollections and photographs by contemporary artist Gauri Gill. Since the late 1990s, Gill (born 1970) has been photographing marginalized communities in the remote desert region of western Rajasthan, India.

In 2003, she was asked to participate in a Balika Mela, a fair that provides girls the opportunity to learn and play in a safe environment. Gill led workshops teaching basic photography and darkroom techniques. Reminiscent of the traditional itinerant photographer who would travel from village to village with his equipment, Gill also invited the girls to have their portraits taken in a makeshift studio. She gathered backdrops and props from local sources and asked the sitters to choose how and with whom they wanted to be photographed.

From the more than eighty portraits, Gill chose only a few to be printed at close to life-size; three are on display at the Sackler, including the one below. With a direct gaze and slightly clenched hands, Kanta conveys a sense of determination and cautious self-awareness. The spare use of props, plain backdrops, and natural desert light emphasize Gill’s subjects, while the large scale of the black-and-white prints asserts an iconic, self-empowered status.

Kanta, from the series Balika Mela; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 2003–10; inkjet print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2013.6

Kanta, from the series Balika Mela; Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 2003–10; inkjet print; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2013.6

A key figure in Gill’s work in Rajasthan is Izmat, a single mother she has known for nearly two decades. Gill repeatedly photographed Izmat, whom the artist has described as a “strong woman of tremendous character despite having lived a very difficult life,” and her two daughters, Jannat (1984–2007) and Hooran. In the portrait at top from the series Notes from the Desert (1999–present), Izmat’s face emerges from the dark foliage of a tree set against the blinding light of the desert sky. Barely perceptible in the stark landscape and shot from below, she challenges the viewer’s gaze.

Gill frequently revisits her vast archive of negatives and composes different series around a central theme. In 2011, she gathered under the title Jannat forty-four photographs and eight facsimiles of letters that she and Izmat had exchanged. This group of fifty-two prints, one for each week of the year, is a poignant memorial to Izmat’s daughter who died at twenty-three. A portrayal of Jannat unfolds through glimpses of the joy, pain, and tenderness of everyday life.

Untitled, from the series Jannat (1984–2007); Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2007; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2014.15.1–52

Untitled, from the series Jannat (1984–2007); Gauri Gill (b. 1970, India); 1999–2007; Purchase—Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, S2014.15.1–52

Witness these images in person when Notes from the Desert opens tomorrow. Visit between 2 and 4 pm for a chance to meet Gill and ask her about the stories her photographs tell.

Carol Huh

Carol Huh

Carol Huh is associate curator of contemporary Asian art.