Saturday, November 28, 2015

Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Playing: Pradeep Mishra's Mother Land

(Motherland by Pradeep Mishra in Bandra sea face, Mumbai)

Imagine a scenario where works of art come out of the studios, lockers, collections, galleries and museums on their own volition and occupy the streets all over the world. It should be a magical opportunity to see them out there demanding attention from the people and in due course of time facilitating a change in the world view of the people in general. After seeing Guernica spreading itself at the far end of a main street, I do not think people could plot another genocide or riot. A wheat field would look all the more alluring if one accidently confronts the yellowness of a Van Gogh’s painting. A sunflower cannot be the same; a morning cannot be the same. Works of art have this strange alchemy of turning human beings into gold. But unfortunately, with social media in hand to entertain oneself into the masturbatory pleasures of silliness (not forgetting its use primarily as an information interface) less and less people venture into the museums and galleries, especially in India. Those who do, either come out with a sense of loss or with a sense of desire. Those come out with a sense of loss are the ones who are thrown into a contemplating mode by the works of art they have just seen; those desiring lots want all those works of art to be in their private homes. The rest of the world just goes on.

 (Pradeep Mishra)

When a work of art comes out in the public the perception of the people changes considerably. Just remember the recent social media craze of looking at works of an artist in Bengaluru who placed artificial crocodiles in the hopeless potholes in the much celebrated Bengaluru streets. A work of art could bring attention to the problem, stir the conscience of the people and also shame the ones who have caused those problems. Perhaps, these days a work of art is very carefully looked at by the moral police in our country; they just want to know whether the works of art are hurting the brittle sense and pride that we uphold on our religiosity. However, it is so heartening to see that more and more artists are now coming forward to do works of art in the public spaces not just for their names to be remembered by the posterity but their innate desire to change the very visual culture of the places where they live or where their works of art are asked to live in. It is in this context I got really drawn to a simple and impermanent work of art by the Mumbai based artist Pradeep Mishra. Done in Carter Road, Jogger’s track, Bandra as a part of the Bandra Celebrations, Pradeep’s work is titled ‘Mother Land’ and is a 90 feet long earth work in the shape of a blue whale with several white flags showing blood stain on them stuck on the body of the ‘earth whale’.

(detail: Motherland- Pradeep Mishra)

Motherland or Mother Land, for me the title in our present context, sounds so powerful, well thought out and ironically evoked. Pradeep being an artist who has been working on the lives of the simple creatures on the earth including ordinary animals like water buffaloes, cats, dogs, horses, birds and fish, and giving them iconic status not only in the world of art but also in our own inner selves, chooses this word ‘Motherland’ carefully. Though it is not so intentionally political and his idea is to suggest that the human callousness all over the world causes the depletion of natural environment and its beings, in our country’s contemporary context we could easily see that mother land is an issue for all the jingoists attached to the dominant religious and political ideology. The idea of mother land is evoked at any given point in order to fill in people with the false idea of nationalism so that the conflicts zones of the world could be maintained for the purpose of the international arms and power trades. The idea of mother is so ingrained in the Indian psyche that anything that is prefixed by the idea of mother becomes automatically sacred though we have this tendency of sending our mothers to asylums, old age homes and destitute shelters, and generally disregarding women at any given chance. But ironically the very propagators of this ideal mother-ness which could be easily translated into blind nationalism (which was useful for some time in history during the anti-colonial struggles) ruthlessly vandalise anything related to ‘mother’ including mother earth and its harmless beings. For Pradeep, like many gigantic creatures that have faced extinction, whale is also on its way out.

 (detail: Mother land - Pradeep Mishra)

Whale suddenly becomes a metaphor in Pradeep’s land art piece. What is this whale? In our day to day lives we do not come across whales. Our cultural memory has already relegated them to the museums, television programs and text books. They have become a sort of taboos so that human vandalism will not finish them before time though anyway they are getting killed for fun. In a deeper thought that any work of art would induce in human beings over a period of time, especially when they know that the very work of art is impermanent, they would become conscious of the whale imagery. If whale is on its way out, what about human beings? Aren’t they too looking for their auto ejection from the world? It is not just about the mere death; it is about the death of the mother earth itself. It is bleeding to death. Any kind of exploitation is a fissure created on the body and soul of the mother earth. And like spikes fired at the bodies of the whales by the fun hunters in the deep seas, Pradeep fits white flags (again look at the irony; white flag is the sign of ceasefire and peace) which are stained by blood (every war is fought for the maintenance of peace. How more childish world leaders can be?) on the whale’s body suggesting that every war that is fought on the idea of establishing peace slowly kill the human race. The erasure of life from the face of earth is not just quick but a slow bleeding process.

