I selected these drawings from participatory workshops in India 2003-2006 because they show the diversity of drawing styles. In the case of West Bengal and Gujarat I also had extensive background knowledge of the context from my own academic or participatory research.
The distinctive use of line by tribal women in West Bengal and Gujarat who had never held a pen before. Tribal women also work in the fields, forest and with livestock. They do not have such a strong tradition of handicrafts (unlike Pakistan for example) that give them an immediate facility for drawing. Particularly in the case of older women, they tend to use very abstracted stick figures but add symbolic elements and gestures. Certainly to a Western eye (eg my own) fascinated by the expressiveness of cave drawings and petroglyphs these abstracted drawings are in many ways more artistically interesting than the more figurative drawings of people with more education. I had earlier done short Flash videos of the workshops showing the context, drawing process and interpretation of the drawings.
The drawings from Chennai in South India are done by women and men who have some literacy. These attempt more figurative representation of women an men – hair, clothes and status distinctions. Some indicate very clearly the differences between women and men’s perceptions of ‘women’s empowerment’. Others do not visually distinguish between different forms of empowerment and rely more on verbal/written explanation.
Jamghoria Sevabrata is an NGO in West Bengal – most of the women they work with are tribal Santal who speak little Bengali (at the time when this work was done) and most of the paid staff were Bengali men who did not speak Santali. This livelihood planning workshop – for women to plan how they would use a grant from Trickle Up in US to invest in and increase income from different livestock – using pictorial drawing was the first time they had really communicated. The staff also drew and said they had ‘never felt so liberated’.
Most of these women had not held a pen before. I was facilitating 60 women in relays on 20, starting with the first batch for an hour then they taught the next batch and the next batch, with me catching up to take the first batch further to more advanced drawing once everyone was happy. From being very shy and not talking initially, within an hour they were confidently laughing, talking and teaching each other.
It was explained that everyone can draw and that all drawings are just different types of lines (straight, curves, wiggly etc) and circles (round, rectangular, squishy, loopy etc). With a bit of thought anything can be represented that way. The first woman below had quickly worked out a way of drawing lots of different types of goat – plain ones, stripy ones and foreign ones with bigger horns and needing to be tied with a rope on one leg. Others drew pigs of different types. The filled dots and circle lines represent different money to do their income calculations.
This shows that this type of mix of symbolism and figure abstraction comes easily. As can be seen from the video, some of the line drawing is also very expressive – Basquiat-like. That sort of ‘attacking the paper’ is less common when people try to draw ‘artistically’.
ANANDI (Area Networking for Development Initiatives) is a women’s empowerment organisation working with women in tribal, muslim and scheduled caste communities of Gujarat in Eastern India. These drawings were made as part of a 2003 participatory review on empowerment impact of their organisation, focusing particularly on response to the 2001 earthquake that devastated the area.
The drawings in biro on paper were part of an Empowerment Diamond exercise. As can be seen from the video, many of the women had never drawn before. Many are very expressive. Some can be more or less understood by an outsider eg goats (but what type?) a woman with a car (does she own it? drive it? woman carrying a bundle on her head (but is it a profitable bundle? is she carrying it for someone else?) etc. Other drawings are better understood by people who know more about the context (types of crops). Others are only understood by people in the process who are accustomed to common ways in which people draw things like rectangles for land. Others are symbolic and innovative eg use of a fan? for development.
They look quite ‘scruffy’ just doodles on very cheap paper. It would be interesting to see if they would be treated better if they were cut and framed as ‘works of art’ like Tracy Emin drawings with more Basquiat-style text.
They really need annotation to understand the full richness of expression. For example why is a stick woman with a red stomach ‘healthy’, what is the thinking behind that.
Hand In Hand, Chennai
These drawings were done as part of an international gender training for micro-finance programmes, hosted by Hand in Hand in Chennai, South India. Hand in Hand worked with men and women, most of whom had some education, some were quite educated. They were not nearly so poor as the tribal women in JS or ANANDI above. Hand in Hand had not focused on women’s empowerment, and the aim of the exercise was to get some community indicators of women’s empowerment and happy families and see what differences there might be between women and men. The women had a strong handicraft tradition and so could draw quite easily.
The women’s concepts when they explained them were clear – around owning property, being able to go where they wanted, having a sense of identity and respect. The drawings however were not clear without the explanatory text. There was some difference in drawing style between powerful (confident marker line) and powerless (wiggly pencil) but it is not clear whether this was intentional or just a difference between media and group. There is also some differentiation in clothing and appearance, but on the whole all the figure drawings look quite similar.