Talking of trade in times of globalisation

Donald Fels

Donald Fels  

"People think trade is about goods, but they do not realise that it is all about ideas," says Donald Fels, the visual artist from the U.S., who has been working on the theme of `Global Trade' for the past 15 years. "Trade is just a way to exchange ideas. That is why all the port cities in the world have the most interesting histories."

Mr. Fels, who held an exhibition of hoardings designed by him at Kashi Art Gallery in Fort Kochi recently, had embarked on this quest regarding world trade quite accidentally.

"It all began some 15 years ago. In 1990, the Seattle Art Museum was shifted to a new premise in downtown. To celebrate the opening, the museum authorities decided to create works of art in the city and artists from the city and outside were invited. I was one of them," he says

Fels worked along the port of Seattle. It was during the research done for the work that Fels came across the interesting history of the port of Seattle. "I spent one year in the docks. Then I realised that Seattle was born out of trade."

His work at Seattle got good reception.

Then he decided to go to places that had been doing trade with Seattle. Malaysia was at that time, leading the rubber and tin production. So, off went Mr. Fels to Malaysia, staying in Penang for two years. "I was living in Asia for the first time." Italy was his next point.

"Naples, was leading in the trade of steel at that time but it is finished now. The steel trade has moved over to Asia with China taking over the major share of the trade," he says.

Mr. Fel's affair with India had begun even earlier, in his childhood. His mother was working at the University of California, Los Angeles. She was in charge of foreign students. "That meant, a lot of students ended up at our home. She was Mama to all of them."

There was one Indian student among them. He became almost like a member of the Fels household. "Even his marriage was arranged by my mother," chuckles Mr. Fels.

It was on the invitation of this Indian brother, Fels and his wife Patricia, set out on their first Indian visit. That happened about two years ago. They visited Tamil Nadu and participated in an Artist Residency in Thiruvananthapuram.

The fate of the signboard painters who were losing their work as the hi-tech vinyl hoardings began to flood the streets of Kerala soon caught his attention. "The hoarding artists were one category that was falling out of their trade in a direct impact of globalisation. So, I thought I would work with them," says Mr. Fels.

So, last year, he returned to Kerala armed with a Fulbright Fellowship to work with the hoarding artists.

Collaborating with four signboard painters from Kochi, Paul, Raja, Jiju and Surya Noufal, Mr. Fels produced 15 large hoardings. A few of these works were displayed at the exhibition, `West In the East.' They explore the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama's role in the process of globalisation, which in turn is rendering the signboard painters jobless.

"Local Knowledge Vs. Global Information" is one of his favourite themes in these drawings.

And, the lines in one hoarding sums up the perspective of the global eye, "... Gama saw much that was not there. Most of what was there he did not see."

Renu Ramanath

Recommended for you