Artists in lockdown interview series – Anand Chhabra

I am delighted to have been successful in my application for emergency funding from Arts Council England. This is making it possible to adapt and refocus my ways of working in a newly emerging world. So far I’ve been documenting and researching as well as reviewing  recent  projects. I’m also embarking on a series of interviews with artists, reflecting on their work during lockdown, finding out more about both challenges and positives and I hope to find out more about a wealth of different practices in the West Midlands region and the impact of the Coronavirus Crisis on freelance artists.

The first of these has taken place this week with a long time colleague and friend Anand Chhabra. Anand is an artist and documentary photographer based in Wolverhampton. Since the 1990s he has engaged with communities in the West Midlands to explore memory, place and family.

Anand and I first met during the 1990s when we worked together on a few local arts and heritage projects including a celebratory community festival and public art commission in the town of Bilston in the Black Country. Our paths have crossed on numerous occasions since and we have most recently connected through the Boundary Way project – an arts and heritage initiative I have created that explores sense of place, landscape and sustainability at Boundary Way Allotments and Community Garden in the Warstones area of Wolverhampton. This is near to where Anand lives and was the venue for our socially distanced meet up last week.

Can you tell me more about your practice as a freelance artist? 

My work is  fine art documentary photography, alongside that I do various community projects, to earn a living. Like a lot of artists I am dependent on Arts Council England and other public funding bodies to produce my work. The heart of what I do is to tell stories creatively and simply through a series of images.

How has lockdown affected your work as an artist?

Well actually I’ve been fairly busy during lockdown and there’s been a few positives for me and I have generally tried to look at the positives during this time. I’ve had breathing space, a bit more time to develop my own personal work and to think about what I’m doing next, which is not always possible when you are juggling commissions. At the beginning of lockdown I got to work on updating my website and Blog, adding all the details of my latest projects.

Though some of the public facing work has been cancelled, another project I’ve been involved in has been adapted to be showcased online and I’ve completed a new commission for Historic England that’s involved documenting 7 days of lockdown. It was good to see the work on national media, on the TV and in the press.

One of the biggest benefits has been the time to take in the scenery more, to absorb nature through daily walks. It’s energising and my mental health improves. For some reason the walks feel nostalgic like being a kid growing up, or may be it’s been that long since I did some walking!

I’ve been making the most of the time to reorganise my home workspace, I’ve cleared shelves retrieved my collection of photography books from the loft,  it feels good to have everything to hand. I get a lot of inspiration looking at other photographers work.

Anand by the Shed Camera Obscura at Boundary Way June 2020

Tell me more about the Historic England Commission?

At very short notice, I was asked to be part of a project by Historic England and am one of 10 selected photographers across the country to document the Coronavirus Crisis for 7 days during the week from the 29th April to the 4th May. I’m the selected artist for the West Midlands region. The brief was to submit one photograph per day for 7 days  with captions explaining their context. The stipulation was photos needed to be taken within a 500 metre radius of your home and with adherence to social distancing measures. 

It was a really interesting time. I walked around my local area and it was completely deserted, like a ghost town. It was eerie, I didn’t even hear any music. As I walked past the flats it was difficult to tell if anyone lived in them, usually there is someone coming in and going out.

I noticed an outpouring of gratitude through people’s artwork and creativity. My first day was a grey, dull day I captured this in my photograph of the ‘Lads and Lasses’ uniform shop where mannequins in the windows wore  T-shirts thanking the NHS.

During the 7 days of exploring the area within a 500 metre radius of my home, the stories that came out that were the most significant for me were around the Black and Asian Community.  We know that they have been disproportionately affected by the virus and the West Midlands is one of the worst hit areas in the UK. 

I met a guy queuing outside at the Co-op, he was dressed in full PPI with a mask and medical suit. Later he told me he was dressing to protect himself as he is from a vulnerable group. He’s been drawing lots of attention around local supermarkets.

On another day I had arranged to photograph a friend who has an allotment, but we had to rearrange as she was attending the funeral of a friend who had died through Coronavirus. She later told me that she was physically sick at the funeral parlour. She saw a large  number of graves being dug at Bushbury crematorium. In my portrait of her at Boundary Way she is in a meditative mood,  finding solace in the allotment. You can see the full set of Anand’s documentation of COVID 19 for Historic England here.

Jenny at Boundary Way May 2020 (c) Anand Chhabra

The Apna Heritage project opened at Wolverhampton Art Gallery early in 2018 and I know the aim behind it was to address an absence of records of Asian communities in local archives, particularly focusing on Punjabi communities. Has it been successful in doing this?

Yes. There’s a Punjabi population of around 40,000 in Wolverhampton. When I asked if I could see any images of the Punjabi Community at Wolverhampton archives during my research, there was a deathly silence. 

Today our collection is digitised and is available at the Archives, we also created an Excel document that indexes and labels the images. This is very important to help people look through it.

It was picked up by Historic England who were doing a project called 100 years of Black and Asian history, so I had another exhibition in London. It was very high profile, other groups that were involved were Magnum and Getty Images, we had a prime spot in the show. We have also been in a number of publications including the Archive Records Association, Wolverhampton Magazine and there’s a forthcoming one in Photography and Culture magazine in August.

One of the key things was to get the project to India, so we toured to 8 cities . People were fascinated with this group of migrants in Wolverhampton – the largest population outside of London and it led to invitations to speak in every city I visited which included; Bangalore, Mumbai, Jaipur, Pushkar and then in the Punjab area, Chandigarh, Jalandhar and Amritsar.

The Apna Heritage Archive exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery 2018

You can find out more about the Apna Heritage Archive and other projects that Anand has been working on here.

With many thanks to Anand for sharing his work and experiences of lockdown and to Arts Council England and National Lottery players for enabling me to sustain my practice during this time.

Anand at Boundary Way (view towards the Wrekin) May 2020

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