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

September 13, 2008  – January 18, 2009

In 2005, Northwest artist Donald Fels traveled to India on a Fulbright Fellowship to work with commercial signboard painters on a series of large-scale paintings. The paintings take as their starting point the legacy of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s 1498 voyage to India in search of a direct sea route for the spice trade. Fels sought to examine how trade impacts cultures and populations beyond the simple exchange of goods.

Fels and his collaborators created enamel on aluminum paintings in the style of hand-painted billboards (signboards). Most of the painters had formerly worked as billboard painters—until recently, all billboards in India were hand-painted, but digital technology has replaced this trade. Fels provided ideas, sketches, and photographs as starting points but encouraged the painters to alter the imagery and formulate their own interpretations. Their bright color palette and strong graphic narratives make visually arresting statements, capturing the Indian painters’ responses to the effects of trade and globalization.

What Is a Trade? is paired with the exhibition Oasis: Western Dreams of the Ottoman Empire from the Dahesh Museum of Art. Both exhibitions address Western conceptions and representations of the East. Both raise questions about how these views affected and continue to affect relationships and cultural exchange between the West and the East.