14 Aug Different Shades of Skin. Antonio Puri’s Varna
“We often assume that politicians, law-makers and armies are the things that create change in the world (for good or bad!). But, actually, the creative and visual arts are a powerful tool for awakening deep awareness, inspiring reflection and initiating real change! Antonio’s Varna project resonates with key themes in Woodstock’s philosophy of education and life. It tells us that the things which really define us are not the superficial differences which often divide us; it tells us that beneath the surface of colour, creed and culture is a common humanity which binds us, inexorably, to one another; and it tells us that when we “see” this, we are liberated into a new way of engaging with the world – as J F Kennedy put it, ‘The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by sceptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men and women who can dream of things that never were’ ”. -Jonathan Long, Principal.
Between bites of a delectable dessert of apple and coconut — an unusual mix, not unlike the diverse blend of students that he studied with —Antonio Puri ’84, states, “Art is my religion!” He’s revisiting Woodstock as an artist-in-residence and spearheading his newest venture ‘Varna’, which in Sanskrit, translates to colour. Based on the caste system in India, the Varna project is Antonio’s raison d’être; his concern and mission is to use his art to cross boundaries and fuel new points of discussion.
Working out of his temporary studio in the Media Centre, Puri is well ensconced in paint and conversations as he documents the diversity of the WS community grade by grade, department by department. The project has stirred up its share of curiosity and anticipation, and some introspection! Presently, students and staff are matching what they think their skin tones are with a palette of colours and then painting these tones onto strips of paper which will go onto final artworks.
Simultaneously, Puri is digitally capturing eyes that will be part of a mandala and the installation at school. He has plans to also place an artwork at a chosen location in Landour that will “echo” the art works at Woodstock as well as provide the community a space for reflection and dialogue. When we asked Puri how well he thought the community at large would receive the Varna project he suggested we look to students and staff – both architects and audience of/for the art – for a reaction. And so we did!
“I think the Varna project is a beautiful and subtle way to get people thinking about and discussing the issues of race, stereotyping and discrimination that are common to us all—to look at ourselves, our community and become more self-aware. I’m so used to describing myself as “white”—so I’m now searching for another word. I also think it’s wonderful for students to have the experience of working alongside a professional artist, to look at one of the world’s major problems through an artist’s lens, to participate in all of the hard work it takes to create a major artwork. When it’s completed they will feel real ownership of it.”
-Margaret Groff, Head of Art
“I really like this project because I’ve been subjected to discrimination in a lot of places and I think this will really help. It feels empowering. It’s amazing that we’re highlighting that it’s the inside that counts. -Samreen, Grade 11
“I think Varna (the project) transcends not just the environment here. It’s a bigger topic, a global topic! I am excited about it. I think it’s a very pressing topic. Everybody can relate to the project on some level. It’s also an ambitious project that literally takes on the whole Woodstock community…from young children to adults. Before I came to India I was forewarned by my Indian friend in San Diego. He told me, “don’t be surprised that every other commercial you’re going to see on TV is about skin lighting,” and that there’s this deep seated topic of race and caste system and how it relates to parents of somebody -wherever they’re from- India or anywhere in the world. That was interesting to me; also it was an opportunity for us, for my family to grow.
I think my students including my two daughters have experienced this to some degree. It affects everybody, some on deeper levels. I grew up in Los Angeles, I’ve been in an inter-racial relationship with my wife for 17 years now. We’ve dealt with racism every day and I’m dealing with it now. It follows us. I don’t think it’s all cut and dry. I would like to think it is people being more ignorant and curious, than a sense of hatred… I’ve gone out of my way to befriend different people in the Woodstock community as well as the Mussoorie community. We have had wonderful conversations over some tea.
With the issue of race and identity it’s dangerous to say it’s a good thing or a bad thing; but it’s something that existed since mankind. It’s not an Indian thing but a global thing. I think that touching on something that’s universal which people experience on different levels is an important issue to think about.
It’s what art can do; sometimes shake people up, create controversy and through that controversy help people understand one another. Working with Antonio has been a wonderful experience. I feel I have a new friend. We’ve been having a good time trying to figure out the placement of his projects and interacting with shopkeepers and people I know.I think in the community outside of Woodstock people would also appreciate and be willing to interact and engage in a public art piece which talks about cultural contexts, history, race, and the complexities, that surround our understanding of humanity through color.-Adam Hubbard, Art teacher, middle years.
“The idea is quite nice. It’s reminding people that skin colour doesn’t define you”. –Divya, 12 Grade.
“I think the Varna project is helpful in a way, it reminds us that we’re all the same and not better than each other.-Rachel, Grade 12
“I feel the project is a great way to bring out the diversity at Woodstock because we have people from all over the world. We’re building something that represents the world as it is. I think people who make racist comments in this world should double think what they’re saying. This art project will show the outside community that we are in a state of acceptance – no matter what race you are or where you’re from, we’re taking you in. We are like a family and there’s no discrimination in our family. -Tanishq, Grade 9
“It’s a good project to make people see what’s not really obvious. That we’re not all the colours we’re categorised as but we are something more beautiful”. -Sithembiso, Grade 10
“I think it’s interesting because it’s combining something that has always been controversial in our society here and worldwide. There’s always been discrimination whether it’s colour or gender etc. I feel discrimination should be a hot topic because this will create awareness. The artwork is going to a beautiful but I do not actually think it will change mindsets. The Woodstock community will think about it much more than the community outside. I feel it will affect the people who are being discriminated against but I feel it won’t affect the people who actually discriminate others. That’s my personal opinion.” – Shubha, Grade 12
“Firstly I think it’s a great opportunity for our students to interact with an artist in residence, learning about art and the process behind it. Also it’s a great opportunity as a class to sit and talk about the issues behind skin colour, skin tone and how that affects us on a daily basis” – Andy Crider, Coordinator Middle and Junior Years.
I’m excited because this is the first time there has been such a large art project that everyone in the school can be involved in. – Mayuri, Grade 12
“I think this project is cool because it’s being created by an alumnus. Also, we’ll have a symbol of everyone at Woodstock with the eyes (mandala) on the ceiling. It’ll be cool for visitors to see it and when we come back, for us to be able to spot our eyes! I really wonder how the piece with skin colour will turn out because there are so many different skin colours in Woodstock. I think it will help unify us”. –Devika, Grade 12
“No matter what skin colour you are, if you cut your hand, your blood will always be red. One shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of skin colour. The Varna project will create awareness on the matter”. – Sabrina, Grade 10
In the words of Aristotle “the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance”.
Read more about Puri’s work here : www.antoniopuri.com
Look out for more updates on the project. Let us know what you think.