South Asian Art Galleries at PEM, Photographer Amani Willett
South Asian Art Galleries at the Peabody Essex Museum, Photographer Amani Willett, & more
>> In this gallery it's about
how Indians are viewing themselves, for themselves.
>> JARED BOWEN: I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,
a tour of India is an artful revelation.
Then a photographer documents why, for Black Americans,
the road is less traveled.
>> It quickly became apparent that in order to navigate
the roadways in America, it was going to take extra planning,
it was going to take creativity, it was going to take courage.
>> BOWEN: Plus, visions of utopia.
>> Right now, amid COVID, amid different crises,
we are seeing a regeneration of utopian energy.
>> BOWEN: And a class of glass all its own.
>> There's not very many of us that do the hand painting
on the glass because it's such a process.
>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.
First up, the Peabody Essex Museum has one of the largest
and most extraordinary collections
of 20th century Indian art outside India.
And a new permanent installation at the museum takes us
inside the country, its people, and its struggles.
The first of the Peabody Essex Museum's new
South Asian Art galleries just doesn't feel right.
There are low, oppressive ceilings,
and stereotypes and tropes abound.
>> I want people to walk through the galleries
and ask that question of, you know, when we repeatedly see
images of people and cultures that are different from us,
and they're repeatedly shown in a particular way,
how does that change the way we see others
who are different from us?
How do they foster prejudice?
>> BOWEN: Most of this work was produced in the 19th century,
while India was under British occupation,
when Indians were as much an object of classification
as they were of interest,
from photo albums that portray Indian people
almost as specimens, to sculpture which both enchants
and troubles Siddhartha Shah,
the museum's South Asian Art curator.
>> I see so much beauty in this figure.
He's so realistic and lifelike.
But over the period that he's been here,
he's been painted darker and darker over the years.
He's been made more and more other.
>> BOWEN: But move on from here into galleries that reveal
a renaissance of Indian art spanning the latter half
of the 20th century, and it's...
>> A real contrast, a big explosion.
Whereas in the 19th century,
it's how outsiders are viewing India and its people,
but in this gallery it's about
how Indians are viewing themselves, for themselves.
>> BOWEN: Tell me about the installation.
>> I wanted it to be overwhelming at times
because India is overwhelming.
India is a very, very overwhelming place,
with moments of solitude and contemplation.
>> BOWEN: As you might have gleaned already,
Shah approached these galleries
with both a curator's clinical eye,
and with a deep sense of personal history.
>> People are often surprised that I am...
you know I went to Johns Hopkins for my undergrad,
and so then people assume that I am a physician.
I'm not a physician, I've never taken biology.
I'm also not an engineer,
I don't actually understand anything about engineering.
>> BOWEN: What he understands acutely, though,
and as we see here, is how Indian artists responded
to the events and consequences of 1947.
That's when the British left India
and a lawyer who had never even been to the country
divided the region into the Islamic nation of Pakistan
and the secular nation of India.
It came to be called Partition.
>> The line he drew went through communities, split up families.
Millions of people were displaced,
and millions of people died.
In India, I mean it was both a moment of celebration
and a moment of deep trauma.
The birth of the nation was a very bloody birth.
The image behind me, by Tyeb Mehta,
is the visualization of that.
You see that line dividing the canvas, and it's both the line
across the subcontinent as well as the suffering of limbs--
I mean, tremendous violence.
>> BOWEN: This collection comes from Chester and Davida Herwitz,
a Worcester, Massachusetts, couple who became so enamored
with Indian artists in the 1970s,
they collected thousands of pieces.
It was a time when few inside or outside India
were paying attention to the arts scene,
but when it was electrifying.
>> There were amazing teachers.
The art schools in India were thriving in the '50s and '60s.
>> BOWEN: One of India's most famous 20th century artists,
M.F. Husain, painted these works,
part of a 29-part series based on theMahabharata,
an ancient poem of 1.8 million words.
We're literally standing in the middle of an epic right now.
>> The climax is a war, a very, very intense battle
between two factions of the same family,
where nobody, even the victors, don't really win.
There's loss on all sides.
And so it actually made for a great metaphor for Partition.
>> BOWEN: But where there is carnage,
there is also quiet contemplation
as the galleries slip into spirituality.
>> India is known for yoga, meditation, contemplation.
So I have these moments where people are seeing that aspect
of our culture.
Where some people have emphasized the differences
of the various religions in India, others have emphasized
the universality of them.
>> BOWEN: Which is the essence of the story,
as we see in these galleries and in this art,
presented by a curator who knows it chapter and verse.
>> For me this was really personal.
And what I wanted to just show
is that India is not a monolith.
We are complex beings, just like everybody else is complex.
