This series of home-based, creative exercises reexamines the role of art during moments of crisis in the contemporary world.
The spread of coronavirus COVID-19 has developed into a global crisis. As the pandemic causes school suspensions and city lockdowns all over the world, Asia Art Archive expands the Learning at Home series to collaborate with international artists. These exercises bring in different perspectives and approaches to encourage teachers and students to reflect upon their experience of the virus outbreak, relevant social issues, and the purpose of art in times of emergency.
In response to the nationwide lockdown in India and the resulting changes in everyday life, Indian artist Nilanjana Nandy explores personal, gender, and social issues around the act of cleaning.
Teachers are invited to share the process and result of students practising these exercises on Learning & Participation's Facebook group: Contemporary Art in Asia: Teachers’ Community.
The pandemic is making us more aware of our everyday lives. Things usually unnoticed are now suddenly quite evident. Even daily chores are more noticeable.
“What Did I Clean Today?” is an exercise that enquires into the act of cleaning—from the perspectives of an individual, a family, and a society.
Part One: The Individual
i) What Did I Clean Today?—A Drawing Exercise
Due to social distancing, the task of maintaining our homes falls on us alone, with no external assistance. In such a situation, can we look at what we cleaned today?
- Make a sketch of the act of cleaning (you may use any available stationery—any kind of paper, pencil/pen/felt pen/colour pencil, etc.).
- It can be anything you choose to clean on a particular day—an object, a corner of the room, your study table, a drawer, a utensil, the washroom, a bookshelf, or a CD/DVD collection.
- Date each of your sketches. You can record the time of the day and jot down thoughts that enter your mind while cleaning.
- Your sketches can be before-and-after versions of cleaning as well.
- To make your sketches more interesting, you may also draw the tools or materials used to perform the act of cleaning.
- Try to apply the drawing skills learnt from art lessons, for example still life techniques or composition concept, to your sketches.
- Some of you may be hesitant to draw. Consider yourself a chronicler in this situation. It is okay if you do not draw full scenes. You can make diagrams or use symbols/icons.
- If you are not keen on drawing, you can also take photographs before and at the different stages of cleaning. You can jot down notes in a diary or type them out. Save all your images and notes in a chronological order to a folder in your computer.
As we are drawing, let’s explore the different approaches to drawing-based graphic depiction. Look at the simplicity in illustrations of Iranian novelist Marjane Satrapi and drawings by Indian artist Gagan Singh. They are full of detail yet the approach is simple—mostly single line drawings that appear doable. There is also a movie adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s illustrated book Persepolis. You can watch it in your free time.
Israeli-born American illustrator Maira Kalman’s drawings are simple but their colour adds layers to them.
Indian artist Shreyas Karle’s drawings are almost diagram-like. Diagrams are not meant for science and mathematics only, they can be created for different situations.
ii) Look! What Have I Found?—Scrapbook Exercise
You may find the quotidian act of cleaning tiring or boring, however, keep an open mind for chance encounters. As you move from closet to drawers and to your mother’s wardrobe, you may find something you have long forgotten. Maybe it has never crossed your mind at all. A treasure hunt of sorts, this “wow moment” is a form of durational engagement. As you clean your place, you may stumble upon old toys, notebooks, a diary with fishy notes, etc. Enjoy them in that moment. Then record what you have found. You are now transforming from a chronicler to an archivist.
We can document this experience in a scrapbook or in the form of a photo essay or shoebox museum.
- Draw the object or photograph it; or if it is not too bulky, put it in a small clear bag or an envelope.
- Write the year/time period in which it was manufactured/created/purchased (approximate time period is absolutely fine).
- Note down what it was in the first place. Try to recollect as much as you can about the found possession. You can discuss it with your family to find out more. You can even write down the incidents associated with it (point form is good enough if you do not want to write an essay or full sentences).
- Describe what it means to you now in this very moment in words or illustration. You can include observations of your family as well.
- Furnish your record with findings that interest you, maybe something weird or unusual.
- Store them in an old shoebox or a small cloth bag. We will exhibit the collections along with the notes in the class when the school reopens.
Check out what filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s son found as he cleaned his place during this self-isolation period:
Do you know who Satyajit Ray was? Find out more about his movies through books and research.
iii) Performative Exercise
- Make a video of you cleaning the house (you can use a mobile phone to record the act).
- Repeat the actions and postures without cleaning anything: you will move but not clean. Use your body language. Avoid using any props or tools that you used for cleaning.
- Video record this performative exercise of yours.
- If possible, add appropriate soundtrack or create sound effects while performing.
- Try to observe the degree of abstraction created out of the absence of any real object or situation.
- Write a note about your reflection on the performance.
- Play the footage of two to three performances (in a loop) in front of your family at dinner, or invite them for a performance experience at different spaces (sites) in your house.
Now that you have tried performance art, let’s look at Semiotics of the Kitchen by American artist Martha Rosler. This six-minute video and performance piece was released in 1975. What do you think is the artist doing in this video? What is the artist trying to convey? In one of the sessions, we can have teachers of other subjects share with us their thoughts about this video.
Part Two: The Family
i) Who Does What in the House? —Survey Exercise
Who is responsible for the daily household chores? Does everyone take part? Or are they performed by one family member only?
