BY GILLIAN ANSTEY
ONE of the first questions Usha Seejarim asked when she was approached to make the Gandhi artwork for the Sunday Times Heritage Project was whether she’d been picked because she is Indian.
Monna Mokoena, one of the artist-hiring consultants for the Sunday Times, told her "yes and no".
No, because she’d been approached on the strength of her talent and track record; yes, in that it was one of the reasons she’d been offered the Gandhi site specifically.
Coincidentally, when Seejarim was approached to join the project — even before she had been assigned a particular story — she had just finished reading Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth.
The book inspired Seejarim, who says: "Besides all the political work, he lived a life of complete simplicity. He relinquished every material possession, and he was a fruitarian [someone who eats only fruits, seeds and nuts] for 15 years."
Seejarim said Gandhi’s philosophy of passive resistance was not be confused with passivity. "In fact, he was an activist, an initiator, instigator, motivator, and his lifestyle was one of active involvement and struggle. For this reason, I am demanding an active engagement on the part of the viewer. The work is therefore interactive in nature," she said.
Seejarim used two optical devices to create motion and interaction: a zoetrope and a thaumatrope. The zoetrope is a moving image machine invented in the 1830s and a popular form of entertainment in the Victorian era. It consists of a cylinder with vertical slits with a band of pictures inside. As the cylinder is spun, the images appear to move when seen through the slits.
What inspired me was how he approached the so-called enemy, how he loses the whole philosophy of an eye for an eye, and the results he gets are amazing. So I’m trying to adopt some of those values in my life
The thaumatrope is an old-fashioned moving toy. It consists of a disc attached to two pieces of string. When twirled, the images on the sides of the disc are seen together as a single image. She made the zoetrope in the form of a potjie, or cauldron, the same size and shape as the one used during the pass burning led by Gandhi, with an image of the burning Indian registration certificates inside.
Seejarim designed the thaumatrope as a vertical banner with the image of a flame and the word "truth" being revealed as it turned. She said the understanding of truth was central to Gandhi’s philosophy as he attributed truth to God, knowledge, bliss and inner peace.
She planned the banner to be plastic, perspex or resin. The entire work would be mounted on a concrete block with a step on each side to allow children and shorter people to see it. She made sure the work did not include anything figurative, in keeping with the memorial’s position outside a mosque and the tenets of Islam.
The site bustles with men attending the mosque in the street. Immediately after it was installed, the muezzin made a call to prayer and there was a steady stream of people passing the artwork. Many stopped and asked questions, wanting to know what the artwork represented, how long Usha had taken to come up with the concept and how long it had taken to make. They reacted favourably to the notion of a Gandhi memorial in the area. However, the ceramic plaque at the memorial was vandalised twice before it was replaced with a steel plaque.