Monday, June 20, 2011

American Visionary Museum. Baltimore: Museum for the art of self-taught artists

I had been to Baltimore recently and visited the American Visionary Art Museum. This museum exhibits the works of self-taught artists. There were sculptures, paintings and machines devised by 'self-taught' artists. Some of the artists were those who had had mental illness, physical illness, some artists were children, some were house-wives and home-makers, some artists were engaged in various professions and so on.

I loved this place for so many reasons. The main reason being that one need to only be creative and one need not be skilled or trained  in order to exhibit here!
In many cultures, people and children are inhibited; they do not believe they are creative and are pretty shy when it comes to displaying their talents. If we had such a museum in all the cities, towns and villages or at least a place where 'anyone' can showcase his/her works, for some time, for all to see, it would do wonders to boost their self-esteem and to foster their creativity and talents. In many cultures, even to this day, only the very skilled and talented are recognized and encouraged. Only people at the very top get to be in the limelight.  Those with lesser abilites are pushed to the background and cannot enter the limelight or show their talents. But everyone deserves to be encouraged to develop, use and show their talents. And this is where a museum of this type would help.

It would be fantastic if every Indian village had a museum of this type....  not a grand museum with expensive curators and all the paraphernalia but a simple space where the created products of the village people are displayed is enough; The effects of having a museum like this would be great. Firstly the joyful pride experienced by the  creator when he displays his works. Secondly the joy of the visitors who see the products and are inspired with ideas of their own. Third, the pride the entire village feels to realize that someone in their village is so talented.

The museum would be one major way of dealing with the sick hierarchies in the village, especially if those lowest in the pecking order display their talents. Many craftsmen belong to the lower castes and the lower castes are abused by those in the higher castes. I anticipate that this museum would deal a blow to the pride of  higher castes. (But my gut feeling is that the lower castes would not be allowed to either show their talents or  or see what is on display! Only last month, a Dalit was beaten by a temple priest for entering a temple in Tamil Nadu!) Many village artisans are of low castes and lower in the hierarchy; For this and many other reasons, their creativity, their talent and products are never really recognized or praised. I know for a fact that the potter, the iron smith, the fishermen, the weavers are some of the several people with some level of creative talent who live in Indian villages. Though their products are bought and used, they are never recognized for their creativity. In fact, I bet, the concept of creativity or the  Kannada word for 'creativity' is not known to my village folks! The museum, will help village people become aware of the concept of creativity; the museum will help them to recognize how creativity influences ideas and products; and finally, the museum  will help them to recognize creativity  in themselves and  maybe they will soon nurture the creative forces in themselves.
Women  would get to display their talents in this museum and men would realize how talented their women-folk are. I know for a fact that most men cannot do the simplest rangoli designs while illiterate women can do complex designs in mere seconds! Many village women are self-taught tailors and are pretty innovative in various ways. The museum will give these women a place to showcase their talents. The showcasing will give the creators, a wonderful sense of empowerment.

Village women have to be creative and innovative as they lack so many things their city-counter-parts have. For example,  I remember drinking delicious tea made by two village girls; they  did not have tea powder and they used  leaves of  the pomogrante tree!  This pomogranate leaves idea of theirs is original and they did not get it  by  googling... About 20 years ago, the people in my  village (and maybe  villages all over the third world) had little or no access to information through internet, television or newspapers and magzines. They had access ot radio but not much information on the radio too.

Dyslexic children in village schools are brutally beaten by teachers for their 'laziness'; children who do not do well in schools for various reasons suffer cruel punishments both at home and school by parents and teachers. These kids too will get a chance to proove they have talent in some area(though not in studies) through this museum. Kids in villages are pretty resourceful when it comes to solving various problems one encouters in villages. Whether they are creative or innovative or simply copied, I cannot say but I admire what I see and think they deserve to showcase their talents. Figuring out how not to get wet in the rains, figuring how to get the ripe mango, dangling from the highest branch, opening a jack-fruit without a knife, tracking your missing cow, are some problems they have to solve with creativity and innovation.

The physically frail aged people  who are unable to do much,  can also display their talents at this museum. I know for a fact that the aged (about 75-80 years and above) in many villages are illiterate or semi-literate. But they have a great knowledge of many proverbs, folk stories, folk songs, old customs, natural healing remedies, etc which have unfortunately not been passed on to the new generations. These can be recorded and showcased in this museum. ( However  recording seems difficult ....what with all the electricity failure; plus, hardly anyone has a video or audio recorder in villages).  This, strictly speaking, is not creativity but yet, the museum is the best way to capture these wealth of knowledge before it dies with them. Old people's creativity in villages, seems to be used for dealing with the day-to-day problems they face, such as manipulating their offspring, thier spouses & grand-kids (grown children aged 30 years to 60 or more!) to their ways of thinking!

