Last winter, Anupam Singh was teaching English in rural communities in the Himalayas, with a caveat: “I’m an artist, so my ways of teaching English had to be different; they had to involve artistic processes and artistic research.”
But the communities had a problem. The mountainous terrain surrounding their homes made education hard to access, so children had to leave home to go to school. Once the children finished their education, they had to move farther away to get jobs. Education was causing a mass migration which—when combined with a westernized curriculum—was quickly draining the region of its young people and its culture.
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To remedy this, Anupam connected education with local knowledge. He started working with his students, exploring the local knowledge, the local culture, and the local geography. He equipped students with cameras and sent them on “photographic journeys” to take pictures that reflected their community. Then, he talked with the students about what they’d documented, in English. “So they were learning English,” says Anupam, “but about their own stuff.”
The photographs gave Anupam another idea. “We wanted to create an alphabet book that portrayed the local texture,” he explained. “So instead of A for Apple, we had A for Alay, which is an animal typical to that region.” He succeeded to such a degree that he’s currently talking with the school board about making his picture book a part of the curriculum.
Anupam’s journey to the Himalayas, and—more broadly—to become the artist and educator that he is, started when he was very young in West Bengal, India. But art wasn’t his first career choice.
“I wanted to be a space scientist,” recalls Anupam, “but I knew I wasn’t cut out for it. But I also knew I could go to space with my imagination.”
Anupam found that art suited him, and when he left home to get his bachelor’s degree, it was to travel to one of the most prestigious art schools in India.
“I studied visual art and printmaking in my undergrad at Rabindra Bharati University, which was the house of India’s first Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. That’s where I was exposed to his educational philosophy that education is—and should be—integrated into the local fabric, local knowledge, and community.”
After graduating, Anupam went to Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda—the best art school in India at the time—and earned an MFA in printmaking. His studies then took him to an exchange program in Amsterdam, before he returned to India to work.
Anupam Singh’s Socially Engaged Art
“My research area was: ‘Where does art exist in everyday life, and how does it connect with society?’” says Anupam. “And the more I did in the field, the more I saw the gap between the exclusive bubble of contemporary art and everyday life.”
Searching for answers, he moved to a new city, where he watched new organizational policies fragment the local culture. He became interested in what happens to a people’s cultural identity when everything about their environment changes. He put on a contemporary art show featuring street children in the area.
“My show was very successful, but the children I was working with, they were in the same place,” Anupam recollects. “I felt quite extractive and exploitative; I used them as the subject of my work, but it only changed my social capital. It didn’t do anything for them. So that made me question. What am I doing?”
Anupam gradually stopped organizing art shows and thought about locally constructive alternatives. He spent a lot of time observing a quarry on the outskirts of town, where workers broke the hills into pieces to make bricks and cement.
“And I thought, what can I do with this site?” says Anupam. “I started interacting with the owner and the workers, and I realized all the workers were coming from rural areas. They would stay in the city for eight months of the year, and then go back for three months for agriculture. I started to see how the city was pulling people to it and encroaching on the areas where they lived, and I started to question the idea of home.”
To explore the question, Anupam invited almost 500 people from different backgrounds to the brick kiln and asked them to draw their notion of home on raw bricks. Then he baked the bricks to make their drawings permanent. The project was called “Color Our Home,” and—after an exhibition—the bricks were donated to the local school to build a cultural hall, “and, in a way,” explained Anupam, “to shelter their dreams; because educational institutions shape our dreams.”
After his first public engagement, Anupam continued to create socially engaged art in cities around India. He founded a non-profit called the Council for Arts and Social Practice (CASP) and received an invitation to study at Portland State University. He received his second MFA at Portland, where he worked with recently released prison inmates. After graduating from Portland State, he taught in the Himalayas until joining the University of Arizona’s PhD program in the School of Art‘s Art and Visual Culture Education, and the University Fellows Program.
“What I like about the Fellows program is that it’s so inclusive. It incorporates the Fellows’ feedback and builds on it,” says Anupam. “For instance, last semester Dr. Brown asked us for feedback on the program, and—in one semester—she incorporated what we talked about, and this semester things are happening the way we hoped they would. The program expands when we contribute to it; so it’s even richer for future generations.”
Originally published on the Graduate Center’s website on Feb. 1, 2022. Republished with permission. Read the original story here.