>> BOWEN: Next, a lot of dreams in this country
are built around the open road--
where we can go, what lies ahead, and where we can be free.
But as photographer Amani Willet documents in his new book,
for Black Americans, there isA Parallel Road.
Amani Willet, thank you so much for being with us.
>> Thank you so much for having me today.
It's great to be here with you.
>> BOWEN: I've been so eager to speak with you about your book,
A Parallel Road.
And your book starts with notions, I think,
we have long held about what the road means.
You see happy families, you see food and gas stations,
and a sense of nostalgia, but then it turns.
So tell me about A Parallel Road.
>> Sure, yes, so that's spot on.
It really starts out with this idea
that the road, really, in America,
I think especially in America,
holds this place in... that comes from a place of mythology.
It's, it's a place that's associated
with the American dream.
It's associated with freedom and exuberance.
And there was from the start, with the interstate highways,
this real excitement, I think, on all Americans' part
to take... to take part in this new system of interconnectedness
and what it had to offer.
And so, you know, there was, I think, a real exciting sense
for all Americans-- you know, Black, white, whoever--
to take part in this experience.
And what unfortunately happens, as we found out,
we found out in many aspects of American life, is that,
you know, for Black Americans, they don't really have access
to the same freedoms that white Americans do.
So the book does start and this book project
actually is very personal for me.
All of the vernacular images in the book
are actually pictures of family members.
So I asked my very supportive and large extended family
to send me all the pictures they had,
anything they could find in their archives with a car in it.
>> BOWEN: So we see...
we see the pictures you expect to see about the road
and that happiness, about journey and anticipation.
But you realize... I'm realizing and thinking back
on your pictures that most of them we see at people's homes
are not actually on the road.
So what is being on the road mean?
>> Right. And so that...
that's a very astute observation.
I think we found out very quickly that it wasn't
an equal opportunity experience for everyone.
And so it really was this parallel experience
where, you know, Black Americans quickly realized that, you know,
going on the road was, besides the logistics,
you had to think about... I mean, this was Jim Crow America,
so you had to think about,
"Okay, well, where can I get food?
"Where can I stay for the night?
"Where can I even pee?
So I have to bring pots and pans with me."
Not to mention the fears of, you know, potential bodily harm
and traumas that were real at the time as well
and still exist today in this new American experience,
but it quickly became apparent that in order to navigate
the roadways in America, it was going to take extra planning,
it was going to take creativity,
it was going to take courage.
It was going to take, as we see withTheGreen Book,
a way to successfully navigate some of these obstacles.
And what was really interesting to me aboutThe Green Book
is that, you know, if you think...
I had been doing a project on the Underground Railroad sites
in America in 2010 and '11,
and that really talks about slavery and mobility.
And during that research, I came acrossThe Green Book,
and here was this book that really just laid bare
that the same problems still existed
in the next century, where...
>> BOWEN: For people who don't know,The Green Book,
of course, as we know from the film,
we learn that this was a book that illustrated
for Black people where it was safe to travel
through the early decades of this country.
>> It was this way for Black people to...
you know, it was almost like, you know,
something they could take as for security, you know,
and something that was a guide.
I mean, it really was a guide.
"Where where can I go to the bathroom?
Where can I spend money? Where can I fill up on gas?"
>> BOWEN: We're a little bit more culturally conversant
inThe Green Book because of the film from a couple of years ago.
What do you think of that film?
>> I can't tell you; I have never seen it.
I have to say. >> BOWEN: Intentionally?
>> No, not... it's not a matter of protest by any stretch.
I just... I haven't seen it.
And from what I've heard about it, it's not really relevant
to the aspects of what I'm interested in
aboutThe GreenBook, its historical relevance, its...
how it really is evidence of lasting systemic racism
that our country was founded on.
And so, you know, I'm...
I'm interested in a much more political take on the work
than I think the movie engages.
>> BOWEN: Well, tell me about your photography.
I notice we see a lot of empty spaces there.
>> For the experience I was trying to elicit,
it was this the sense of fear that when you...
I think everyone can relate to, you know, maybe being on
an empty roadway at night, whether you're Black,
white, or whoever, it's something that can be
a little jarring, a little jolting,
and can just sort of prick you in the back of your head that,
you know, maybe something bad could happen here.
And that's what I wanted people to feel, you know,
when looking at the work, was that this trauma
that I think Black Americans carry around
from basically all facets of American history
is something that I think people can relate to
on an emotional level, no matter who you are.
>> BOWEN: You had been working on this project
for several years.
What is it like to have it be published
and be met at this moment
where we're seeing the danger of people of color
just being outside thinking of what happened at the Capitol,
and the Black Lives Matter movements
and the deaths we saw last year?
