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Art for change in India – Toward Freedom

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For centuries, India has been plagued by social stratification mediated via caste, class, colorism, and religion. The resulting inequality causes political groups to periodically erupt in protest. In this time of COVID-19, countries including India imposed lockdowns to enforce social distancing. Access to basic resources like food, water, medical services, and a steady source of income became increasingly uncertain. Daily wage workers in India were stranded in cities far from home, as public transport systems were shut down, a situation compounded by a lack of medical supplies.

In the midst of these tensions, communal uproars, bigotry and religious discrimination have flared across the country. National and local media played a blame game in which Islamophobia, fake news and political propaganda diverted Indians from matters that need public attention. As quarantine is becoming monotonous, routines seem distant, which gives way to anger and impatience. What will people turn to next? Will their impatience culminate in more revolts and marches? 

A series of photographs showing protestors who are reading and women forming peaceful congregations hangs in Delhi in January, 2020. Photo: DiplomatTesterMan, used under a Creative Commons license.

One response to the crisis lies in art, which can provide hope and comfort during bleak times. Comics and cartoons are accessible forms of communication, and can share a universal language across cultures. Digital media platforms have allowed for the massive diffusion of political cartoons and other art. The Indian webscape is diverse, and as we will see in this article, artists explore issues from sexuality, gender and caste to religion and body image through graphics, music, poetry, and satirical cartoons. 

Collectives like Brainded India, an independent offshoot of Brainded International, form artist networks who have created a social movement that encourages dissent, freedom and the exploration of social and political issues in society. Artists like George Mathen, who is also known as Appupen, painted a rather alarming series of images of the plight of migrants during these trying times, showcasing horrifying situations through stark graphics. 

The blog Green Humour uses satirical illustrations to showcase ecological issues in contemporary India. Its pieces have been republished by organizations ranging from the World Wide Fund for Nature to National Geographic Traveller India

In his work, artist Rohan Chakravarty sheds light on how the mainstream Indian media refuses to acknowledge issues such as the politicization of ecological resources. In one cartoon, he satirizes a proposed coal-mining project across the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam that was approved by the government in early 2020. The hashtag #SaveDehingPatkai began trending. Due to mass protests, this project has been halted, at least for now. 

The Nib is an online publication that puts out cartoons, news, essays, memoirs and satires about politics from all over the world. It began in 2013 in the United States and achieved a global following. It is especially important to have communities like this that bring forth critical discussions about democracy, governance, and politics in India, because of its diverse culture and large population. 

The Kanda is an Indian version of the satirical American news site, The Onion (kanda means ‘onion’ in Hindi). It was started in 2018 by Mehershad Wadia, a molecular-biology student from Mumbai. One recent article lampoons Prime Minister Modi’s request to bang pots at 9 PM on 22 March 2020 for 9 minutes to thank healthcare workers for their efforts during the pandemic. While there is nothing wrong with showing such appreciation and solidarity in a time of crisis, this call to action took place as the government failed to supply protective gear, testing centres, and safe working conditions for workers. 

Nandita Das, a renowned Indian actress, used her fame and privilege to create a seven-minute video, ‘Listen to Her,’ which was supported by UNESCO and UN Women. The film portrays a young woman calling on a mobile about being physically abused as Das listens to her story. The message we are given is that we must speak up about such atrocities. 

Not all of these artistic expressions are about crisis. Minu Bakshi, a well-loved Hindustani classical singer, has taken up shayari (poetry) during the pandemic. She shares videos of herself on Instagram reciting complex, emotional poetry in Hindi and Urdu and calls for people’s responses to her work through art, especially with dance and music. She shares these videos online to show how multi-dimensional and powerful art can be, especially at times of crisis.

In a pluralistic country like India, pleasing everyone is impossible: every social movement ‘impedes’ someone else’s beliefs and identities. However, protest art is inclusive and can be effective in bringing forward the voice of minorities, demonstrating injustices created by social structures, and combatting institutional suppression. 

The pandemic has shown how poorly equipped India is to handle a health emergency. It also shows how parties in power take advantage of suffering and turn humanitarian aid into propaganda, with the media at their mercy. This is why protest art is gaining more importance in modern-day India and will continue to do so, until systemic changes happen for all. 

This article is the eighth produced in collaboration between Toward Freedom and the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune, Maharashtra, India. For more information, contact Barry Rodrigue <barry.rodrigue@ssla.edu.in> at Symbiosis International University.  

