Manipur: Mine-Yours-Ours

This June, for the first time we attempted to take our residency model to a new place, Imphal in Manipur. Manipur is one of the seven sisters states, bordering Myanmar in the north eastern part of India. It was an ideal location for artists to meet, within its hilly landscapes covered with all kinds of flora and fauna and a culture deeply rooted to the land. While things look ideal on the face of it, it was a rewarding experience to delve into the diversity of lives, history and culture of the place through Art.

For the 5 day residency, we had 5 artists from 4 different communities of Manipur who participated. The program ran under the theme of, Manipur: Mine-Yours-Ours. The first day we had an orientation talking about - who is an artist, the role of arts and artists in society, how artists play a role in shaping mind sets which ultimately shapes culture, Darrow Miller's idea of ‘Ideas having Consequences’ and ‘How ideas travel within a Culture/Community’. And then talked about Manipur - the good, positive, things that Manipur is known for, and also talking about the flip side of things - the not so good things, the negativity and issues faced. This sparked enough ideas and concepts for the artists to work with. A number of artists addressed the issue of the tribal clash (which happened years back but still has its negative impact on the tribes) and portrayed the idea of forgiveness, the beauty in coming together, the beauty of Manipur which is all the tribes combined, some expressed the negativity of the government (corruption, unconcerned about people's welfare, etc.) and all done in a way that was conceptually mature and visually pleasing.

The exhibition was on for 2 days and we had a very good response from the community. We had an approximate of 250-300 people from all walks of life attend the exhibition in the duration. Everyone was quite surprised at how the exhibition turned out and the quality of art works, as well as the engagement of different concepts that was displayed. There were a total of 12 completed art works of which 10 found permanent homes. This was another affirmation as the artists directly benefited financially from the sales.

While there is rich heritage of visual culture, be it in the textiles, architecture or wood carvings the opportunity of contemporary art dealing with modern issues was refreshing. It was what provided a new idea of what roles Art can play and similarly a new means of understanding Manipur and in a way then preserving these expressions for future generations. The need for this and the promotion of contemporary art programs then is understood to be significant and indispensable.

The residency was sponsored by two different entities who were a great help as they organised and hosted the venues both for the residency and the exhibition. With this being a low budget project, we were not able to provide honorariums for the artists and asked them to bring their own art materials and any other tools they would use. We had provided paper and canvas. In retrospect, one opinion was that the blank paper and canvas represented the opportunity and the art materials the attempt and commitment of the artist. So, on the whole it was quite successful and it ended on a note where people want more of such exhibitions, events...and they want it on a larger scale where more people can view it!

We are thrilled at the success of this residency and exhibition especially as it is a early step into reaching out further than our immediate network, and to be able to take our model of work to new cultures and contexts. We keenly look to new opportunities and to see how Art becomes a catalyst for for cross cultural exchange and while working with amazing people and artists.

We asked the participating artists and host to reflect briefly on new/contemporary art in Imphal and some of their thoughts you can find in this section. Please scroll further down to learn more about the artists in the bio section.

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Reflections

Albert Inkweaver Zou - participating artist:

As a person who is passionate about art but never had the privilege to explore more about it as a profession, I found the residency and exhibition eye opening and gained a lot of experience from it. It gave me lots of opportunities to express myself and gave me a platform to spread my message and opinions regarding the present situation of Manipur and its positive and negative impacts it has on the people and the land, through my paintings. Art for Change Foundation helped me, as an independent artist, to get more exposure. Being the first  exhibition and residency I ever took part in I am most humbled to share it with other experienced artists hailing from different places and also learning a lot from them. I also believe this artist residency to be the first of its kind in Manipur and would very much like it to continue in the near future. In Manipur the artist community is mostly conservative to my knowledge as a result young creative artists don't have much exposure and platform to share their art. At the exhibition I noticed how successful and how great the response was, how so many people from different areas and profession came together to enjoy and discuss the various messages depicted by the paintings.  As an aspiring artist I work hard to develop paintings that speak both to me and others about the beauty that exists in the society as well as the land. Art for Change and the exhibition gave me the voice to speak out and share my message.

Arin Lunghar – co-organiser:

I feel the style and technique adopted nowadays is definitely contemporary, maybe because the prolific artists now are younger compared to earlier. Also the accessibility of new mediums and materials reflects in their work, specially with digital medium lending a different kind of dexterity. Their art seems to be more about the subjects addressing prevalent social or political issues or personal opinions, than it is about the personal style that they subscribe to. Whatever the case, they’ve grown out of the antiquated style depicting historical epochs or events and folklores which was becoming painfully ubiquitous, personally speaking. 