>> Yeah, that's a great question and I think, you know,
like I mentioned a little bit earlier, you know,
this book is about the American roads
and a particular experience of Black Americans
on the American roadways.
But it's also...
that experience is a microcosm of race relations in America,
And so it's been really hard this year
to look at what's happened.
But, quite frankly, I think in the era of social media too,
our awareness and our...
and the way we've looked at violence against Black people
that have been caught on camera and played in loops
over and over on social media
has amplified this problem as well.
So, you know, it's come to a head.
You know, it's something I had been more aware of
in the last four or five years
and seeing it play out on social media.
And this year was a particularly bad year.
And so it felt really important to try...
to have this work come out now, you know, to...
It felt like the right, the right moment, the right time
with what our country was going through.
And for me to help also just as an artist,
you know, to work through some of my feelings
and my anger and frustrations,
getting this book out now is really important.
And, you know, it's-- the reception has been,
has made me really... happy is not the right word,
because I'm not happy about any of this.
But I've had a lot of conversations.
And, you know, that's really the goal, right,
with anything you do when you're making art
is to inspire conversations.
And I've had a lot of conversations with people...
friends who are white and said,
"Wow, I'll never look at driving the same way again.
I never thought about this."
>> BOWEN: Well, Amani Willett,
it's been so wonderful speaking with you.
Really appreciate you being here.
And congratulations on the book, which, yeah,
you can just clutch, I love that you can just hold it
and spend that deep time with it, thank you.
>> Thank you so much for having me.
I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
>> BOWEN: As the Beatles implored, "Come together,
right now"-- that's one of the photographic endeavors
topping Arts This Week.
On Monday, venture to the Tufts University Art Galleries
online to see, "Now That I Can Dance,"
an exhibition by artist Jibade-Khalil Huffman,
that uses film, text, and various media collaged
to examine race and identity.
>> A television event to be shared and remembered:
Schindler's List, presented in its entirety.
>> BOWEN: 24 years ago Tuesday, NBC aired Steven Spielberg's
Oscar-winning Holocaust film Schindler's List, uncensored.
65 million people tuned in.
Visit Highfield Hall & Gardens on Wednesday
to view "Togetherness: The Front Steps Project,"
a series of photographs highlighting the resilience
of Cape Cod communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hear cellist Karen Ouzounian's solo performance,
"In Motion," on Thursday.
Her music touches on immigration and family
as she considers the past in a new light.
(string quartet playing)
On Friday, watch a concert by Grammy-winning ensemble
Emerson String Quartet including music by Mozart
It's pre-recorded but followed by a live Q&A.
(string quartet playing)
Next, this is one of the final weekends
to see an exhibition we first brought you last fall.
In Walden, Thoreau, and Emerson,
New England has been rich in fertile ground and thinkers.
At the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum
the contemplation continues with a look
at how artists define utopia.
New England is dotted with the clapboard shelters of thought--
the Old Manse where Ralph Waldo Emerson
sussed out spirituality in nature;
Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott's father Bronson
treaded a Transcendentalist path;
and Fruitlands, Alcott's short-lived utopian commune.
>> Throughout New England, particularly in Massachusetts,
there were a number of agrarian settlements
who lived communally and strived for a better working society
on a small scale.
>> BOWEN: It's the belief of Sarah Montross,
curator of the exhibition "Visionary New England"
at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum,
that those utopian notions linger here,
taking root today via a host of contemporary artists.
Sarah this is gorgeous on the surface,
but tell me what's happening here?
>> So we are standing amid an installation of photography
and a floor piece by the New Haven artist Kim Weston.
Kim designed this array of incredible photographs
activated by a memorial.
You're looking at thousands of red silk tobacco bundles.
And each of these signifies a life lost.
So the memorial is to women and children
of Native American descent, who suffer much higher degrees
of violence, disappearance, and death.
Behind us are large-scale photographs
printed on metal that Kim took at various powwows
throughout New England that Kim and her family are a part of.
The spirit energy of the ancestor or the deity
who is inhabited by the performers
is expressed through Kim's work.
>> BOWEN: Here you'll find the traditional trappings
like Henry David Thoreau's pencils,
but also new sculpture by artist Sam Durant.
It stems from 2016, when the California-based artist
stationed himself in Concord at The Old Manse.
Durant built the outline of a home
reflecting those of Concord's first free Black men and women.
The installation became meeting place for public conversation
and is resurrected here along with this sculpture
of fused furniture, a desk representing
18th century Black poet Phillis Wheatley
morphed with a recreation of Emerson's chair.
>> Both of these pieces of furniture,
that which these writers, these creators,
these world builders would have sat and pen put pen to paper
are now being shown in dialog
and in fact supporting one another.