With Martha Rosler’s performance steering our discussion on gender stereotypes in domestic work, let’s look into the real-life situation we are in.
Conduct a daily survey to find out who takes care of different household chores. Yes, we do surveys in art as well. Slowly our art is becoming a social experiment.
- You can make a broad list of daily chores like cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, watering plants, filling water bottles, cleaning the vehicle, buying groceries, etc. Observe a day’s activities to compile the list.
- By the end of the day, conduct a quick survey on “who did what.” Ask each family member about the tasks they have done during the day.
- Survey results can be presented in a simple tabular or note format. However, the survey has to be done daily.
- After a week, try to put together all the findings.
- Create a range—from the member who participated the least to the most. Here you can create your own categories/levels. Assign colours to each category.
- Observe if there is a change in the participation pattern of any family member.
This exercise requires us to collect data, make tables and infographics, and reflect on the data collected. These can be done under the guidance of teachers of other subjects. Let’s get all the educators in school involved with the survey. While doing this, let’s think about the following:
- Do you want to share this survey with others in your class? Why or why not?
- Do you think you can introduce this survey to your family friends or neighbours? How would you go about it? If you don’t think you can, why not?
ii) Who Helps Us Clean Our Homes? What Are Their Situations Like During the Pandemic?—Collage Exercise
Back in our primary/elementary school days, we learned about the different occupations in our society. Our houses, schools, offices, hospitals, malls, and cities are maintained through the labour of many individuals who come from different parts of the country and the world. Their presence and labour are often taken for granted.
The pandemic has made the absence of such individuals due to the shutdown all the more prominent. This discussion around domestic chores is happening because of the absence of such individuals that help maintain our homes and daily lives. In this context, let’s try to learn more about them.
- Imagine five scenarios in your house, for example at dinner/in a birthday party/in the morning/in the kitchen. Any five scenarios will do.
- Draw it on five separate A4 size sheets with as much detail as possible. Colour them.
- In each of these scenes, imagine where your domestic worker would have been. What would they have been doing?
- Draw them accordingly on a newspaper or old magazine.
- Cut it out and paste it on the illustrations you have created earlier.
- Alongside each scene, add a paper strip for writing different things you know about your domestic worker. Open the discussion with your family and try to find out more about this individual.
- Write down what you and your family know about them. It can be anything, like details about their identity.
You will be surprised at how little we know about these individuals and their lives outside of our homes. Let’s share the findings with each other in the class and look at how we describe them. Is there a pattern in our understanding of them?
While we are reflecting on the social divisions in our society, let’s go through the photo project Close Distance by Jannatul Mawa from Bangladesh. She has photographed house maids of Bangladesh with their women employers. Let’s see what the photographer has to say about gender bias, class distinctions, and the relationship between the employer and the employed:
Part 3: Further Discussions—Society and Ecology
The virus has brought into focus the human imprint on ecology. As part of society, what are we washing our hands of?
Let’s look at how the artists Ravi Agarwal and Mikhail Karikis enquired into ecology through art.
The Indian artist, activist, and writer Ravi Agarwal’s Have You Seen the Flowers On the River? and Urbanscapes focus on environmental degradation and the role of community. His entire practice looks at ecology through art.
Greek/British artist Mikhail Karikis‘s Children of Unquiet and Ain’t Got No Fear explore issues including post-industrialisation, landscape, and the next generation. They take place in the geothermal area of the Devil’s Valley in Tuscany, Italy, and the militarised post-industrial marshland of the Isle of Grain in Kent respectively.
While looking at their works, let’s raise some difficult questions. Yes, making art is also about thinking and imagining.
- Imagine different situations in our daily lives, when we humans think of ourselves as outside of nature. Let’s try to map the instances in our day-to-day lives where we knowingly or unknowingly fall for such traps.
- How do art practices make a difference to ecological problems? For that matter, do art interventions/enquiries make a difference to the sociopolitical and environmental problems?
Notes to Teachers
- This lesson is divided into three parts, each one of them can be conducted separately.
- Most of the exercises are repetitive in nature, which further reinforces the idea of the everyday.
- The teacher may decide the formats in which exercise outcomes are presented. For example, a book can be compiled to record the first exercise. Artist books by the entire class can then be kept in the school library after it reopens.
About the Artist
Nilanjana Nandy is a visual artist. She has a MA in Painting from the Faculty of Fine Arts at MSU, Baroda. She has been part of the artist in residence programmes at Pepper House Residency, Kochi Muziris Biennale, Sandarbh, and Black Box Project, Khoj Studios. She has received scholarships from Pont-Aven School of Art, France. Her project COVER-UNCOVER was part of the ongoing Five Million Incidents supported by Goethe-Institut and Raqs Media Collective. Her work was presented in exhibitions like Critical Constellations by FICA, Bartered Collections by Mumbai Art Room, CONA, and Sarai Reader 09. Her project IN-BETWEEN was shown at the Exhibition Proposal Contest 2017 at Korean Cultural Centre, Delhi. She actively collaborates with FICA for their Art for Children Program, and was part of the museum outreach programme at NGMA, Delhi.
For Nandy art is the means, not the end. Through her drawings she creates points of deliberation around the personal and the political.
Publishing date: 28 May 2020
The AAA Learning and Participation Programme is supported by the S. H. Ho Foundation Limited and C. K. and Kay Ho Foundation.