Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence was never intended to be a show about Gandhi, one of the most controversial and influential figures of the twentieth century, or the complex iconography that developed around his persona. His concept and ideal of nonviolence, however, continues to be deeply relevant to our time. —Josef Helfenstein, in the introduction
Joseph N. Newland—
Last week I watched a new video documentary on John Lewis’s life, the timely release of which has turned it into a memorial to this great nonviolent activist, proponent of Good Trouble and hero to so many in these United States and those engaged in struggles for justice around the world. In the lengthy section on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches—where in the third attempt Lewis was front and center with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, Ralph Abernathy, Rabbi A.J. Heschel, a priest, and a nun in Dan Budnik’s iconic photograph—one of the speakers compared this epochal procession to “Gandhi’s March to the Sea,” that massive display of nonviolent noncooperation that in 1930 first put the incredulous British colonizers on their back foot. “The Salt March remains perhaps the most potent example of both the power of concerted nonviolent resistance and [Gandhi’s] intuitive strategy of satyagraha,” writes Vinay Lal in one of his essays in this volume titled, in homage, Experiments with Truth.
Lal continues: “The picture of Gandhi, firm of step and walking staff in hand, has endured longer than almost any other image of him, and it is through this representation that the Bengali artist Nalandal Bose sought to immortalize Gandhi.” This same icon is seen in the ground-level, life-sized statue in New York City’s Union Square, and many other memorials to Mohandas K. Gandhi, an inspiration to Dr. King, 1960 Peace Prize Nobelist Albert Mvumbi Lutuli, and John Lewis’s mentor, the Rev. James Lawson, all of whom followed Gandhi’s model of noncooperation and resilient resistance. Even in prison they continued to teach and organize. Love-force or truth-force is how King translated satyagraha for Americans. Let us not forget.
Images of nonviolence are elusive: it’s hard to show an absence: What does peace look like? In addition to photographs ranging from the Salt March and Gandhi’s walking tour of devastation in East Bengal in 1947; lunch counter sit-ins and Black Panther Free Breakfasts in Houston; and historic marches in South Africa, India, and California’s Central Valley, the book highlights a variety of iconic, metaphoric, or conceptual artworks to explore of how visual artists have conveyed messages of alarm, hope or social critique. The partition of India and Pakistan along the Radcliffe Line is the subject of works by Amar Kanwar, Shilpa Gupta, and the recently deceased Zarina, who in 2013 made for the Experiments with Truth exhibition a negative-positive reversal of her earlier famous woodcut Partition and named the oh-so-much-darker version Abyss. This black void is a counterpoint to her golden Veil of the Beloved.
Closer to home, Mel Chin’s 1994 HOMEySEW 9 turned a Glock 9mm handgun into a “fully functional, self-medicating emergency gunshot trauma treatment kit, [disarming] the aura of ‘gun’ through a covert surgical implantation of life-saving potential.” Theaster Gates tells in his text “A New Song” accompanying his Hose for Fire and Other Tragic Encounters of 2014 that it came from going “where the heat is…to give whatever I can: a hymn of protest, a candy bar, a quiet listening, an altar, an offering. When there are no more protests needed, that day, I’ll sing a new song.”
Gates’s words bring to mind hymns like “We Shall Overcome” and the bhajan Vaishnavajana to, called by Neelima Shukla-Bhatt “Gandhi’s Anthem for Moral Inspiration” and sung during the exhibition in Riyaaz’s qawwali version. A selection of Kabir’s poems by his premier translator in the US, Linda Hess, is accompanied by her essay “Gandhi and Kabir.” Painter Suzan Frecon’s watercolors are associated with the Rumi poems referenced, however obliquely, in titles such as 4-color composition on small paper 3 (dust and sun), 2009.
Much social justice work begins as provisional, local, and improvised: experiments with truth. Even as current events call for new action, new methods, and test the patience and ability to remain effective and nonviolent, it’s inspiring to read of exemplars such as Gandhi’s Pakhtun, or Pathan, colleague Abdul Ghaffar Khan, “the Frontier Gandhi” and founder of the Khudai Khidmatgar, the only completely nonviolent resistance movement in the South Asian liberation struggle, despite British fomenting of violence at their protests (sound familiar?).
Ghaffar Khan recorded this exchange in his autobiography: “‘Gandhiji…just think how much violence there was in India [in the early 1940s]…yet in the Northwest Frontier Province, in spite of all the cruelty and the oppression the British inflicted upon them, not one Pathan resorted to violence, though they too possess the instruments of violence. How do you explain that?’ Gandhiji replied: ‘Non-violence is not for cowards. It is for the brave, courageous…. That is the reason the Pathans were able to remain non-violent.’”
Courage, patience, fortitude are all required. And compassion. And training in both truth-force and time-tested techniques of peaceful resistance like those Byard Rustin and James Lawson taught so many activists while in the American South working for the Fellowship of Reconciliation—cofounded in the US by Gandhi’s first advocate, in 1921, John Haynes Holmes. In 1966 this organization brought together in Chicago Dr. King and the young voice of Vietnamese resistance, Thich Nhat Hanh. The volume also reprints Gene Sharp’s very practical and inspiring 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action and closes with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Here is a wide-ranging sourcebook on Gandhi, his forebears and successors, and artists such as an unrecorded 9th-century metalsmith who cast a bronze Jina to Barnett Newman of the Broken Obelisk to Kimsooja, the imperturbable Needle Woman. Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence explores ideas and figures both famous and under-recognized, such as Russia’s gun-burning Doubhokors and the Maori Te Whiti, organizer of plough-ins in the 1880s—peaceful warriors all, who current events constantly remind us are vital examples. Nonviolent protests against systemic injustice, racial bias, and inequity are seen in the streets and the 2020 news as often as in 1920s–40s India, 1960s–70s USA, and 1950s–90s South Africa. It’s almost as if the wheel of history has advanced only to come round to a similar if not the same place, whether it’s understood as a revolution of Jean Tinguely’s prayer wheel or the wheels of a troop carrier—or both—depending on your proclivity or the day’s news.
October 2 is Gandhi’s birthday and the International Day of Nonviolence, a day for good news and for good trouble, which, alas, seems to stay news. Bon courage.
Joseph N. Newland is director of publishing at the Menil Collection, an art museum in Houston, Texas, and was coeditor of and a contributing author to Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence.
The volume was published in 2014 in conjunction with co-editor and curator Josef Helfenstein’s exhibition of the same name at the Menil and seen in reduced form the next year at the International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva. The co-editors owe particular debts of gratitude for many long discussions with the artist Amar Kanwar and historian Vinay Lal, and Joseph extends special thanks to the book designers at Green Dragon Office in Los Angeles.