“Notes From the Desert: Photographs by Gauri Gill” Brings Together Works From Three Major Series by the Delhi-Based Artist, Set in India

September 07, 2016


Gauri Gill (b. 1970) has been photographing the marginalized communities of western Rajasthan, India, since the late 1990s. From her vast archive of negatives, collectively titled “Notes from the Desert,” Gill often organizes series centered on a particular individual or idea. “Notes from the Desert: Photographs by Gauri Gill,” showcases 57 prints from this major body of work, including three large-scale portraits from the “Balika Mela” series (2003/2010) and a body of prints titled “Jannat.” The exhibition will be on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Sept. 17–Feb. 12, 2017.

“Notes from the Desert: Photographs by Gauri Gill,” is striking for Gill’s use of black-and-white photography to capture life in this remote desert landscape in India. This exhibition is anchored by two striking portraits of Izmat, a formidable single mother and a key figure in Gill’s life and work, and Izmat’s daughter Jannat, who died at 23. For three photographs from “Balika Mela,” taken at a village fair, Gill invited young women into her makeshift photo tent to “portray themselves, as they are, or as they see themselves, or to invent new selves for the camera.” Each one printed at almost life-size portray the girls’ fortitude and sense of freedom through their purposeful poses.

The daily life of Izmat, Jannat and her younger daughter Hooran inspired a series of 52 silver gelatin prints and facsimile letters, one for each week of the year, and they serve as a poignant memorial to Jannat’s short life. In contrast to the “Balika Mela” photographs, the “Jannat” photographs and letters are small in size, evoking the sense of intimacy, trust and prolonged observation that characterize Gill’s practice as a photographer.

“Gill’s ‘Notes from the Desert’ quietly conveys the cycles of joy, sadness and strength that mark daily life in an inhospitable landscape,” said Carol Huh, the National Museum of Asian Art’s curator for contemporary art. “The exhibition considers, through the eyes of a single artist, different forms of photographic representation, from singular studio portraits to serial narratives. Gill’s approach broaches fundamental aspects of photography, namely the performative space before the camera, the visibility and agency of the female subject, and the complex relationship between photographer and subject.”

“Notes from the Desert: Photographs by Gauri Gill,” is the third in a series of exhibitions highlighting artists and works in Freer and Sackler’s growing collection of contemporary photography from Asia. The exhibition is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery with support from the museum’s endowment for contemporary Asian Art.


The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., together comprise the nation’s museum of Asian art. It contains one of the most important collections of Asian art in the world, featuring more than 40,000 objects ranging in time from the Neolithic to the present day, with especially fine groupings of Islamic art, Chinese jades, bronzes and paintings and the art of the ancient Near East. The galleries also contain important masterworks from Japan, ancient Egypt, South and Southeast Asia and Korea, as well as the Freer’s noted collection of works by American artist James McNeill Whistler. The Freer Gallery of Art, which will be closed during this exhibition, is scheduled to reopen in 2017 with modernized technology and infrastructure, refreshed gallery spaces and an enhanced Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium.

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