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  • Writer's pictureVincent Jordan

Fields of Sight: Gauri Gill & Rajesh Vangad

Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad

The Photographers’ Gallery, London 

£8 on the door (concessions and advance booking available)

23rd Feb – 2nd June 2024

About three hours’ drive north of Mumbai in the Maharashtra region of India, there is a village called Ganjad. The wider region, characterised by its proximity to the coast and border territory between the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, is home to an indigenous population of the Warli people. The Warli have a distinct visual art tradition stretching back thousands of years — it’s usually referred to as Warli Painting, and as a form of tribal or folk art. Traditionally created in a ritual setting, Warli painting is considered to have now transformed into an artistic exercise done for its own sake. Jivya Soma Mashe (1934 – 2018) is the artist credited with this transformation. Warli Painting is now both an important heritage practice and an artistic vocabulary, which has received increasing attention from major internationalist galleries. 

Ganjad is the birthplace of Rajesh Vangad, a Warli painter who works with murals, illustrations, and paint-on-canvas. Influenced by Jivya Soma Mashe, he has painted several prominent murals around India, including the T2 Terminal at Mumbai's International Airport, and the Craft Museum in Delhi. For the project Fields of Sight (2023), he has collaborated with Gauri Gill, a renowned photographer based in Delhi, and together they seek to ‘reinvent the practice of painted photography, interweaving historical and generational painting practices into the photographic object.’ 

It is for this work that the pair are nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, one of the most prestigious photography prizes up for grabs. Set up in 1996 by The Photographers’ Gallery in London, the shortlist is on show until 2nd June, before moving to Frankfurt for the second half of the summer. 

The change in purpose that Warli painting has undergone is even more interesting when we consider the ends to which Vangad has put his craft. In Fields of Sight, the iconography of Warli painting — where geometric, hourglass figures and eclectic perspectives feature prominently — is embedded into evocative vistas captured by Gill in order to explore the politics of memory, ecological destruction, and decolonisation. With the knowledge that Warli painting emerged as an art form in its own right from ritualistic origins, Vangad’s application takes on another dimension. Here, he is using that art form to raise the profile of critical issues. 

Above: Detail from Small Fish, Big Fish, representing the division between the rich and the poor. Note laptops, cars, and medical care in contrast to the manual labour, top right. Image: author's own.

In a broader sense, contemporary art exhibitions are increasingly doing the same. A priority for many galleries, particularly in the UK, is to provide a platform for discourse about social injustice. Yet, beyond labels and themes, the combination of media that distinguishes Fields of Sight makes the issues more tangible than curatorial practice ever could. Vangad and Gill have established a sublime niche between photography’s deceptive fidelity and the wild mosaic of Warli representations, compelling the viewer to confront the tumult before them. Floods, droughts, unrest, terror, myth and community whirl within the frame. 

Two outstanding works are Small Fish, Big Fish and The Struggle of the Farmers. These collaborations are especially captivating because their sweeping landscapes are matched by their status as some of the biggest works on show. In Small Fish, Big Fish Vangad uses the iconography of the Warli to puncture the sky and water with manifestations of inequality — poor children walk for miles to state schools that lack the necessities of education, sometimes on empty stomachs; in contrast, the children of the rich make use of private cars, laptops, smartphones and expensive books. It’s an old and crude dichotomy, but one which is represented here in such kaleidoscopic grip that to even question its narrative of absolute segregation would seem absurd. Vangad’s spare repertoire, accentuating divisions of wealth, is at every moment backed up by Gill’s perceptivity, in this instance capturing the concerned expression of an onlooker surveying the land — his field of sight.

Above: Small Fish, Big Fish (2023). Image: author's own.

In The Struggle of the Farmers, Vangad has carved up Gill’s image into dizzying pastures. A label relays the exploitation of peasant farmers, whose labour supports the entire country, but who are not given adequate money for crops in return. The environment can be punishing — perishing cold, cruel sun and hard rain — and farmers often have to take out high-interest loans to cover resources. When the sale price of crops is low, they are unable to repay, and many commit suicide. 

Above: The Struggle of the Farmers (2023). Image: author's own.

When I first saw it, I assumed Gill’s photograph showed a farmer looking out over undulating ground. The viewer stands behind him, watching him weighing up his labour. Pathways divide the field, making it seem as though the farmer might be deciding which one to take. This striking choice contrasts with Vangad’s workers, who toil all over the image like ants. However, considering his relatively smart dress, and detachment from the scene as a surveyor of the landscape, this man could possibly be Vangad himself, representing a figure who is not of what he is viewing. In this way, the watcher both is and isn’t us. 

Whichever perspective we take, our own complicity looms large. It is only when one takes a step closer, and studies Vangad’s small worlds, that one is reminded of the work that underpins our consumerist lifestyles. The viewer cannot help but think about the kind of systems that afford them entry into a place like The Photographers’ Gallery (it’s £8) to contemplate things that, for so many thousands, are not an intellectual or artistic exercise, but the abject struggle for a decent life. 

Photography as a medium has never shied away from these things — it is the optic of social injustice par excellence. But it is in the contrastive union of these two techniques, and their stark results, that these issues achieve a formidable tenor. 


The Fields of Sight collaborations are available to purchase as a book, published by Edition Patrick Frey, here.


Vincent Jordan is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space.

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