I wish I had written down the similes, proverbs, stories my grand mother came up with for every single occasion! She had an amazing store of this verbal wealth and now all is lost after her death. Due to various reasons, the amazing quantity of  folk-lore has not been passed on to the current generation in my village. The current generations in my village, do not know Kannada fully and do not know English fully and talk with a mix of both. So much of my cultural heritage in the form of folk-songs, folk-stories, proverbs, superstitions, folk-remedies, stories of the previous generations who lived in the village, recipes, beliefs, certain agriculture practices,  etc  has been lost with the death of the aged and this sort of museum would be one way of saving the cultural heritage of the past in  all villages.

This museum would be of great psychological help in villages as many villages have this sense of inferiority when they compare themselves to city folks. This museum will help build their pride and self-esteem and decrease their sense of inferiority. This museum will help people realize that even in a village one can be creative.......People are pretty  creative in villages but this museum will help them realize this fact and believe in themselves.

The creativity in villages is seen in the fact that they problem-solve in  resourceful manners, inspite of a severe dearth of 'resources' ! They repair and reuse many things which many a city person would simply discard and buy a new one. They are self-taught mechanics who repair the motor pumpsets and cycles; many steal electricty from electric poles ! and these are guys with no formal training in electrical engineering or diplomas in any technical fields.  Many come up with ingenious solutions to problems in agriculture.... sometimes the solutions offered by the government personnel is not affordable and they come up with their own creative solutions. One solution I can remember here is the solution for the problem : "how to prevent ants from getting to the silk worms?" The solution is to  place the table legs (.. on which the silk worms are,) in plates of water and thus prevent the ants from climbing the table to get to the silk worms.

With a museum such as this in each village, the pride of every villager goes up; he or she will strive to solve more problems creatively and  not give up; each villager will realize he is no less than a city person and in fact he may be more creative. The displays in the museum may also inspire the villagers to become more creative and instil a sense of competition in them.

Similarly, the museums in the cities too will help the people. However, cities already have a few places to showcase the talents of ordinary folks. Frequent competitions and exhibitions are held in schools, colleges, work-places and some communities; there are a few places such as clubs where one can learn and display one's talents such as camera clubs and art classes.

 In cities, I would love to have this museum in the slums where the marginalized sections of society live. These are the people who need a boost in their self-esteem, who need to believe in themselves. A museum of this sort would work wonders, psychologically. People in the lowest rungs of the ladder such as house-maids, auto-drivers, garment factory workers, street vendors, etc need to believe that they have something unique, that unique talent needs to be exhibited and seen by others. This will help them realize that they have something more; that they are something more than 'just a maid-servant', 'just an auto-driver' or whatever.

To me the museum of self-taught artists would be a place without any hierarchy and that is one of the main things I desire. Lots of people and children believe that only some people are gifted. This prevents them from believing in themselves.
 Also, many new and creative ideas are snubbed and ridiculed the moment they are expressed. I have seen this happen often in India and the ridicule and snubs are targetted more often at the creator who is lower down in the hierarchy than being targetted at someone higher up. For example, a wife who comes up with a great idea is immediatly snubbed by the husband but if he comes up with it, he is "brilliant"!

 Another thing I have noticed in India and among the more conservative is that any new idea is rejected without even trying! Creativity, self-expression, any new way of doing something  is brutally repressed in so many ways by so many people! For example a 4 year old drawing a flower will be corrected, critisized and commented by some people..."That is not the way to do it".  "Draw it neatly" ; "Roses are red, not black. Why did you colour it black?" This constant barrage leads to the child or person having self-doubts and give up altogether!

I have observed that many people and kids in India are afraid of being different, and prefer to conform. This is because being or doing differently often invites harsh criticism. The upper classes, the artsy folks, the child-friendly, the people exposed to influences of the west are more prone to encourage new ideas but the majority of the people, prefer conformity. I have seen teachers being brutal to kids who even write answers which are correct but not in the same wording as dictated by the teacher. I have seen elders in a family accuse a youngster of being cocky or arrogant or telling, 'Don't try to show off"  if the youngster did something differently!

Sad to say, I do not see literacy making people less conservative in their thinking or more encouraging of creativity. Only a few people with education are truly encouraging of creativity.

I am hoping that a museum of self-taught artists will help set about reforms in the conservative ways people think by encouraging and appreciating new ideas and thinking.

 The museum of the self-taught artists will help people to believe in themselves. The sense of inferiority many in the east feel about the west, many in villages feel about the city folks, the sense of inferiority ordinary people feel when they come across power-houses of talent, will be reduced to some extent through a museum where any person can display his talents.

If this is achieved, I imagine that there will be a lot of happy and proud people.


Crime is the one area where there is  unbriddled creativity in India! I have seen the creative ways villagers steal from farms, cheat the farmers and try to cheat the government agencies such as insurances, banks, etc.  Creativity is seen in the city crime too. I wish that the creativity they use to commit crime was channeled into more legal and ethical areas!


I wish our law-enforcers were equally creative in dealing with the law-breakers!

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