Sony Thokchom – co-mentor and participating artist:

Contemporary art is a new thing in Manipur as I experienced. People have seen many paintings of the famous Manipuri artist RKCS in the past and have this idea that art has to be like that. Oil paintings with compositions of either landscape or history or any representational scene of daily life in Manipur was very common. But the current generation of young artists are exploring different ways to express their art in the forms of installations, sculptures or thought provoking visuals.

 

K Free Themreichan – participating artist:

When I was planning to go to the art residency, I was apprehensive and excited at the same time since this was my first experience of its kind. It was also the first time that Art for Change organised its residency in Manipur as well. Also I got the chance to befriend new artists and lots of art lovers.

•         Being appreciative and honouring the work of an artist is what I learnt from the residency. A lot of new ideas were gained by interacting and sharing with fellow artists.

•         For me the theme is very appropriate. The series (Village Life) which I’m working on is about our lifestyle, being born and brought up in a village. Most of my paintings are reflections on Manipur.

•         My work is about reminiscing the past and portraying the rich culture and beauty of our land.

•         In Manipur, most of the people are ignorant about the values of art and painting and especially to see its profitable side. So, as artists we need to promote one another  and organize frequent art workshops or residency programs for art lovers, and also need to sensitize about the scope and importance of art as a career. A lot of development can be brought about by art in our society.

•         Conducting more programs like this will surely develop and enhance more skills to artist. A lot of talented artist are there in Manipur yet we do not know each other but through ‘Art for Change’ we got the chance to come together and work under one roof for a common cause.

 

Kamlalmang Samte – participating artist:

Contemporary art in Manipur has grown and evolved a lot through the years. Due to the advancement of technology and connectivity, accessibility has become a lot easier and as a result, a lot of local artists have been able to move out of Manipur and get trained from well-established institutes of India. With the exposure we got from mainstream Indian art and also the world, we have begun to bring in new waves in the contemporary art of Manipur. And by using the various social media platforms artists have been able to voice their thoughts on various issues, share their art works, uplift fellow artists and connect with the people. Unlike performing arts, visual art can’t sustain itself on repeating the same art. And as such, visual artists continuously need to expand their creativity, ideology/philosophy, art style by immersing themselves with fellow artists and their works, the world and its people. It is encouraging for me to see fellow artists from our State making progressive advancement in this field and we need to support such efforts.

About the Aritsts

About the Artists

T Albert Ink Zou is an aspiring artist from Imphal East, Manipur. His style of art is expressionism and he mostly works with mixed media. He is deeply interested in abstract art and photo manipulation. As an expressionist artist he likes to portray emotions and subjective interpretations. He likes to represent vivid emotional reactions by powerful color and dynamic compositions. He believes with the right color and shape, the spectator can perceive the mood and feeling of the painting, and that encourages him towards increased abstraction. He paints about various political and social unrest. He also paints to give messages about environmental awareness.

Instagram: albertinkweaver

K Free Themreichan is a painter and a musician from Ukhrul, Manipur. He did his BFA from Imphal Arts College and went on to complete his MFA from College of Art, New Delhi. His paintings have been exhibited in various art shows. His important works include a series of watercolor paintings called, ‘Village Life’, and a series of paintings on feathers. He has also produced two music albums.

Instagram: free_themreichan Facebook: Themreichan Kasom Email: themreichan@gmail.com

Kamlalmang (Manga) Samte is a freelance illustrator and character designer from Haipi Village, Kangpokpi Distrcit. He did his MFA in Visual Communication (Animation) from College of Art, New Delhi.

Working with both traditional & digital mediums, he specializes in Japanese Manga, Anime, Western style comics & Fantasy elements. He has worked for various video game companies, ad agencies and animation studios as a character designer & animator. He also works on personal commissions, and selling his own art merchandise. He hopes to one day publish his own graphic novel.

Instagram: mangasamte Twitter: mangasamte

Thokchom Sony is a Manipuri visual artist based in New Delhi. His vision is inspired by ethnicities, cultures, fashion and nature, through which he hopes to provoke awareness and see beauty in the little things of life. 

“I believe every person is born unique. I stand for equality and freedom of expression. I strongly feel that art in any form is a channel to express our feelings and release our energies in a positive way that could heal others and the self too."

Instagram: Sony_Thokchom Facebook: Thokchom Sony, The Manipuri.

Sorei (Shokreishang) Keishing was born in November 1980 at Kangpat Village, Kamjong District, Manipur. He studied Indian Classical Art at Artrap, Bengaluru in 2000, where he mastered carving – to sculpt on wood and stone, particularly in Hoysala, Chalukya, and Chola style. Gradually he studied his Fine Art at Ken School of Art, Bengaluru.

