Mickey Mouse has been a childhood favourite for many people all over the world. But not everyone has fond memories attached to the cartoon character or Disneyland, the other enduring creation of Walt Disney. American artist Jeffrey Gillette is one of them.
In his provocative art, Gillette recreates Disneyland in a post-nuclear war setting. In one artwork, a painting of the iconic Disney castle, one spots the slums of Dharavi. In another, a depressed Mickey Mouse overlooks landfills and sewage pipes snaking through hundreds of shanties in the slum, a pop-cultural space in its own right, after the release of the film Slumdog Millionaire. Everything is depressing about the image, yet Gillette’s stark contrast creates a powerful impression.
The brutal ugliness of poverty is a betrayal from the promised land of eternal cheer – Disneyland. But through his slumscapes, painted after several visits to Dharavi, Gillette also wants to make the viewer understand the hardships faced by slum dwellers – their constant struggle with limited resources, the lack of comforts and privacy.
“This is not to say that slums are a sad place,” Gillette said. “In fact, they are full of life and children playing around…What really strikes me is the hospitable nature of the people despite living under difficult conditions.”
Gillette has been creating artworks on the slums in India for over three decades. He is mesmerised by the ways in which Dharavi has been altered in little ways – some homes have given away to tall buildings, while the remaining slum dwellers proudly install satellite dishes on their makeshift roofs. One thing never changes for Gillette, the sight that moves him the most he said are the children playing in tiny lanes, alongside drains, with no basic amenities in place.
Another change, that followed Gillette’s visits, is the mural of a sad Mickey Mouse, and a Disneyland castle with fireworks painted around it. Every few years, Gillette visits Dharavi and sparks curiosity among the locals as he paints Disney’s characters on the slum walls.
As a child, Gillette said he never had the chance to visit Disneyland and meet the characters he watched on television. His childhood was spent in a city that struggled to deal with poverty, unemployment and high crime rates. This was Detroit, a city far from the magical land in California. Over the years, Gillette finally got a chance to visit Disneyland but other than a trinket shop, he was left unimpressed.
This disappointment turned into satire. Gillette’s work is not just disdain for Disneyland, but a healthy dose of reality, which Gillette feels, is often concealed by American corporations that bank on selling happiness.
Another artist in Europe empathises with Gillette’s critique – Banksy, an internationally acclaimed British street artist. Banksy invited Gillette to be part of his installation of Dismayland, a façade of Disneyland with unhappy workers in costumes, depressed princess and a torn down castle. So far, Disneyland has not taken any action against Banksy or Gillette’s works (“Thank Shiva,” exclaimed Gillette).
Gillette maintains that his works are not political but philosophical. He traces his inspiration to his first journey to South Asia in 1987, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. During his two year stay, he followed the writings on Buddhism by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. One of the ways of salvation from a life of dhuka (suffering), offered Schopenhauer, was immersing oneself into aesthetic experience. For Gillette this meant turning around his artworks into meaningful messages.
Apart from India, Gillette also depicts the slums in Guatemala and Mexico. While the barrios and favelas are not as impoverished as Dharavi, Gillete said, they have a reputation for danger.
“I was warned many times in South America, but in Dharavi, I was assured that things would be fine,” he said. “I found people friendly and open to interactions, even when it involved painting Mickey Mouses on slum houses and walls.” Although Gillette cannot speak Hindi, his assistant Hashim functions as a translator and guide when he visits India.
At present, Gillette is juggling two careers – as a full-time high school art teacher, and an exhibiting artist. His exciting experiences in India keep bringing him back to explore the country that “always has something new to offer”. This also includes Indian artists who share similar art sensibilities, such as Samir Parker in Mumbai and Gireesh GV in Delhi.