Shraddha Borawake knows secret gullies, hidden streets and unique characteristics of Pune. She goes where most people rarely do, from shacks of migrant workers at construction sites to the silent cremation grounds of British soldiers. In 2016, during a visit to the Blue Diamond Bridge in Pune, she came across an undulating terrain of urban waste, made up of discarded beer cans, plastic packets and industrial end products. Staring at it, Borawake had a revelation. “I realised that one version of our civilisation is known by the trash it leaves behind. It speaks volumes of the experience that has created this menacing pile,” she says. This inspired a long-term art project called ‘Garb-Age’. An aspect of the project has been selected for ‘Five Million Incidents’, organised by Goethe-Institut Max Mueller Bhavan and conceptualised by Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective. Borawake has recently graduated as an interdisciplinary artist from Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, Netherlands. One of her strongest works is a cross-cultural dialogue between woman construction workers of India and the US, which is being used by a policy group on labour rights in the US. Borawake’s works use photography, videos and sculpture to expose layers drawn from Indian spirituality, Western theory and chance encounters. She says, “Through the lens, I am like a voyeur of life. Over the years, my observation of the lived experience has became the raw material for my expression – an effective way to respond to the urgency of the times we live in.” Excerpts from an interview:
How would you describe Garb-Age?
For me, Garb-Age is about subversion. I have been collecting a lot of found objects over the years. Now, I am inviting various experts to make shrines using this curated waste to create a large video installation. The women who take part in this ritualistic process meet me at the table in the spirit of dialogue. One of these shrines is called ‘Criticality’, in which I collaborated with Dutch artist and researcher Shailoh Philips to redefine the concept of criticism, judgment and the optics through which we assign a value to things. The larger question is whose criticality is it? We must question the rules handed to us.
What was the first bit of garbage you collected?
My collection of garbage began during the Bamboo Curtain Residency in Taiwan in the Beitou District of Taipei City. It was a blazing hot day and I was on a search for something in this industrial centre. I had almost given up, so I took a break and sat on a bench. As I looked to my left, there was a bucket full of the most beautiful optics you have ever seen in your life. It came from dismantled technology: electronics from all over the West are sent to the East to be discarded. The journey of this material fascinated me. It made me think of the maya of consumption and how memory is just a bunch of images pushing up against one another. Relationships then seem like projections and life feels like a hologram. What memory is our material carrying? This is how light and this refracting reality found an anchoring symbol through optics for the project Garb-Age.
Tell us about the other material in your collection.
I have started collecting rare earth, dried flowers, leaves, seeds and insects, such as moths and bees. What do we do we with our eco waste and irreducible debris? Doesn’t it point to insensitivity towards nature? Where you see man-nature clash, you will find dead insects and dead bees. Many insect species are under a huge threat of extinction and this is worrying. For me, insects are our ancestors who carry knowledge of our ecosystem. So, placing these discarded bodies in the work allows me to symbolise this thought about material existence.
Garb-Age started under the Blue Diamond Bridge. Why did you go there?
I had got a grant from the India Habitat Centre (IHC) in Delhi in 2016 to create a work on the ancient mythic concept of Panchatatva – the five elements in relation to awareness of our environment and sustainability. I realised if I had to make a work about environment, I must be conscious of the waste my artwork will eventually create. So, I decided that I will install using objects that already exist in this world to do my bit for the environment. I invited ceramic artist Ruby Jhunjhunwala to create some ceramic works for this. Prashant Kumar, another artist told me about his friend Babubhai, who lived under the Blue Diamond Bridge and who would get me any trash I wanted. That’s how I went to Babubhai’s place.
What did you experience that impacted you in a transformative way?
I saw a landscape of beer cans among the children who live there. Together, we started scavenging for ideas to build the sculptures. At one point I looked down and I found that between me and 25 surgical needles were my rubber chappals. All the while, the kids are joking and laughing making it a delightful afternoon. I began to see two sides of the garbage – one that we are in and the other is the kids’ future. Ultimately, I created a photo installation at IHC embellished with sculptures made from all this waste and Ruby’s ceramics to express the vast contradictions of our urban Indian lives. On the morning of the exhibition, I went to all the dustbins and took from plastic waste and arranged it so that you could not tell if it was art or life.
How did your work with garbage become conflated with comments on patriarchy?
You take something, consume it and throw away what doesn’t work for you. That, in a nutshell, is the history of gender relationships and that, as a paradigm, does not work for me anymore. That’s why I make the shrines, I attempt to carefully readdress certain meanings in the unpacking of trash. The first shrine I made to heal patriarchy was called ‘Voice’. It is a complex 60-minute film that collaborates with the work of avant garde artists Joseph Beuys and Louwrien Wijers. Louwrien worked with Beuys but remains hidden in history because of certain patriarchal systems. Thus, in the film, I am asking if Beuys is the father of German art, then who is the grandmother or mother or sister? As a gentle opening up rather than a provocation.
In one large photograph, there is a picture of you disappearing in a hill of garbage? Why is this work self-referential?
It is important for me to be in this picture and say that I am a lost and found body. So, I turn myself into the very canvas before pointing fingers at others. Through this abstraction, I share my own journey in terms of the relationship with what we have discarded or forgotten and our collective search for light.
How did your creative journey start?
I was born a highly creative kid. I grew up in a farm, my life was about learning from nature and humble people. I played the flute, painted, cooked, and attended to cattle and crops from a young age. I was studying in a traditional convent school, which unfortunately was not an ideal environment for a creative mind. Luckily, my parents understood my experimental core and always allowed me to explore my own lived experience with freedom and respect outside of the strict order. I was fortunate to develop an autonomous core owing to my progressive upbringing that allowed for the rules to be defined.
Your work is founded on photography. How did you start taking photos?
My photographic journey truly started in Harpreet Baccher’s little fashion photography studio in Pune. Since I had no faith in education, I decided to learn as an apprentice and master my skill independently of the institution. From fashion, I moved to documentary, mastered darkroom processes at ICP in New York and soon learnt that I was much more than a photographer. Although the image still plays a strong role in my work, these days I consider my medium to be world-building around important dialogues in society.