He has been exhibiting his works in numerous art exhibitions, both solo and group, and has been actively organizing and participating in a number of art camps.

The philosophy behind his art is to keep the Truth alive and overcome the negative spirit to enjoy the essence of life.

Facebook: Sorei Gallery

Shalem Kallimel is a creative catalyst with a heart to see humans thrive and artists flourish. Shalem and Thokchom Sony served as mentors for the residency. Shalem works with the Art for Change Foundation, founded with the conviction that art plays a profound role in exploring questions about human dignity and the common good of society. Art for Change has a vision to see art shape society with beauty and truth and a heart to see artists find their place in society and flourish. Shalem with his creative wife enjoy the company of their two boys!

Instagram: artforchangefoundation Facebook: Art for Change URL: www.artforchange.space

Listening to the Mountain: The Woodstock - Art for Change Residency

“What does the mountain tell us about ourselves, and about what it means to be human?”

That was the ‘residency question’ for Art for Change’s latest 2-week artist residency organized in collaboration with Woodstock School, the international boarding school nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.

It turns out, the mountain tells us a lot!  And to get our 6 young professional artists, 5 high-school art students, and 3 residency mentors to listen closer, we kicked the residency off with a monsoon climb up a 10,000 ft mountain nearby.

There is something about the size of a mountain, and realizing how correspondingly small you are, that opens you up to that which is bigger—to the transcendent, to mystery, to gratitude, to wonder.  Letting go of the control afforded by technology and urban living opens us up to mystery, to possibility, to discovery.  We lost our direction on that mountain-side, and with no signal on our cellphones took a longer, round-about way.  But it was a way which led us through dense forests and swirling mists, to a giant frog and the tiny acorn-sized hoofprints of the Himalayan barking deer, and to massive vistas opening up suddenly before us. That giant frog ended up reappearing in no less than 4 works of art.  We experienced blankets of incessant rain and hunger, and for some who had never climbed a mountain, fear and fatigue.  When asked what the mountain was telling her, a student who was falling behind replied: “That I can’t make it.” To be human means to understand we have limits, to respect them, to realize we need each other, to look above.  And yet a few minutes later we came across a house clinging to the edge of the mountain, a lone Garwhali family with the matriarch resplendent in her colourful Garwhali dress and the widest smile: a picture of vulnerability and resilience, the human capacity to create culture and thrive even under the hardest of circumstances.

Over daily ‘chai-time’ discussions we unpacked these ideas and discussed our theme, Wonder. For wonder leads to so much: to the profound relationship between wonder and learning, how cultivating a sense of wonder is a key to curiosity and the discovery of a wider world.  But also to empathy.  Watching a video about Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s response to the refugee crisis led to a discussion about how wonder makes us curious about other people’s stories, how imagination is at the heart of both creativity and the ability to place ourselves in other people’s shoes.

And so for the next two weeks we kept hiking.  From our dorm rooms down the hill to the cafeteria for breakfast, from the cafeteria up the hill to the art department, from the art department back down again for lunch, and so on.  And as we hiked, the mountain continued to inspire.

Chimmi a Woodstock Student from Bhutan recreated a miniature house hanging inexplicably on the edge of a pedestal as if in mid-air, titled ‘Resilient’.  Komal, a student from St.Joseph’s Academy Dehradun painted a man crouching in the corner of the canvas training a big camera on a small frog.  Behind him the saturated green of a sheer mountainside rises up, and beyond that, a cosmic kaleidoscope. She titled the piece ‘Perspective’.  Tanuprakash Khandual from Odisha responded each day to a different question he heard the mountain asking him, producing a series of work that combined miniature watercolours with triangular forms of the mountain drawn with smoke.  And then there was Rangskhembor Mawblei from Meghalaya, who spent much of the two weeks hanging around outside in the rain, making us wonder till the last moment if he was going to have anything to show. He ended up with a profoundly poetic set of work using the Mussoorie rain to bleed lines of ink into sublime comments about the course of a human life. And of course there were more.

With Woodstock School giving us access to their excellent facilities we ended the residency with a professional exhibition on campus titled “Wonder: Listening to the Mountain.” Significant crowds from the school and the hillside turned out for the opening, and the Vice-principal, surprised at the quality of art we produced, asked how long the show would be up. “Two weeks” we said.  “That’s great because with parents dropping their kids off this weekend it will make us feel so proud as a school.”  

