She stands etched against the skyline, a shadow of a girl-next-door. She could be anyone: A homemaker, student, doctor, lawyer, teacher or sex worker. It is the everydayness of this shadow that makes you relate to her. This shadow is, in fact, symbolic of a black hole into which, metaphorically, millions of girls disappear when they are trafficked as sex workers.
Kolkata will soon be dotted with large cut-outs of this ‘shadow woman’, as part of the public art project ‘Missing’ by photographer Leena Kejriwal, who has since 2010 worked as an installation artist with an interest in gender issues.
The project intends to create awareness across cities and some of the confirmed sites for the installation are Raahgiri in New Delhi’s Connaught Place and Gurgaon, and Eco Park in Kolkata. The artist is scouting for space in Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Guwahati, Dhanbad and Ahmedabad.
Based out of Kolkata, Kejriwal has always been interested in the lives of the women who live in the city’s Kalighat red light area. “Since 2007, I have been doing voluntary work — as a Rotarian and as a photographer — with the women and girls from the Kalighat area. In fact, my book Kolkata Repossessing the City was really the take-off point for my interest, which finally led me to this project,” she says.
The book grew into an artwork when Kejriwal began ideating with curator Shaheen Merali on a series of art exhibitions that revolved around the issue of trafficking. Over the past decade she was involved with exhibitions such as ‘When Violence Becomes Decadent’ at the Freies Museum Berlin, ‘I saw that which had remained unseen’ in Tehran, and ‘Entropic Sites’ at the Shrine Empire.
The ‘Missing’ project is crowd-funded, and Kejriwal has managed to raise 55 per cent of the funds needed to fabricate the artwork and take it to different cities. “I had initially appealed to corporate houses to fund the project but decided that it should be for the people and by the people,” she says.
‘Missing’ is also collaborating with Rotary for its Rotary Teach Child Welfare programme and is being funded through Wishberry, where Kejriwal aims to raise ₹16 lakh in 60 days (by July 31) for the installations and a mobile application. “The app has been designed to make it more interactive. People on social media can interact with the artwork, sign petitions and extend the boundaries of what is considered art and activism,” she says.
Kejriwal’s research had uncovered some shocking figures — there are reportedly three million trafficked women in India, and 1.2 million of them are young girls. She wanted to translate this information into something that was emotive and evocative. “I had thought about using walls to express myself, but in India it’s very hard to create longstanding art project on public walls as they are used for various purposes and are often defaced upon. Then I hit upon the idea of using the blue sky as my canvas.”
The rest was easy. She brainstormed with a group of girls who belong to the various NGOs she has worked with, alongside Ruchira Gupta (Founder and President of Apne Aap Women Worldwide and adviser to the US Government on human trafficking). As curator Merali explains, “The work of artist Leena Kejriwal is part of a greater body of work undertaken by artists in the global context... to enable a wider society to communicate.”
Over the next three months, the ‘Missing’ girls will loom into our view, and consciousness, across cities.
(Georgina Maddox is a Delhi-based art writer)