Author Bio:

Ankita Mathur is from Mumbai. She is a fourth- year student at the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, where she is pursuing a major in Media Studies. She is passionate about the evolving impact of digital media, culture, and art on society.

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COVID emotion and escapism captured in Gallery@501 local pandemic art – Sherwood Park News

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Alvaro Arce, who has lived in Sherwood Park since 2013, submitted two pieces, a painting titled “The Long Pause” and some steampunk bottles, for the Making Art in the Age of the Coronavirus window exhibit at Gallery@501. Photo Supplied

What better way to encapsulate the emotions of the pandemic than through art.

Gallery@501’s window exhibition, called Making Art in the Age of the Coronavirus, features work by local members artists created in the last six to eight months during COVID-19.

Some artists channeled their anxiety, while others created art that dealt directly with the pandemic, and some pieces were created as a way to escape reality.

Artist Alvaro Arce, who has lived in Sherwood Park since 2013, said the pandemic inspired his pieces.

“The painting is very dark surrealism and the other is some steampunk bottles,” Arce said. “During the lockdown, I was at home and I started fixing things and I found pieces of TVs, fans, and other things and took them apart and applied them to the bottles and painted them.”

The painting, which is a mixed media piece done on wood, is called The Long Pause.

Arce said he wanted to get the feeling across that things are strange and somewhat beyond real in life right now.


Sherwood Park artist Ken Duncan etched his single-celled organisms creations in leather.

Another local artist featured in the exhibition took a very different approach to the piece he submitted.

“The pandemic sort of lit a fire that had been bubbling around in the back of my mind. I was in Victoria a few years ago and spotted a book by Ernst Haeckel, a biologist from the time of Darwin and he was studying single-celled organisms and was drawing these things,” Ken Duncan, who’s lived in Sherwood Park for two years. “I saw it and I thought these things are fascinating with their forms, shapes, the way they work, the similarities, and I was studying the book for a couple of years and I sat down one day and was inspired to create my own single-celled organisms.”

Duncan said he started by painting them with watercolour but then decided to try another medium.

“I thought they would work well on leather. I took four or five of the designs and carved them onto a round piece of leather and mounted it onto a lazy-Susan,” Duncan said. “I worked on it for an hour here, a half-hour there for a month to six weeks.”

Duncan said they’re not copies of other microorganisms but ones he has created using real microorganisms as a guide.


The piece Onward and Upward created by local artist Jamie Panych is aimed at uplifting people during the pandemic. Photo Supplied

Another artist featured in the exhibition has a bit more traditional art piece in the show.

“It started off as a mixed-media project with the onward and upward theme I have for my paintings that is more spiritual and uplifting. It was something I was working on that I thought would fit into the COVID exhibition,” Jamie Panych, who has lived in the county since 1996.

The piece, which is called Onward and Upward, is aimed at uplifting people, according to Panych.

“It is a mixed-media piece representing a landscape with the sun breaking through the stormy clouds. I built up the mixed-media for the storminess and as you go upward into the painting it is calmer and the sun is breaking through,” Panych said. “There is also a dove in it that is a representation of hope as well. There is also a lion in there but he is hard to make out because I didn’t want him too in your face but I wanted to show bravery in trying times.”

Gallery@501 said the exhibit, which is set to showcase until Sunday, Oct. 25, is to show off the incredible talent in the community.

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University of Alberta med students bring therapeutic art to isolated seniors – Global News

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A group of Edmonton seniors have contributed to an art display inside the Southgate Centre shopping mall.

The group used self-portraits to express how COVID-19 has impacted their lives.

Devonshire Continuing Care Centre resident Hazel D’hont said it’s been a challenging few months.

“I do feel lonely. My daughter and son can only visit me by the desk (at the front of the facility),” she said. “If the doors were wide open (and back to normal), they would come anytime.”


Drawings inside Southgate Centre.


Courtesy: Danielle Portnoy

The 87-year-old woman said she has missed the regular programming that happened before COVID-19.

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“We did all kinds of things, especially bingo. I love bingo,” D’hont said. “You just kind of sit around now… and it’s been like that for many months.”

Read more:
Edmonton seniors’ centre reopens to help with socialization through COVID-19

The therapeutic art project that she took part in was created by two medical students at the University of Alberta.

Asad Makhani and Danielle Portnoy have prior experience working in long-term facilities doing recreational therapy.

Read more:
Workers inside Good Samaritan Southgate say resident care is being neglected

Makhani works part-time at Devonshire and Portnoy’s late father lived in a long-term care facility. The project’s name “Seniors Advocacy Movement” was chosen because the acronym SAM matches her father’s name.

