Exhibitions

Hum Sab Ek Hai presents an array of interactive displays and exhibitions, which provide a thoughtful reflection on the socially and physically distanced world of working women in India during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The exhibits are designed to accomplish multiple objectives. Through the personal accounts of impoverished women, expressed in their own voices, and the visual representation of the everyday objects they crafted or utilized, visitors gain insight into their experiences of navigating the profound challenges posed by the greatest public health emergency of our time.

The exhibits also serve as a celebration of the extraordinary resilience and ingenuity of these women. Despite their economic hardships, they provided essential services, food, and clothing not only to their families but to millions of others, showcasing their innovative spirit in the face of adversity. The exhibits seek to uplift and amplify the voices of billions worldwide who have been historically excluded from the crucial decisions that shape their lives and livelihoods. By shedding light on the realities and struggles of these marginalized individuals, the exhibits prompt reflection and inspire collective action to bring about greater inclusion and empowerment for all.

Curatorial Narratives

The exhibits are organized around eight distinct curatorial narratives, each offering a unique perspective on the experiences of women during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The exhibition designs, along with a brief description of each, can be found below.


Migrating Home

Over 100 million urban labor migrants flee cities as the country attempts to lockdown.

Without prior notice, India’s population of 1.36 billion people was abruptly subjected to strict lockdown measures in March 2020. Among them were over 400 million migrant laborers, many of whom relied on daily wages for their livelihood. Suddenly left without jobs or access to food, they made the decision to return to their hometowns.

Exhibit

A ceiling-to-floor panel created by SEWA’s artisanal community celebrates the vibrant and rich culture of Gujarat, which thrives amidst the unforgiving terrain of the region. This panel is a testament to the relentless spirit of the SEWA sisters, who collectively worked to empower and improve the lives of one-another.

A video loop showcasing the return of over 15 lakh migrant workers to Gujarat during the pandemic is juxtaposed with the iconic Teen Darwaaza gate of the city. This striking combination symbolizes the hidden home-coming of these workers, who were neglected by the state. The expansive cityscape captures the usual bustling markets and vibrant atmosphere of Ahmedabad, while the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs mounted over it, depict the fear-gripped city during the pandemic. These images portray deserted streets, police brutality towards the informal sector and harsh living conditions of the migrant workers.

Living in the Red Zone

Narratives of isolation, hunger, and domestic upheaval.

This installation offers a glimpse into the lives of  poor working women  in the early months of the pandemic. As a movement built on solidarity and camaraderie, members of SEWA found themselves — for the first time — unable to be present at the doorstep or bedside for their sisters in need. The suspension of a life primarily lived outside, in response to the presence of the unseen enemy of the pandemic, gave rise to uncertainty and fear. While countless people across the globe encountered these challenges, the impoverished communities in many of India’s urban areas endured police oppression. The implementation of barricades, which restricted the movement in and out of slums, labeled their homes as “Red Zones.”

Exhibit

The red sheer handwoven fabric highlights the screen-printed facade of a SEWA sister’s house, drawing attention to the difficulties confronted by isolated families residing in densely populated housing. These families grapple with restricted living space and the apprehension of being stigmatized because of the “RED” sticker linked to COVID-19 positive cases. Meanwhile, the suspended paille (straw) represents the only mode of communication between neighbors for sharing groceries, while the accompanying soundscape immerses the audience in a somber atmosphere with ambulance sirens and news updates on death tolls.

Screens and headphones in the vicinity will allow the audience to listen to subtitled or translated interviews with the women workers.

Million Masks Campaign

Narratives of resilience and regeneration of livelihoods.

As the demand for face masks surged, the SEWA sisters turned to sewing masks as a viable financial option that they could pursue from the confines of their homes – producing over one million masks. Many of them had not sewn masks prior to the pandemic. The video above the exhibition plays the lesson that was shared over WhatsApp to up-skill women who were not originally tailors or artisans but could sew. The exhibit includes samples that were rejected until a perfect three-ply mask could be replicated. Cuttings were delivered before curfew hours, and the whole family pitched in. 

Exhibit

This exhibition comprises three distinct sections within a unified space, offering insights into the experiences of migrant workers upon their return, narratives depicting isolation and domestic upheaval, and the emergence of The Million Mask Campaign from their homes.

On the left, a poignant video presentation showcases migrant workers’ struggles during the pandemic, projected onto a red khadi panel. It serves as a powerful visual testament to their hardships.

Towards the center, an interactive display of smartphones reveals the invaluable lessons shared via WhatsApp, aimed at training and educating women who may not have had previous experience as tailors or artisans but possessed sewing skills.

On the right, a blue khadi panel features a projection of a skilled SEWA member diligently sewing from the confines of her home. The imagery captures her creating masks using the fabric of an Indian saree.

Super Spreaders

Shedding light on the struggles faced by street vendors, their dedication to their trade, and the unjust treatment they endured during challenging times.

Most urban Indians enjoy farm-to-table produce, as fresh vegetables are mostly brought in and sold on the streets of Indian cities by self-employed street vendors in what are known as “natural markets” in SEWA-parlance. These markets are located in places like housing colonies and schools, where there is constant daily demand for vegetables and fruits.

In March 2020, standing crops were left in the field when the lockdown was announced. When all the produce in the market was hastily bought by the city dwellers, the vendors, who initially rejoiced in their brisk sales, did not realize that soon they themselves would not have any food to eat.

Collectively, the street vendors, agricultural workers, and distributors managed to secure the necessary permissions to procure produce from farms and transport it to designated markets. These markets were arranged to accommodate socially distanced vending carts. Despite providing an essential service that benefited everyone, the street vendors faced unjust vilification during the Delta wave that swept through Gujarat in 2021. They were unfairly labeled as “super spreaders” by the very community they served. The media persecuted them, and they endured physical violence at the hands of the police.

