Jholas and khadis reflect Gandhi’s philosophy in new Art Library exhibit

If you happen to find yourself in Vassar’s Art Library reading room sometime soon, you might see some colorful prints and bags popping out of the display case. They’re part of “Other Imaginings: Artist Collaborations with Gandhi Ashrams,” a fusion exhibition of work by South Asian and Western artists, curated by Aaron Sinift. 

Sinift is a painter and art writer who began the 5-Year Plan Project, a DIY initiative that fosters collaboration between artists and activists in Indian ashrams. The jholas (shoulder bags made out of khadi, or homespun cloth) and other embroideries are the result of artists and activists of the Sri Gandhi Ashram and various other ashrams in Uttar Pradesh, India, coming and working together. The jholas are incredibly diverse and depict several interesting scenes and images, varying from portraits of political icons like Martin Luther King, Jr., B.R. Ambedkar, and Gandhi himself, to Indian still-life scenes. Upon closer inspection, they reveal startling truths and messages about Indian society.

One such jhola is “FUX,” created by the late Sumitro Basak, which depicts white undergarments hanging on a clothesline with the caption “100% COTTON FUX.” Sinift explained, “It is a satirical piece riffing on the LUX underwear company advertising murals that were nearly everywhere in W.Bengal in the ‘90s-00s.” He added, “It references the scandalous murder of the Muslim husband of the Hindu heiress to the LUX fortune, which was unsolved and assumed to be motivated by animosity for their interreligious marriage. This is a problem across India, not just among the elite classes.” Some jholas were created by American artists as well. The MLK jhola, titled “DREAMING. HE IS AT WORK,” was created by David Dunlap, a friend of Sinift from Iowa City. It depicts Martin Luther King, Jr., wearing a white halo against a tree bark-like background. “This artwork is perfect for the project and MLK is well regarded by the workers of the ashram who made it,” Sinift added.

Sinift made his first trip to India in 1990. “I was fascinated by the vastly multi-cultural nature of Indian society, and by the relative absence of aggressive American-style marketing at the tail end of a rather moribund socialist national economy. It was a time warp that was about to be irrevocably changed by the opening of the Indian economy to foreign corporate investment. Suddenly society was jolted by ideals like Coca-Cola, Levi’s and WWF Wrestling and heaps of American trash culture and mannerisms. The Gandhi Ashrams seemed to be a holdout against this.” 

Sinift finds a lot of inspiration in Gandhi. “Mohandas Gandhi’s legacy in India runs much deeper than the icon of popular imagination, indeed for many his ideals of seva (service), ahimsa (non-violence), and the equal dignity of all people and their labor are the foundation of a just nation state,” Sinift explained. “Gandhi perceived that industrialization was counterproductive in a nation with an enormous surplus of workers, and that increased mechanization increases unemployment and reduces the distribution of wealth throughout the wage earning population. Gandhi visualized the production of homespun khadi cloth as a means [of] self-sufficiency to multitudes of families while providing cloth to clothe the masses of India.” Sinift further noted Gandhi’s importance in the resistance movement to the British Empire’s economic exploitation with goods like imported textiles,which destroyed local economic networks and further impoverished India’s working and farming classes. 

When asked what he hopes the exhibit will achieve when it comes to the impact on Vassar, Sinift said, “[I want] to remind people that there is another way, perhaps the only way, to survive corporate extractive capitalism that is literally extincting life on Earth … The ideal outcome would be that the project would evolve beyond its imagined limits and that young visionaries would find a way to transform their ideas in actionable imaginative ways that in turn transform lives for the better. That change is what keeps the joy in our practice.”

“Other Imaginings” is on display in the Art Library until Jan. 22, 2022.

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