“When I visited my dad, I felt that even before the pandemic, many people there were lonely and isolated. So now, with family restricted from visiting, it must be worse,” Portnoy said.

Asad Makhani and Danielle Portnoy


Asad Makhani and Danielle Portnoy.


Courtesy: Danielle Portnoy

The students chose the project because they had seen research that community art programs help combat isolation in seniors.

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“It’s a way to show their feelings,” Portnoy said. “And then putting it in Southgate makes it like they are socializing with people in the mall… but distantly.”

Asad, who helped participants with the activity, said the residents were excited about painting.

“We sat down one-on-one and a lot of them were really excited to participate in the activity. They mentioned they hadn’t painted in so long,” he said. “They were a lot happier. They were more engaged. It was a drastic change in their mood.”

The two students hope to bring the project to other long-term care facilities in the city.

Read more:
‘From here to the box’: Seniors voice terrifying concerns on long-term care amid COVID-19

“As long as it’s following Alberta Health guidelines, we would like to provide canvas and paint and expand to other long-term care facilities in the city,” Portnoy said.

D’hont said the art project was fun, but she valued the interaction it brought the most.

“It was nice to have more people around me. It certainly was. If we can open our doors once again… I’ll be happy.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Rhiannon Giddens on making art during a pandemic, and how music bridges divides – CBC.ca

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Grammy Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens says the pandemic is forcing artists to re-examine why they make art in the first place.

“I do think that art and commerce are uneasy bedfellows,” the singer-songwriter and founding member of old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops told The Current‘s Matt Galloway.

“So I think this is the moment, since nobody’s making money … to go, OK, so what is the role of art in society and how can we decouple this?”

Giddens is well-known for making music across genres; she also co-founded the group Our Native Daughters, an Americana-folk band. And like many performers, Giddens has had to adapt her approach to making music during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

She’s kept busy in recent months by taking part in virtual concerts and collaborating with other artists from their respective locations around the world.

“At a moment where I really needed to make some music and to be in that space, it was a kind of a godsend,” Giddens said about the experience.

Watch Rhiannon Giddens and Yo-Yo Ma’s virtual collaboration

[embedded content]

But, she added, she misses the interaction and feedback she normally gets from performing for live audiences.

“Nothing’s being fed back to me because I’m not performing. So I have to figure out how to keep the well stocked, you know?”

Part of that comes from these creative moments, even if they’re from a distance, she said.

She’s also trying to find the positives in every moment, and the purpose of difficult situations like the pandemic.

“For me, it was stopping,” said Giddens, who realized how burnt out she was once her gigs and tours were cancelled because of the pandemic.

While that has been a challenge, she said she doesn’t get worked up about it.

“I just kind of firmly remain grateful and thinking about what I can do with what I have, the advantages that I have, in terms of making art that hopefully will speak to someone and … make a small difference.”

Music as a bridge

Giddens told Galloway she has always been intrigued by how music reveals the commonalities among people.

She hopes to explore that idea further in her new role as artistic director of Silkroad. Started by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998, the Boston-based non-profit organization seeks to create music that sparks “radical cultural collaboration.”

There are things that bind us. And I’ve always been interested in how that is reflected in our culture and our arts and our music.– Rhiannon Giddens

“When you look at history, when you look at different cultures, we actually are very similar,” she said. “There are things that bind us. And I’ve always been interested in how that is reflected in our culture and our arts and our music.”

Giddens was born and raised in North Carolina to a white father and Black and Native American mother. Although she now lives in Ireland with her two children, she remains vocal about the political and social issues currently gripping the United States, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the upcoming presidential election.

A MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ recipient who plays several instruments, Giddens is best known for her work on the banjo. She said the instrument parallels the history of America because it was created by African descendants before being adopted as a white ethnic cultural instrument.

Watch Giddens’s song Cry No More, recreated in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s death.

[embedded content]

While many Americans are unaware of this history, she added, it’s important to understand it.

“So much of the heart of what American culture is, a lot of it comes from the struggles and the story of Black America,” she said. “And the conversation that is being had between cultures like that is America. That is American music. And the banjo very nicely represents that.”

She said her own personal experience informs her belief that music can serve as a powerful bridge.

“I think it comes from being a neither nor,” she said. “That’s what I am. I was neither Black nor white. I was neither city nor country. I’m neither classical nor folk. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time in each world … and I think [I] have a deep understanding of each world. But I’ve come to accept pretty early on that my job is as a bridge between those worlds.”


Written and produced by Idella Sturino.

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