Aesthetic Elements

Within this exhibition, a powerful testimony recounts the experience of a courageous woman who placed her own body between the police and a young child selling potatoes to raise funds for his parents’ COVID-19 treatment. Additionally, letters addressed to the Police Commissioner are displayed, expressing protests against the police beatings and demanding the right to work.

The e-rickshaw in this exhibit was one type of vehicle permitted by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation for door-to-door grocery sales in the containment zones.

Precious Waste

When the waste recycles were not allowed to scavenge for scraps.

Self-employed workers on the streets like waste recyclers are invisible in multiple ways. They are not counted in the formal economy, and during the pandemic, they disappeared from the very streets that provided them sustenance. The streets they knew so well became treacherous, as they could be arbitrarily arrested or beaten for attempting to earn their daily bread. As extreme food insecurity set in only days into the lockdown, SEWA provided a Daily Sustenance Allowance to ensure food security for these families and their children, and continued it for sixty days. Long years of trust resulted in scrap shops offering advances and grocers offering supplies on credit.

In their search for viable opportunities, members of the Gitanjali cooperative that produced books and stationery considered toy packing, apron folding, and even spinning yarns for Bapu ni kuti. In February 2022, Gitanjali managed to resume operations with COVID protocols in place, although they initially faced a significant reduction in order volume, amounting to only 10 percent of their previous levels. A substantial order from L’Oreal helped reverse the downturn.

You Are On Mute

Virtual classrooms turned into a decoy for education.

For millions of children in India, attending school remotely via Zoom was simply not feasible. These children belonged to families where the single smartphone they owned had to cater to various competing needs – from work-related tasks and trading activities to checking on sick relatives, listening to music, watching videos, playing games, and studying. In contrast to the widespread implementation of Zoom-based schooling in many communities worldwide, the Samay no Samman (Respecting Time) program, developed by SEWA in response to the children’s needs, adopted an asynchronous curriculum delivered through WhatsApp.

Exhibit

“You Are On Mute” delves into the  impact on the lives of the majority of children in India who experienced the loss of two entire years of schooling, during a critical period of their neurocognitive development.

Internationally, there have been limited efforts to address the consequences inflicted upon an entire generation of school children by hastily replicated and often poorly conceived online education methods.

Jan Dhan

The quest for inclusion.

The construction industry in India heavily relies on manual labor, with a significant number of workers, approximately 74 million, employed in this sector. Despite being predominantly wage earners, construction workers in India do have access to limited welfare protection under the Construction Workers Welfare Board (CWWB), a legislatively mandated tripartite body representing workers, employers, and the government. This is a story of the long battle fought by the workers to get what was due (USD 50 in relief).This exhibit speaks to the gratuitous brutality of state and society, and the energy expended to deny those who have so little even more. By 2023, the average price rise across all major realty markets in India was 7 percent. The real estate market in India is expected to reach USD 760 billion by 2028.

Exhibit

The exhibit’s backdrop captures some of India’s landmark recent construction projects, both public and private. In the foreground is a replica of the 300 page long petition filed in the Court to seek relief for the construction workers.The second part of this exhibit describes the direct digital cash transfers initiated by the government of India to provide relief to poor families.

India’s unique biometric ID system — the world’s largest — coupled with citizen’s digital bank accounts facilitated by the government, allowed timely cash transfers for those who had them. SEWA trained a cadre of women  to coach their members in the use of smartphones, so they could once again see and hear each other over Google Meet, Teams and Zoom. There, they learned to download and open online bank accounts — their government sponsored “Jan Dhan” (people’s money) account — so they could receive relief cash compensation provided by the government.

Salt in March

Tales of hardship and perseverance among Salt Pan Workers.

The title of this exhibition is an homage to the Salt March – Mahatma Gandhi’s 241-mile walk to Dandi, where he protested the colonial Salt Tax by collecting salt from the pans, a pivotal moment in India’s non-violent struggle against the British Raj for self-determination and independence. 

During India’s two month long lockdown that commenced on March 20, 2020, hundreds of thousands of acres of salt lay ready to be harvested on the saltpans of Kutch. Generations of salt farmers and their families have worked in the challenging environment of the Rann of Kutch, north of Dandi. They live in the Rann from October to May, trekking distances of up to 50 kilometers transporting their seasonal belongings, mostly on foot or two-wheelers. Inland salt in the Kutch is painstakingly harvested over six months by first tamping down several square kilometers of the desert with bare feet. Diesel-powered engines transported annually to the Rann draw up saline water, which evaporates over the hot Indian summer. The salt must however be harvested before the Indian monsoon arrives in June. In 2020, once again, due to the national lockdown, the workers were prohibited from harvesting the salt.

Exhibit

This immersive exhibit allows visitors to walk on a plexiglass platform under which are various grades of salt and sand from the salt pans of Kutch, that visitors can touch and feel through exploration windows in the floor. The wall panels depict the thousands of flamingoes that returned to their migration routes along the salt pans when SEWA replaced diesel pumps with silent solar pumps.

The watermelons are symbolic of the relief provided by SEWA in the summer of 2021 when amidst the pandemic, oppressive heatwaves made stored potable drinking water unusable, and all transported food had spoiled.Hundreds of watermelons were transported to the salt pans to hydrate and provide calories, while cement tanks were built in the ground to store water – a harbinger for years ahead, as our climate warns. 


More Information On These Exhibits

To explore additional details about the exhibits presented above, including the creative direction of the installations, we invite you to fill out the form below, where you may request access to the exhibition brochure.