>> BOWEN: In gallery upon gallery,
artists in the exhibition interrogate utopian ideals.
The vibrant paintings of the late artist Paul Laffoley
are like diagrams for transcendence, Montross says.
While artist Michael Madore's envision a future world
after climate change.
>> Utopian thought emerges during
particularly contested historic epochs.
And so I do think right now,
amid COVID, amid different crises,
we are seeing a regeneration of utopian energy.
>> The artists who I was interested--
who I found interesting in our collection
were invested in social progress.
>> BOWEN: Sam Adams is the curator of the companion show
which presents artists from the museum's collection
who crafted their own 20th century take on the theme.
>> Overall, I would have to say they're darker.
You know, the show opens with exiles and emigres
who are escaping Nazi Europe.
The development of mysticism in their art is different,
but it meets up with the same strands
from transcendentalist thinkers from the 19th century.
>> BOWEN: Adams says for some of the artists,
including poet Gary Rickson, the spirituality
comes in the actual making.
>> For him, painting this
is a very charged experience where he's
channeling these words that have come to him.
>> BOWEN: For more than 200 years,
America's thought leaders, writers, and artists
have charted paths to utopia.
But as this exhibition reminds us, none have made it there.
What is utopia?
>> Oh, it's such a great, great question, hard to answer.
I think utopia is a concept, ideal that is never achieved.
>> BOWEN: In Florida, we meet a glass artist
who is trading the canvas for glass.
>> It is a complete original, I will never make
this pattern again.
I wanted it to look like
her hair is just fluid, washing everywhere.
I do each individual pattern.
I use vellum paper so I can see
my drawing under here.
That way I can see all the striations
in the glass and to what I want it to look like.
Then I get to cut it out.
All I'm going to do is follow my lines
and you can see all the scrap,
mosaic artists love that.
Now, once you have your piece,
it doesn't necessarily mean that piece of puzzle
is going to exactly fit.
So you have a lot of fitting to do,
even after this.
See that burr-- that's what I'm doing.
I'm just trying to get off what didn't break off.
And when I get this done, then I copper foil it.
that's going to be hair.
This was this pattern.
So, see, she goes in.
I started out as being a professional ballerina.
Then I messed up my hip really bad.
So, um, I was home maybe a year,
in retirement, so to speak,
and was going nuts and started working on stained glass.
I've taught myself a lot.
I started out with bathroom windows,
cabinet doors, transoms,
that kind of thing-- I did go to class
to learn how to do the bigger pieces.
When you're doing an installation window,
those are different.
I knew how to paint
and went to a few classes to learn how to do the
painting on glass.
There's not very many of us that do the hand painting
on the glass because it's such a process.
It's very difficult.
It's very time consuming and very costly.
You have to have a kiln,
you have to have all kinds of equipment
to be able to do that.
And it takes anywhere from eight to 12 hours
for each firing.
And then if you mess up one little thing,
you have to start all over again.
(chuckles) Cause it's permanent.
You can't just wipe it away like you can on canvas.
Once I started doing that,
the churches really started picking up a lot.
I restore church windows.
A while back while living in Louisiana, Katrina hit.
A gentleman that lived in Alexandria, Louisiana,
he showed up on my doorstep one day
with these two pieces wrapped in sheets.
They were covered in mud and the bulldozer,
while cleaning up after Katrina, found these two pieces
in a ditch about two or three blocks away.
The story was
his great-grandmother had made those two windows.
So because they were so destroyed,
he brought me pictures of what they looked like.
And I put new glass that matched it as best I could
and totally gave him two brand new windows again.
And on this piece,
the customer had the back of the house
renovated to have three windows across
the back of the house.
When the sun goes through the back of her house
and it comes around, the sun hits
a beveled piece and you see there's several in here,
the fish, the shells,
it throws prisms and rainbows all over inside the house.
And I think she'll enjoy that aspect of that.
It started out as a little drawing
with this, and she chose from
three or four different ones.
You can see, I give the clients different drawings
on what they would look like.
And she chose, of course,
the mermaid swimming across the windows.
And then I had to draw it to scale.
You can see my notes all over it,
what goes where.
We have to flip it over each piece here
and solder the back, then we have to do
the same process again and flip it back around,
and then I have to glaze it.
Then you have to polish it and clean it.
And it takes me hours to detail one
just because when you put this much into a piece,
you want it perfect before it leaves.
>> BOWEN: That is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.
Next week, the new public art in play
on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
Plus a curator's quest to document a lifetime of work
by 20th century American artist Arthur Dove.
Until then, I'm Jared Bowen, thanks for joining us.
As always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.
And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter
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