Donald Fels


2007, Enamel paintings on aluminum sheets

In 2006, Fels was invited to return to work with the group of billboard painters in Cochin with whom he had done the Vasco paintings. They decided it might be interesting to try and capture in paint the female ‘guest workers’ who came to Kerala from Tamil Nadu for 6 month stays to carry rubble at construction sites. They either camped at the construction sites or lived (often with nursing infants) in nearby shacks. At the time outsourcing to India was highly discussed in American media. Fels liked the idea of showing that giving unwanted work to those from elsewhere willing to do it cheaply goes on everywhere, even in south India.

Fels went to a couple nearby construction sites and over several days befriended the dirt carriers, all of whom were women. With translation help, he explained that he wished to portray them at work, and they granted him permission to make photographs and use them in paintings. Fels found the women incredibly strong, proud and beautiful, and told them so! He designed the paintings based on the photographs. When the paintings were complete, they came to the godown studio to see the results, and were delighted.

“Ram Studio” is taken from a black and white photo found in a Cochin second-hand store. It shows a very young woman dressed regally in a Bollywood costume. The woman was, like the women dirt-carriers, a poor Tamil. But she became a famous screen actress. Later she became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu! Ram Studio, the name of the portrait studio where the photo was taken, was stamped on the back of the old photo.

“Strong” shows a Tamil rubble carrier with their customary head-gear, made from a recycled plastic sacking. The head-gear, with its flat resting place, allows the women to carry heavy loads in wok-like steel containers on their heads.

The paintings display “G/S” in the right hand corner, decided by Fels and the painters to stand for their collective work in the “Godown Studio.”

Women Workers PDFThe Hindu Newspaper published the following article about the series of paintings: