Donald Fels: What is a Trade?
In 1498 Vasco da Gama sailed from Lisbon, Portugal to Calicut in Southern India in search of pepper and spices for his king. These voyages are often referenced as the beginning of global trade, colonialism in Asia, and what we now call globalization. After visiting in 2003, artist Donald Fels returned in 2004 to Kochi, India where da Gama began and ended his trade with the country.
During his time in India, Fels spent seven months as a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar working with a group of sign painters to create a large series of ‘hoardings’, enamel on metal billboards. Until extremely recently, cities in India were full of bright hand-painted advertising hoardings. Despite this long-standing tradition, the digital revolution (a force of globalization) brought mass-produced signage to India, and the billboard painters are no longer working. To Fels, employing these craftsmen to paint about the relationship of local and global trade seemed exactly right.
The exhibition, originally organized by the Tacoma Art Museum, features 16 large-scale enamel paintings exploring the many interrelated issues involved in globalization. All of the paintings were researched and designed by Fels and painted by one of the three painters, Surya, Raju or Paul (signpainters established a reputation with a single name). Jiju, originally hired as an interpreter, became the project manager. Based on the sketches provided by Fels, the painters interpreted and embellished the paintings onto large aluminum sheets; as the works progressed they were discussed jointly and modifications were common among the collaborators.
For the past thirty years visual artist Donald Fels has been active on the West Coast, in Europe and Asia. He holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University where he had a triple major in Art, English and History, and an M.A. Ed. with Honors from City University where he was the Board of Governor’s Presidential Scholar. He also studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of Washington. Fels has been a Fulbright Fellow to Italy and a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar to India. He has twice received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
He is the recipient of many grants, awards and commissions from public and private Foundations and granting agencies including the Washington Council on the Humanities. His work has been exhibited at museums including the Seattle Art Museum, Center on Contemporary Art, Tacoma Art Museum, Bellevue Art Museum, Henry Art Gallery, NW Museum of Art and Culture, Bologna’s Contemporary Art Museum, Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art, among others. His work is in numerous international public and private collections.