What is a Trade? Donald Fels and Signboard Painters of South India

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What Is a Trade? Donald Fels and Signboard Painters of South India presents sixteen large-scale paintings that explore trade and globalization in India. Fels' conceptual starting point for this exhibition was Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama's 1498 voyage to Malabar, India, in search of a direct sea route for the spice trade. What is a Trade? explores the historic and modern-day legacy of that expedition more than 500 years later.

In 2004 and 2005, Fels traveled to Kerala (formerly Malabar), India, as a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, to work with local commercial signboard painters on a body of work that examines globalization in India and traces its roots to Vasco's voyage. Most of the signboard painters had formerly worked as billboard painters -- until recently, all billboards in India were hand-painted, but cheaper and more efficient inkjet printers are making the painters obsolete. In light of this trend, Fels and his collaborators created work in the style of traditional hand-painted billboards and Bollywood advertising. The bright colors and strong graphic narratives make visually arresting statements about the historic and contemporary effects of trade and globalization.