Newsfeed Mumbai is a conversation between me and 180 women from embroidery collectives in Mumbai slums. My connection with these women grew from consulting work I have done for Marketplace India, a non-profit that has worked in Mumbai for over 25 years, developing collectives, building community, and bringing the women’s embroidered textile work to market. I traveled there in early 2005 to participate in an embroidery workshop, but I haven’t been back since. The camaraderie of that workshop was impossible to forget, however, and I kept returning to the surprising intimacy that emerged as we worked. We did not share a language or common cultural stories, but somehow we knew each other. In my search for a way to continue to know them, I asked each woman to embroider an Indian newspaper with her own designs.
When the papers arrived from India, I unfolded them one by one, anxiously wondering what I would see next. Each paper was distinct, but in looking through the entire collection, I found all the papers shared a forthrightness of hand and vibrancy of color. Adorning everyday objects with exuberant decoration is not a new idea in India, but sewing the daily news must have seemed a strange activity. I wondered what the women thought of their task. Did they wonder why I was asking them to do it?
I wondered if my collaborators had ever purchased a newspaper before. A number of the women in the Marketplace collectives can’t read, and, in fact, do embroidery work to be able to send their children to school. Could these women read the words they were embroidering over? In any case, the women took the request seriously and the resulting embroideries range from funny to poetic to sweetly girlish. Some papers, despite the challenges of the brittle and unforgiving medium, are quite beautifully adorned with images of flowers and fish.
One particularly witty stitcher responded to photos of American celebrities printed on the page. With a few simple stitches and some orange thread, this embroiderer transforms Jessica Simpson into an Indian princess wearing armbands. Jennifer Aniston looks glamorous with a red bindhi and sequined arms. Red cross stitches enliven Angelina Jolie’s simple yellow dress and Brad Pitt looks like a Bollywood toreador with shiny red sequin buttons and fancy pants.
Embroidered images of house and home appear in multiple newspapers. I was surprised to see the homes sewn into the papers are the ubiquitous western cottage we are all taught to draw in grade school. Houses are often two stories with a front door, windows and steeply pitched roof, instead of the low, flat-roofed rectangular units that are typical of dense Mumbai slums.
The global media cycle is fast and furious, churning out news stories daily, creating a shared landscape of disparate images-- celebrities, cottages, world leaders--even as people and events disappear off the printed page from one day to the next. Embroidery, however, is precious: a time and labor commitment with needle passing through cloth. Embroideries are saved, tucked away in cedar cabinets and passed through generations. As I look through the Newsfeed papers, I experience the collision between the disposable and the cherished: a dissonance between the onslaught of public images that flatten experience and separate us, and the personal raised stitches which seem better able to provide connection.
The women who embellished the papers in the project are usually invisible. Their lives are not part of the international news media and their stories are unknown. In these stitched documents, the printed page becomes enmeshed with the women’s embroidery to create a record of the hand at a specific moment in time. For me, each newspaper becomes a physical extension of the woman who stitched it—a kind of stitcher’s message in a bottle. Thoughts become yarn and stitches the text as Newsfeed Mumbai attempts to collapse distance. Each paper is a kind of personal tabloid, a place to gossip, joke, and dream.
I am drawn to these Indian women whose love of textiles, color and embroidery mirrors my own. However, I can’t really know the women from this distance—our relationship is perpetually skewed by global imbalances of culture and economy. I’m haunted by how little I understand about how the women live, despite the details I know and the pictures they’ve shared. As I look at the papers in Newsfeed Mumbai, though, some of the usual obstacles to communication seem a little easier to negotiate. When I run my fingers over the chunky stitches, I vividly remember sitting together on the floor at the embroidery workshop in Mumbai, all of us laughing as I tried to learn the Hindi names for the herringbone stitch or bullion knot. I wonder what I might embroider on my own local newspaper for them.