The Project

The project envisages a collaboration between creative practitioners in Melbourne and New Delhi, India:

To produce a 50 metre long cloth ‘mural’ or ‘tapestry’ narrating stories from women’s experiences of maternity and childbirth in rural India.

1st probe

Two previous works inform the current project : one, a detailed drawing on cloth depicting the maternal health ecosystem in rural India was used as a device to engage women in remote rural poor communities in Assam (India) in conversation. The cloth, a cultural probe, deflected the gaze and so was successful in producing a free flowing recounting of events from women.

santhal woman

Two, in 2012 an illustrator was commissioned to produce similar cultural probes upon 5 themes for future engagements with women in remote rural communities. These pieces have been submitted for exhibition to Craft Cubed 2013 (An annual event of Craft Victoria). The proposed project “Speaking Cloth” builds upon these past works and aims to depict the collective experiences of childbirth in rural and poor communities in India. Through being exhibited in galleries the cloth aims to provoke an appreciation and a respect for the maternal health condition seen from the eyes of marginalized women. The “speaking cloth” draws upon the mode of the story telling tapestry to portray a contemporary situation – rural Indian women’s collective experiences of childbirth.

Emerging from the 5 probes that were illustrated by a Melbourne based designer is the notion of visual narratives (image on left). I have since early 2012 been working with an Indian Textile artist to set up a project to get remote-rural-poor crafts women to do similar paintings. These paintings are their stories – telling of their experiences of their childbirth experiences and of incidents in their community. These works are a way for the “voices” of these women, and the stories from remote rural communities, to be heard in urban centres through exhibitions of their works. (This transnational collaboration is the subject of a grant application being developed for submission to the Australia India Institute). I arrived at this project – of visual narratives – because of the dissatisfaction I felt upon reading all the texts on the subject of Maternal Health in India. Words are a great vehicle for urban educated – but as ‘technical vocabulary’ they also become the very instruments that disenfranchise the lived experience of pregnant women.

And here is the question – how can these women speak so that they are heard, so that their voices are heard in all their complexity and not in a simplified way that fits into current public health theory?

My answer is to use the gallery, the exhibition space in urban centres as the stage where these voices are expressed. The aesthetics and form of the story will go a long way in retaining the details in the narratives. By becoming images the meaning embedded in these works is not reducible to “formulaic problems”. This format (gallery) and this location (urban) is one part of the project focussed upon contributing a unique dimension – the perspective of remote rural poor women – to the policy discourse surrounding maternal deaths in communities distant from urban centres. India is the country with the highest incidence of maternal mortality in the world.

The collaborators are – a creative practitioner from RMIT University, a textile artist from New Delhi and a Melbourne based Artist-Illustrator. In addition the project will involve traditional crafts people in New Delhi, textile technicians (working in the computer embroidery Laboratory at RMIT Textiles) and external textile facilities in Melbourne and New Delhi for Printing and dyeing. In addition the project will utilize facilities in New Delhi ( the studio of Mr Bheda) and Melbourne (RMIT Industrial Design, the Design Hub and RMIT textiles workshops).