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At seven, Aaron Sinift (CFA’02) told his mother, “Someday, I’m going to change my name to Harry Whitecloud and travel to India.” When he finally made the trip at the age of 24, he felt as though “I was returning to an essential facet of my heart.” He loved India’s color, vibrancy, and culture, so different from his native Iowa. He was distressed by the country’s extreme poverty and drawn to the work of the ashrams, service institutions promoted by Mahatma Gandhi to help India’s rural poor maintain self-sufficiency by spinning and weaving khadi cloth. “The khadi is so beautiful and so fragrant, and rough in certain ways,” Sinift says. “Gandhi wore it, and it has a lot of soul.”
Sinift bought a traditional jhola [jho-la] shoulder bag made from khadi cloth and printed with an image of Gandhi. “I was attracted by the tender awkwardness of the artworks created by anonymous ashram artists for common people. These are authentic Pop Art creations from the very roots of the land.” As a CFA graduate student, he hung the jhola on the wall of his studio and found that his bold, colorful paintings began to take on some of the jhola’s themes. His advisor, John Walker, a CFA professor of art, noticed the change. “That bag is not an artifact,” Walker said. “It’s a living work of art.” This casual line stuck with Sinift, and it would direct the course of his career.
After graduating from CFA, Sinift took a job as the preparator at a New York gallery, Feature Inc., and painted in his Brooklyn studio with the hope of being discovered. “I was seeking the approval of people who didn’t know I existed, and I decided to reinvent myself into the person I wanted to become. I wanted to be an artist who serves those in need and to create a community in which people feel connected to one another.”
Sinift invited the ashrams to create a book made entirely from khadi cloth featuring screen- and block-printed artworks by 24 artists from 8 countries. He commissioned well-known artists like Francesco Clemente, Yoko Ono, and Chris Martin, as well as emerging artists such as Tamara Gonzales, Tim Wehrle, and Pushpa Kumari to contribute one page each. He called this project the “Five-Year Plan” and aimed to print 180 copies, which would be packaged in handmade jhola bags.
In accordance with Gandhi’s philosophy, the Five-Year Plan would need to be entirely nonprofit and autonomous, so instead of seeking institutional backing to assist with the printing cost, Sinift raised more than half of the funds by preselling the book online. “Citizen artists need to find ways to fund their work with modest means,” he says. “When we do so, we realize that we’re not helpless. We realize how much power we have.” Sinift pledged the first $25,000 revenue to Doctors Without Borders and the remaining proceeds to the next Five-Year Plan project. But first, he needed the cloth.
Sinift traveled to the outskirts of New Delhi to find an ashram that would collaborate on the Five-Year Plan. During a visit to an ashram in Meerut, Sinift met with the director, “a stony guy who was used to people coming to buy their cloth because it’s cheap. When I showed him the drawing that I made for the cover of the book, his eyes began to water. He saw that I respected his labor and was not there to take advantage of it. That was the moment I knew I was on the right track.”
Sinift commissioned 1.4 kilometers, almost a mile, of khadi from the Manav Seva Sannidhi Ashram in Modinagar, which employs 700 spinners, the majority of whom are women over the age of 55. The ashram also employs 45 weavers (mostly men over the age of 45), and 35 helpers. Most of these workers are Dalit Muslim or low-caste Hindu, and are the sole providers for their families. Spinning and weaving the khadi for the Five-Year Plan created more than 2,400 days of work for the ashram and kept 100 families employed for a month.
The artists, too, benefited from the Five-Year Plan. “Most of the artists are very poor,” Sinift says. Each artist received a copy signed by all of the contributors, and “they can sell their copies of the book and use the proceeds however they wish.” Indian painter Pushpa Kumari, whose intricate work is inspired by stories from the Hindu epics, is using the proceeds from the sale of her book to help build her house. True to Gandhi’s ideals, Sinift has not profited from the Five-Year Plan; to support his life and his art, he works part time at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Katzen Arts Center at American University, which he finds as fulfilling as his work with the ashrams.
And Sinift is just getting started. He plans eventually to take the project a step further by beginning a book from seeds, commissioning organic farmers in India to grow one ton of cotton that will be spun into the thread used to weave the khadi. He will invite the farmers, spinners, and weavers to contribute original artworks, completing a “sustainable cycle of collaboration.”
“The ashram workers provide incredible value to the world by supporting Gandhian ethics and helping people to maintain self-sufficiency,” Sinift says. “The people in Doctors Without Borders dedicate their lives to saving people in crisis. The Five-Year Plan gives artists a chance to make a tangible contribution to the common good, simply by doing what they already do naturally. If people just give what they do naturally, everyone can live together with dignity.”
A version of this article was originally published in the spring 2013 edition of Esprit.