Donald Fels

Flying the Hump

2008, Enamel paintings on aluminum sheets

The pieces were executed in Cochin in 2008, during Fels’s fourth period of working in India. Having completed the Vasco series together in 2004-5, the Cochin billboard painters with whom Fels worked then invited him back twice more for further collaboration. Fels decided to create a series of paintings around his father’s experiences as a WWII pilot flying a C-46 over the ‘Hump’, the high Himalaya separating China and India. Alan Fels was based in India, and carried out two years of flights back and forth over the treacherous mountains. Half of the planes that took off didn’t return, and the experience as pilot there left a searing if invisible scar on his life.

A pilot’s safety booklet in his papers had an illustration about the use of a mirror for signaling, in case of a downed plane, which became the starting place for the paintings. Donald Fels asked his son Benjamin (who never knew his grandfather) to photograph himself looking into a mirror. When Benjamin reminded his father of the existence of a Renaissance image that depicted a person looking through a perspective-viewing device, Fels decided to render the image with a figure from southern India as the viewer.

This collection of images and photographs was given the signpainters, who got to work. As Fels photographed them painting the Hump series, it occurred to the group that it would be interesting to start another set of paintings based on these at-work photographs. As they created paintings based on the photographs, Fels once again photographed them at work, and these new photographs became the basis of yet another set of paintings. And so they progressed, the series becoming increasingly abstract and playful. Eventually, the paintings came to look at the ‘vanishing point’, a concept taught in all Indian art schools, and familiar to Indian painters by its English name. Now, in this technical age, the work of the signboard painters has itself vanished; it has been removed from the picture.

This description is based on the narrative accompanying Fels’s work in Western Artists in India edited by Shanay Jhaveri, published by Thames and Hudson, 2013.