Donald Fels

What Is a Trade?

2005, Enamel paintings on aluminum sheets

The arrival of Vasco da Gama in India initiated the direct movement of precious commodities from India to Europe, as well as the colonization of Asia; his voyage is considered by scholars to have ushered in the world of global trade. The effects of the voyage are still very much being felt today.

Fels traveled to Malabar (Kerala on today’s maps) in 2003 to see if it might be possible to enlist billboard painters as collaborators in creating paintings about da Gama’s arrival there.

Buoyed by the reception of the work he did in Trivandrum, he returned in 2004 to Cochin where da Gama arrived May 20, 1498. As a Senior Fulbright Scholar he was able to spend a year collaborating with billboard painters there. Designed by Fels, each of the paintings took on a life of its own as the collaboration moved forward. The history treated by the exhibition, the creative process involved in producing the painting series, and its implications are fully examined in the excellent full-color catalogue What is a Trade?, published by the University of Washington Press. also gives an overview of the work.

The paintings were created on 4x4’ aluminum sheets, attached to the wall in their godown studio, a 300 year old ex-pepper warehouse along Bazar Rd, Cochin’s historic port. The actual hoardings that loom above city streets in India are assembled with sheets of metal, the substrate of choice of the painters. Doing the work modularly allowed the paintings to be easily crated and shipped. What is a Trade was organized by the Tacoma Art Museum, and has been traveling to museum venues in the United States since 2008.

When Fels was in Cochin, George W. Bush was gearing up to attack Iraq. The Hindu, Muslim and Christian painters with whom he worked (Cochin being perhaps the only city in India where all three religions are represented nearly equally), were all horrified by the potential invasion. Next door to their studio were screen printers, Fels decided to make a set of bags about similarities he saw in the lust for black gold. view front view back