Shop Art Art Shop: an art residency in the hills of Himachal Pradesh

The third edition of the unique residency was held last week in a little village called Gunehar

Published - June 15, 2019 04:01 pm IST

One of Amritah Sen’s visual narratives.

One of Amritah Sen’s visual narratives.

You will find her working in a blue house as you go up the village. If you have difficulty, just yell out her name,” said Frank Schlichtmann, the man behind Shop Art Art Shop, a unique art residency that has become the pride of Gunehar, a small village in Himachal Pradesh. Schlichtmann was directing me to an artist’s ‘shop’ atop a hill.

In 2013, Schlichtmann came up with the idea of Shop Art Art Shop a.k.a. SAAS, and invited artists from across the country and across disciplines to spend three weeks in the village working in abandoned houses and shops, using local infrastructure and in the full glare of curious onlookers. The first edition featured 13 emerging artists and drew more than 6,000 visitors. The second edition in 2016 attracted more than 10,000 visitors. The third edition was held last week.

Illustrator Sheena Deviah at SAAS 2.

Illustrator Sheena Deviah at SAAS 2.

As I climbed in the direction Schlichtmann had shown, taking in the scenic Dhauladhar mountains dotted with slate-roof houses, a bunch of villagers enthusiastically urged me ahead. Slowly, my happy climb turned to dismay when I saw that most houses I passed were predominantly blue. After half an hour’s huffing and puffing, shouting the artist’s name to no avail and with no phone network, I decided I was lost. And at that moment, I stumbled on a house more pink than blue, with the nameplate Antar Rekha/ A Fine Line.

Inside, I met studio potter Devyani Smith, who insisted she was not an artist; on the storey above her was painter Asmita Sarkar’s space titled Uncanny Shop. Over a hot cup of tea, they recounted the storm of the previous day.

Sole critic

A frail old man tottered out of the ‘shop’ and joined us. The house was his; he had ‘let it out’ for the art residency. He had moved to his son’s new and modern house right behind. Every afternoon, he unfailingly came over to his own house for a nap. “He is our only critic here,” said Smith. “When it poured yesterday, he helped cover all our work with tarpaulins.”

“The villagers usually don’t charge for renting their homes for the art shops,” said Bapil Kapoor, who had just come home on leave from the Army and was volunteering with SAAS.

SAAS-3 was made up of a curious motley of artists, including a textile designer, some storytellers, a musician, a cinematographer, multimedia artist, filmmakers and ceramic artists. The 11 artists worked in their assigned ‘shops’ from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for over three weeks before the residency culminated in a week-long fair last Saturday. The theme of the edition was ‘Borderlines’, an exploration into the complexities of living in a world where borders are being reimposed rather than being dismantled.

The collective FoundOnAllFours.

The collective FoundOnAllFours.

The artists found various ways to engage with the theme: from mapping and studying the shifting borderlines of nature-human habitat (Sultana Zana) to searching for a meaningful identity transition (Smith); from telling tales that shift boundaries between reality and fantasy (FoundOnAllFours) to documenting shifting fashion trends (Pramila Chaudhary). There were as many mediums as ideas: ceramics and found objects (Sarban Chowdhury), visual narratives (Amritah Sen), documentary (Gaurav Gokhale), music (Yash Sahai), and tuk-tuk cinema (KM Lo).

Art to the people

“Why Gunehar,” I asked Frank. “No one asks why there are art galleries in cities. We need to take art out of restricted, elitist spaces and make it more accessible to the people,” he said. It is perhaps this urge that keeps him going even when a paucity of funds stares him in the face. “I can’t be fundraiser, curator and sweeper,” he vented.

SAAS is Schlichtmann’s defiant response to what constitutes the idea of art as practised by institutions and galleries, given the weak infrastructure available to contemporary Indian artists and the culture of exclusion prevalent in the art world. With the Gunehar Triennale, he hopes to create a platform for emerging artists from various disciplines, where they can work without the restraints of a studio structure. To make the artistic process itself open, transparent and comprehensible to the public, visitors are encouraged to drop in and watch the artists at work. Over 100 artists applied for the residency this year; 12 were selected.

A woman and her portrait at ‘In the Woods’, an earlier event curated by Schlichtmann.

A woman and her portrait at ‘In the Woods’, an earlier event curated by Schlichtmann.

As I left the ‘blue’ house in search of more artists, I met Lo, a guerilla filmmaker from Hong Kong who, along with the children of Gunehar, shot a zombie movie that garnered 2.2 million views on YouTube. “The kids loved donning red pulpy paint and walking in slow motion,” he said. This time, his project was to build a tuk-tuk or autorickshaw with material available in the village. It became a bioscope during the day with an inbuilt cinema projecting on the wall and roof of the auto. According to Lo, the children of Gunehar were very choosy about the films they watched, preferring Star Wars and zombie films over recent Bollywood movies.

Yash Sahai, a musician from Mumbai spoke of converting his art shop into a recording studio. “I want my guitar to sound like it belongs here,” he said, talking of how he had recorded the music of the Gaddis, a shepherd tribe of Himachal Pradesh. “I want to create a repository of sound.”

Heading back home, I realised that cities need not be the centre of the world. In the middle of gathering the ripened wheat, Gunehar was harvesting a rich artistic awareness too.

The writer works in the visual media in Mumbai.

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