Gauri Gill: Acts of Appearance at MoMA PS1, New York

By Thea Ballard

Gauri Gill, Untitled from the series Acts of Appearance, 2015–. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Nature Morte, New Delhi

Once a year the Adivasi residents of Jawhar district in Maharashtra, near India’s west coast, don intricate papier-mâché masks for a ritual Bahoda procession called Bahora. Those masks – created by local craftspeople and brought out only for the occasion – depict mythological imagery, both Hindu and of local tribes. After encountering Bahora and these masks through friends, the Delhi-based photographer Gauri Gill reached out to a pair of craftsmen brothers in Jawhar, ultimately initiating a collaboration with a group of some 20 people there that encompassed mask-making as well as plotting, sitting and performing for her camera. 

The fruits of that collaboration became Gill’s series Acts of Appearance, works from which are shown at PS1 alongside selections from other recent series by the artist. The images that comprise Acts of Appearance (2015–, all works untitled) depict quotidian scenes from within the rural community: work, education, socialising. In these scenes, each participant wears one of the masks Gill has commissioned, its content drawn from facets of its wearer’s life. Many are versions of what one assumes the wearer’s face might look like, frozen in singular (though complexly rendered) expressions. Others depict animals – a cobra, an elephant – and some, most whimsically, technology: a smiling face on the screen of a mobile phone, a television ‘playing’ an image of a car driving down a city street.

Collectively enacting some mythology of the everyday, the staging of the photographs hovers in a casually dreamlike space. As evidenced by older works included in this selection, Gill has an eye for intersecting patterns occurring naturally within landscapes (take, in one image from Acts of Appearance, the forest-hued windowpane pattern of a boy’s shirt against the teardrop-shaped green leaves of the tree he sits in). There is a purposeful stillness about the images’ composition, and Gill’s subjects glow in rich afternoon light; moments take on an emotional charge (two male friends in bird masks holding hands, a woman in a snake mask reclining seductively). This is tempered by a persistent humour, particularly located in exaggerated human expressions, whether it’s the frozen groan of an older woman receiving medical attention from an elephant-masked doctor or the impish grin on the mask of a young man playing cards. By existing between realms – or, perhaps, establishing a realm of their own – these images and their subjects open out to an expanse of feeling: a sense of almost surreal possibility in what the everyday can contain.

Though some forms of portrait-based image-making might lead viewers to believe they have come to know a subject, here the masks serve to emphasise their wearers’ interiority, something that belongs to them and cannot necessarily be made visible. At the same time, these are not lonely or inward-looking images: a sociality persists, between those photographed but also, crucially, between Gauri and her collaborators. Those relationships –heightened, fictionalised or half-obscured by a mask – become the story being told. Thea Ballard

Gauri Gill: Acts of Appearance at MoMA PS1, New York, 15 April – 3 September

From the Summer 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia