Communicating Bhopal to Glastonbury…and Womad

We always knew that our Bhopali Sculpture Garden was most definitely not going to be a one-hit wonder. It was devised to enhance the presence of the Bhopal Medical Appeal at Glastonbury in a participatory and positive way. We wanted to engage those who had never heard of Bhopal, as well as reaffirm interest with people for whom the word Bhopal generates a slight crinkling of the forehead and a ‘Wasn’t that an explosion somewhere? A chemical thing years ago? Now, what was that company called? An American company wasn’t it? Union something, ah yes… Carbide – what happened? It’s not still going on is it?

Communicating Bhopal to a festival audience

So we had our work cut out, how do we go about communicating the Bhopal story to a young festival audience? Who are we talking to? How do you talk to a 7-year-old about Bhopal, let alone a 17-year-old with so many other things on their festival minds? What’s our main message? So many questions to mull, which have of course been debated for the best part of 27 years by the Bhopalis and those that have supported them in their campaign for justice.

Mmmm, we had to visually communicate first of all and create a positive and welcoming area where people could could come and join us in creating the garden…a reflection to some extent of how the free clinics came to be in Bhopal, the first, Sambhavna was created by survivors for survivors (in 1994) who from shocking experience knew that they were not only on their own but worse, they were treated like criminals (the first makeshift clinic that they set up just inside the factory on the 3rd December 1984 was torn down by police, people were beaten and survivors were prevented from taking an antidote to the gas by the authorities).

Festival-goers of all ages join in

Our overall aim at Glastonbury was to educate and inspire – we wanted people to join us and participate in the making of our sculptures and we wanted people to walk away feeling touched by what they had learnt or heard and inspired to get involved with us and support the medical work in Bhopal. We took inspiration and ideas from the Bhopalis’ own protest art, Nek Chand, Ruth Waterman who faciliatated the creation of the Mother & Child statue that stands outside the factory gates in Bhopal and many more.

Once on site, we gradually created a garden full of colour and light that people joined in with, walked around and, weather-permitting enjoyed sitting in. The elements that made up the sculptures were small and easily made so that anyone could take part, regardless of age or any artistic skill. This went down really well as many folk who denied any creative ability whatsoever were soon joining in, realising that they could do it and chat and have a good laugh at the same time.

Participation lead on to the idea of ‘ownership’ as people returned to our garden to ‘find’ their contribution once it had been added to one of the sculptures. Many did this and were thrilled and proud to see their work included. Breaking down each plastic bottle component, all of the elements individually are fairly insignificant and worthless: half a bottle and a few small strips of fabric. However, once these scraps are composed into a small colourful ‘shield’, and once these ‘shields’ are joined into a strip, and once these jewel-like strips are added to a base armature (the sculpture skeleton), and as the piece grows into an 9ft vision of a mother tenderly cradling a child with a look of defiance and solidity, each of these tiny contributions become a strong presence, a beautiful sculpture. She glows with light and energy, with mesmeric colour change from dusk into night.

The rest of the sculpture garden family expand on this central theme of the mother and child by showing the bigger picture of how the current situation affects Bhopali people as a community.

The intention was to convey that if enough individuals join together to become a formidable force that cannot be ignored, just like the tiny strips of fabric and bottle halves that make up our glowing mother and child, Dow Chemical will be forced to sit up, take notice and be held accountable.

Holly Murray (Bhopali Sculpture Garden design)

How the skull developed

The 6 x 6ft skull began as an obvious link to Dow Chemical; the Bhopalis write the ‘O’ of Dow Chemical as a skull in their protest art and a skull typically symbolises death and mortality. But actually in the planning and the making of the armature the skull became a very positive force, for many reasons: the metal sculptor who made the skull armature talked of drawing in air and used all of his artistry to do so; the positive feeling in the our preparatory workshops in Brighton grew and developed once on site, and our BMA team of staff and volunteers developed their own relationship with the skull, not least because we had very real and frustrating problems sourcing clean and clear plastic bottles (have we mentioned the mud yet?!).

And so, almost without thinking, many of us began to talk energetically and positively about our skull in relation to the story of Bhopal, it came to symbolise (among many other things) determined logic (versus weird science), intelligent, well-informed decision-making, well-formed brains(!) and a happy reminder that there is still so much more to be discovered and learnt about. It wasn’t all contemplative of course, the skull vied for attention with the mother and child as both got their fair share of hugs and kisses, groups of friends joined hands to encircle them and dancing tribes ran and skipped around them.

It made sense to use as much of the plastic bottles previously used for the figures as possible so only the bottle tops were returned to be recycled. The covering of each bottle bottom in white or cream fabrics of differing textures and materials represented the lengths that Dow Chemical has gone to in order to ‘cover up’ the consequences of their lack of moral and legal conduct. The tying on of each bottle bottom was a ritual, conceptualised originally to create a shrine of shame. Even the eyes of the piece are ‘bound’ preventing the skull from seeing what is really going on right in front of it.

These bindings comprise layers of different coloured gold fabrics, each representing one of Dow Chemical’s myriad ways of denying responsibility: if they continue throwing money at this huge denial and gross miscarriage of justice they may never fully ‘see’ or have to face the true consequences of the situation. Lighting the structures from within so that they glowed added another dimension to the garden once it was dark and also created a beacon for those passing by…not only at Glastonbury but for change in Bhopal.

And so to Womad – the world of music and dance

Of the many people who joined in the making of our Bhopali Sculpture Garden, we were very happy to meet some of the Womad Festival organisers. They had a good look round, sized up our sculptures and pondered for not too many moments. A few days later our family of sculptures took up residence in wooded area of Charlton Park, home to Womad 2011. They’re soon to come out for a few repairs before gracing the entrance to the children’s area – which has an Asian sub-continent theme this year – where we’ve been invited to run family workshops to add to our Bhopali family of sculptures. We’ll be making the last two that we didn’t get a chance to complete at Glastonbury due to the seriously adverse weather conditions.

This will be our first time at Womad. We’re very proud that our sculptures got noticed at Glastonbury and honoured that the organisers of the festival are giving us this opportunity to raise awareness among families in the children’s area.

Womad allows us to bring Bhopal’s messages of optimism, in spite of present difficulties, to a new audience. We, the Bhopal Medical Appeal, invite festival-goers to join us in developing our Bhopali family of sculptures at Womad 2011, and supporters far and wide to donate and join our debate.

For more information about our workshops in the children’s area at Womad 2011, contact beckymoss@bhopal.org

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We believe Dow & DuPont must finally accept responsibility for Bhopal. Until then, The Bhopal Medical Appeal funds two award-winning clinics in the city. Both offer free, first-class care to victims of the gas disaster or the ongoing water contamination. The survivors have nowhere else left to turn – please help if you can.