We ended the exhibition evening, and our residency, as a circle of artists surrounded by our artwork, and responding to the question: “What are you taking away with you from this experience?”  Samir Mohanty, a deeply thoughtful and incredibly skilled artist from Odisha, for whom this was his second Art for Change residency, put it this way: “Art for Change Residency is one of the best residencies in the world. I have done Bachelors, I have done Masters, and then I have done Art for Change.  It is like a 4-5 year course, I have learned so many things.”

Core to the design of our collaboration with Woodstock was giving students still in high-school a professional experience alongside professional artists just a few years on the other side of art school. Each morning two participants presented their art journeys, opening up their lives to the students.  One of the students, essentially a musician but with a surprising knack as a visual artist, had half-way through the residency declared her decision to add art as a major when she goes to college next year. In our closing circle, what she was taking away with her was this: “For me I really realized during these past two weeks that I want to be an artist, I know that I want to be a creator.  With my life I want to be creating things, and art is communication and I love communicating through art, whether music, writing, or painting. What made this happen here was being surrounded by other people who are creating a living by creating art, which was veryinspiring for me.”

One of our core goals as Art for Change is to enable the artists we work with, to help them find their place in society and thrive, and to recognize how their art fits into a larger scheme of things.  And we are grateful to the mountain for profoundly helping us in this pursuit.

The Beauty of Who I Am

The artists didn’t know what they would be making 3 weeks worth of art about.

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Art for Change Foundation’s 5th annual International Artist Residency started simply with an assignment: Make a portrait with and about a young girl. The ten carefully-selected, yet somewhat hesitant artists-in-residence teamed up with five very shy, 11-15 year-old underprivileged girls. A day of art activities ended with the portrait assignment. But by the end of the day something magical had happened. The girls had come delightfully alive and the artists had connected beautifully with each.

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It was only the next day that the artists-in-residence were told that the girls they had worked with were all survivors of sexual assault.  Counsel to Secure Justice (CSJ), with whom Art for Change partnered for this residency, is working closely with each of the five girls to secure effective criminal and restorative justice. That following day a CSJ social worker shared the girls’ five stories. These ranged from incest to the experience of one girl getting kidnapped by a criminal gang, repeatedly raped over a period of a week, imprisoned in a cellar next to dead bodies, taken outside and shot, and then thrown into a well. And yet she survived, and not having been told which story belonged to which girl, for the vibrant resilience and irrepressible spirit of each of them, we couldn’t have figured it out!

Yet it was that opening to the residency, reconciling the knowledge of the second day with the lives of the first day—that opportunity to engage with a precious human life without it being defined by a single event or the encumbrance of the past—that launched the artists into three weeks of discussion and creativity around the theme: ‘The Beauty of Who I am.

Rather than responding directly to the issue of child sexual abuse our and CSJ’s aim was for the artist, and their art, to ask the bigger questions: What is justice? What is restoration? What is beauty? What is the value of a human life? Ultimately, what does it mean to be human.

Over the next three weeks, through a process of working individually in a large common studio space and reflecting collectively during daily ‘chai-time’ discussions, the artists produced a moving range of paintings, sculptures, photos, installations, and performances.

One artist created a walk-in installation she called Concealment, a beautiful mosaic of brand new cloth-scraps discarded by a local tailor which she collected, sowed together, and hung in a corner. In addition to the power of the symbolism, as a viewer the protective semi-transparent barrier hid you, while allowing you to quietly observe the rest of the room.  Another artist, drawing on Indian mythology, created an interactive board game that played with the idea of ‘safety’ as a parody of society’s responses to sexual assault.  Other works dealt with forgiveness, resilience, trust, inner-vs-outer beauty, and more. One artist wrestled from the beginning with the idea of beauty itself, questioning the assumption that every human being is inherently valuable, particularly when faced with the evil of the aggressor. He ended up making an installation projecting a digital clock through an acrylic curtain along with the poet Kabir’s words “The river that flows in you, flows through me, too”. He himself sat behind it, completely hidden under a black cover except for one hole revealing his tapping finger. The piece captured a sense of being caught in time, stuck in that space between hope and hopelessness. His tapping finger, as he explained it, was both his waiting, and his complicity in not doing anything.

The Residency ended with a well-attended public exhibition. But a few hours prior to that we held a special private viewing exclusively for the five girls. The artists proudly gave them a tour of a body of work that had been inspired by them, and in some cases made for them as the primary audience. One installation was completed only when the artist gave the girls hammers to break open clay pots revealed to be full of sweets, each with a flower at its center, all of which they were to take home—an act of symbolic, prophetic, cathartic reversal of past injustice. Not only had our lives been deeply touched by those of the girls but, as the CSJ social workers shared afterwards, they too, had been deeply encouraged and honored.