A framed photograph of a rustic ax greets visitors upon entering the North Common Room on the second floor of the Watson Institute for International Studies. The ax is tarnished and worn — sand and grime coat the blade and the wooden shaft is hackneyed yet polished at the end from being handled so often in the past. In the photograph, the ax lies halfway buried in a dry clay pit that is exactly its size and shape, an ambiguous image that invites the viewer inside.
The exhibit, “Poverty and the Quest for Life: A Conversation between Mediums,” will be on display April 6 through May 29. Hosted by Art at Watson in conjunction with the Brown-India Initiative, the show consists of a series of works by 11 contemporary artists responding to Assistant Professor of Anthropology Bhrigupati Singh’s new book, “Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India.”
Singh said his book is an ethnographic exploration of a group of bonded laborers called the Sahariyas in rural India. In the text, Singh imagines the quality of life for this group of laborers, who were required to work in order to repay their loans. The text focuses on how group members contextualized “their aspirations, their advancement and a higher quality of life,” Singh said.
The book aims to introduce a “wide variety of perspectives on issues such as inequality, state power and religion” that can be more broadly applied to anywhere in the world, he said. It is meant to offer readers “a way of thinking about the world.”
The exhibit at the Watson Institute is an invitation for people to respond to and engage in a conversation around the book’s concepts, Singh said. Certain ideas can manifest themselves differently across fields and mediums — the artwork is meant to “start a conversation between the mediums of text and image,” he said.
Singh remained in touch with many of the artists who contributed to the exhibit for several years as he worked on his book. The exhibit represents a “continuation of these conversations,” he said.
The contemporary art pieces range in style and composition. Photographs of landscapes that have been touched by human presence hang among an abstract print of three-dimensional shapes as well as a grim black-and-white comic of a man who appears to be sleeping as he hangs from a telephone pole.
One of the pieces, “Museum of Chance” by Dayanita Singh, depicts a black-and-white photograph of two men in chains who solemnly reach out and touch hands. Singh said the piece “very directly responds to one of the central concepts of (his) book.” The work is a manifestation of “the concept of life force” and represents an instance in which Bhrigupati Singh was able to combine his medium of text with Dayanita Singh’s photography to represent a similar concept, Bhrigupati Singh said.
The layout of the exhibit also encourages interaction and dialogue, with some pieces lining the far wall and another nearby on an easel, said Sarah Baldwin-Beneich ’87, communications associate at the Watson Institute. Through the spatial organization of the exhibit, pieces “become central discussion points” and the exhibit becomes “a group experience,” allowing people to “talk across the table with each other” about the artwork, she said.
Baldwin-Beneich said she was especially moved by the photograph of the ax, “having spoken to (Singh) about it and then seen it in the context of the installation.” There is a “notion of latency in this ax that looks buried but that still might be taken up and used … in tribal violence,” she said, adding that the image struck her “much more potently” after she considered it in the context of both mediums.
Singh’s book presents a “dialogue that engages anthropology and philosophy and literature and personal reflection,” wrote Richard Locke, director of the Watson Institute and professor of political science and public and international affairs, in an email to The Herald. “Hosting an exhibit that brings art and text together seems like a natural continuation of this conversation,” he wrote.
The exhibit “brought in the dialogue and makes it more of a polylogue between disciplines,” Baldwin-Beneich said, adding that she found it “incredibly interesting and surprising to incorporate art into a realm of social sciences, as it’s not a pair that you often think of.”