This is the first article in a mini-series of articles related to water on the week celebrating World Water Day on 22nd March.
March 22 nd is globally celebrated as World Water Day. As a researcher and teacher, I want to take a moment today to reflect on a workshop that I participated in a year ago. It has been a year and I have not stopped thinking about it. The workshop Water Forms: Reimagining H2O through Paint, Poetry, and Postcard was organized by Professor Shalini Puri in March 2022, as part of an almost one-week of programming for World Water Day at the University of Pittsburgh and led by Geographer and Poet Eric Magrane and artist Allison Rowe. The workshop was divided into two parts: the first part led by Dr. Magrane invited us to use prompts/quotes derived from various forms of statistics related to water injustice and turn them into a poem (Haiku/Free verse). The second part of the workshop guided by Dr. Rowe was an exploration of different watercolor techniques to create abstract art and a take on the poem that we had written before that. To be honest, till that point, neither have I written a poem in my entire life nor had I ever experimented with watercolors. So while I was enthusiastic about the workshop, I did not know what is it that I will end up doing.
Many thanks to Dr. Rowe’s guidance that I could experiment with watercolors: especially gradient and watercolor blooms to draw a tidal archipelago (the Sundarbans), an important component of my dissertation research on Indian Ocean Archipelagic Writings. The way I have always understood the topography of Sundarbans from my work: it is sticky from the mud, lyadhlyadhe (there is no equivalent English word for this), fresh and yet salty at the same time. How does one capture this incongruous geography? The artistic creation is simply not about representation anymore because it is how we use the creative potential of the watercolor medium, to capture that geography.
Using gradient was fascinating for a novice like me because I could use two different colors on a wet surface and let the water do its magic because ultimately it is unknown to me to what degree the wetness of the color and the surface will merge to create an effect. Now think about the Mohona, the meeting place of the river and the sea, and the color, break, rupture, and flow created by two distinct wetness: the sea and the river. It is at this moment that I realized that though I was the maker here, it was in fact the water, my co-conspirator, my collaborator and my confidante that understood what I wanted to do. On the other hand, watercolor bloom using a partially dry surface of paint along with wet paint allowed me to seep the wetter into the drier one. It was a moment of exchange between textures and energies. The result was the cover image of this article and the one below.
Image of Postcard water color with the poem on it
Water as a matter. The molecularity of H20. The materiality of the watercolor produced a distinct watery effect: the seepage, the leak, the dripping, the spilling, the gradient, the drying, the wetness. The key question here is how do we mobilize the vocabulary and textures produced by water-colors for environmental justice in the Sundarbans or how will this art lesson that water gives help us? The primary takeaway for me from the process was to recognize water as being capable of producing insights of its own. Our work is to follow the spills, the textures, and trails that water creates for us and learn from the lessons that water offers. Our work is to interpret the clues that water leaves for us in times of climate distress. How do we read water for the lessons that the molecule has to offer now? But more importantly, what do we do with that reading?
I have a lot of thinking to do, in terms of how we use water-color for tangible aspects of water justice in the Sundarbans but for now, I advocate that in our research grants and projects where we name our collaborators, we actively list water as our collaborator. This is not merely a symbolic gesture but an invitation to pause and reflect on how we use the lessons learned from water to apply to climate action work.
Have you thought of using water-color for environmental justice work? If yes, how do you approach your work?