Changing India: Women helping women one image at a time

A baby is born in a village in India. She is promised marriage. When she reaches a certain age, she is sent to live with the betrothed’s family as a servant in that household. At the marrying age, she is then married to the family’s son. When the husband dies, many wives are thrown out of the house and treated as lower-class citizens by the community and their own family members.

Barbara Houghton explores this theme and the two organizations that seek to help these women become self-sufficient members of their community through photographs in Northern Kentucky University’s newest gallery show, “Changing India, one woman at a time.”

Houghton, a professor of art in NKU’s Fine Art Department, spent a week and a half in India visiting farms, weavers, construction workers and rural areas of India. Through the Self-Employed Women’s Association and The Guild of Service organizations, Houghton was able to gain access to many places inside of India.

After the death of a husband, many wives of the lower-caste system are sent from their husband’s house, often forced to beg to make a living. All of their belongings — such as clothing, jewelry and children — stay with the husband’s family. Widows become persona non grata.

“Even their shadow is bad luck they say,” Houghton said. “And it’s not anything about law, it’s nothing about religion, it’s just tradition.”

Registered since 1972, Self-Employed Women’s Association is a trade union that works to help poverty-level women obtain full employment. Through the use of women mentors, this program is able to address issues that self-employed women face during day-to-day living. Some of the problems that these women face include: being mistreated by other vendors, the police or getting the appropriate value for their products and services.

This program also offers micro-loans, insurance and opportunities to young women and girls to train in video production and addresses literacy issues.

The Guild of Service is another organization, also registered in 1972, that works to help empower women and children of marginalized economic situations. This program helps provide food, medical care and educational resources to widows and children. It is because of these programs that, just this year, an Indian law was passed stating that 1/3 of federal government legislators must be women.

Houghton was inspired to do this photo documentary project through her past trips to India and by watching the movie “Water” that explores the plight of widows of India through a fictionalized film platform.

Houghton’s photos catch women and children during moment of daily living and work. They are colorful, lush, personal and narrative.

Jason Gray, a senior New Media Arts major, likes to attend most of the art gallery openings at NKU. He enjoys exhibits that focus on cultural and educational topics. Gray comments on the use of natural lighting in the pictures and the perspective of the photos.

“It’s not from a hidden point of view,” Gray said.

Most of the women in the photographs look  as if they’re saying, “I am here, I am working hard to make my way in the world and I won’t be silenced.” This show is all about women helping women.

Most of Houghton’s body of work involves work that is personal, installation-based and multiple frame images that have a dialogue with each other. Houghton has been an artist for a long time, originally as a printmaker and then as a photographer.

“That’s all I can do,” Houghton said. “That’s what I was good at.”

“Changing India, one woman at a time” runs from Nov. 4 through Dec. 10. The exhibit is located inside the Fine Arts building at NKU on the Third Floor Galleries. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Story by Shawn Buckenmeyer