By last Thursday, the team behind the digital museum, Sarmaya, was already feeling a little boxed in. The eight-member team had been working from home since Monday and daily video-conference calls were becoming monotonous. “One colleague suggested we dress up as a historical character of our choice for the next call,” says archive director Avehi Menon.
With an hour’s notice, the group cobbled together costumes, ending up as Frida Kahlo (unibrow and all), Salvador Dali (sporting a cut-out mustache), Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks and other figures from history. “It was a lot of fun,” says Menon. They spent the first 10 minutes of that 90-minute call enjoying everyone’s looks.
Artists, historians, and culture practitioners are finding creative ways to make the most of the stay-home measures deployed to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Alisha Sadikot, founder of the Inheritage Project, who leads heritage walks around Mumbai, knew that physical excursions — the mainstay of her job — would be impossible. Along with her neighbour and cousin, Sheena Khalid, a theatre professional and director, she put up an informal three-part video about the Bombay Plague of 1896 on Instagram last week. They discussed how another pandemic changed the city more than a century ago. “For us, it was a new way to share information,” says Sadikot. “Not just the doom and gloom of a disease, but how the city responded to it by redesigning roads and neighbourhoods that form the best parts of Mumbai today.”
On Instagram, the handle @tussenkunstenquarantaine (between art and quarantine) has been posting images of people who’ve recreated classic paintings in their living room. Homebound folks have recreated The Great Wave off Kanagawa from toilet paper, The Night Watch from spice bottles and amber lighting, and The Scream by lying on a swirl of multicoloured laundry.
Twitter handle @BigKitchenDisco claims to “take the edge off social distancing with some social disco dancing”. It invites users to post videos of themselves dancing to the song of the day in their kitchens anywhere in the world, at 7pm. Artists are using hashtags like #IsolationCreation and #QuarantineArtClub to connect with others creating new art during enforced home time.
British artist Gareth Fuller goes a step further. Staying home means he can’t create the dense, detailed maps that characterise his work. So he took to mapping his home in quotidian but interesting detail. The series 14 Quarantine Maps shows a home transformed by constant occupation, the unravelling of order, and how spaces take on personalities of their own.
Museums are using existing collections and exhibits to tell new stories too. On the social media handles of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, century-old clay models (depicting local communities, occupations and team games) were assigned new duties. Photos depicted them practising social distancing, avoiding handshakes, public gatherings and touching their faces to reinforce the WHO’s guidelines to avoid infection.
“Art is a great medium to engage with people at a time like this,” says Menon. Sarmaya has released a series of digital folk-art stencils to engage their core audience of children and young adults. Sadikot believes that the arts allow for a break from the overwhelming buildup of news stories. “They allow you to address issues creatively.” Menon stresses the need for artistic outlets like museums and archives to be accessible to the public, “Cultural organisations must ask audiences what they want, to stay relevant.”
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