 (Physical impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst)

I do not know whether Pradeep was seriously contemplating on the parallels this work of art could generate with that done by Damien Hirst in his iconic and hallmark work titled ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, using a dead shark in a formaldehyde filled vitrine. It was an ultimate reminder of the eventuality of all human beings and the futility of desires. One could say that it was one of the biggest Zen works an artist could have produced in his life time. Interestingly, though Hirst has produced more interesting and expensive works later, he has never done something so deeply meaningful as his shark work. When I look at the work, ‘Mother Land’ by Pradeep Mishra I am simply reminded of Hirst’s magnum opus at a very early age. Pradeep’s work in comparison with Hirst is of less consequence due to its impermanency but the psychological impact it could create is but no less than that of Hirst’s. For me it is not a forced comparison because the spirit of ideas seeps into the members in the world of creativity slowly but steadily. The subconscious revival of any memory is welcomed because that’s how a work of art and the ideas that it evokes live through generations. On a certain day, when the authorities decide, Pradeep’s work may disappear from the earth just like the species that disappear one by one. But the memories remain and those children who have played on it would remember as each time they cross Bandra as tired executives of future, that there was a whale here once and we had played on it. Perhaps, such fond memories save the world from quick extinction.

(Vandalised sculpture of Anish Kapoor)

Pradeep too two months to conceive this project when Art Oxygen, the curator of this project invited him to be a part of this festival of public art. And he took two days to execute it. It took perhaps another eleven days for people to sponge the meanings of it into their minds. In Pradeep’s own words, there were some funny mischief done on his work but then it is how it becomes a part of the city, of the people and their memories. One must remember how Anish Kapoor, the world renowned sculptor recently responded to one of the attacks (vandalism) done on his public sculpture (somebody had scratched it) in France. Instead of repairing it or criticising the attackers, Kapoor said that the work should be left as it is. Incidentally, when he speaks about intolerance in India, it comes from this almost Gandhian attitude of tolerance for the attackers of his own works. Pradeep also seems to keep the same tolerance level regarding his work. What makes Pradeep’s work important, poignant and worth memorable is its simplicity and the total absence of pretence. These days in India, as a few artists are going around literally painting the cities in the name of public art and well protected and supported with the funds from the public and private agencies and claiming their works’ relevance using high jargons, Pradeep stands in clear contrast. There is no claim and there is no sloganeering. What Pradeep has made permanent in our minds is the idea of saving this earth, which though sound quite school bookish is a very relevant and worth upholding one. Personally speaking, I want more and more works of art come to public and I believe art is the only organic agent that will change the chemistry of aggression into the physics of tolerance.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Ain’t I a Woman?- Mahula Ghosh’s Shifting Portraits

(Mahula Ghosh with her work)

‘Shifting Portraits’ is a solo exhibition of Mahula Ghosh at Delhi’s Arts and Aesthetics Gallery. An exhibition that suits to the mood of the on setting winter, it speaks about the lives and times of the tea plantation workers in Darjeeling, especially the women folk who do all the culling and sorting of tea leaves in the dewy mornings at the hill slopes of Darjeeling. Mahula had spent her childhood days in this part of the world and somehow the plight of women who have been doing this slaves’ job in the plantations even during the most hostile climatic conditions got etched into her mind quite deeply. Any kind of art, whatever contemporary inspirations that it has for manifesting through the hands of an artist, definitely does not eschew the inclination of the artist to plumb into the tunnels of memory. No work of art gains the enduring quality provided if it is not softened by the dews of memories. Mahula, like most of the sensitive human beings was making memories involuntarily while living in Darjeeling. Today, as a matured artist she chooses to paint them in a very subtle way, using very subtle mediums- water colour, tea bags on Nepali Paper.

The title could be a bit misleading for it would goad the viewer to think about a series of portraits of the tea plantation workers that would reveal the hazardous lives that they are leading in the plantations. However, the exhibition is not that literal and there is a very subtle sense of femininity running as a connecting thread between and through all these works. Mahula has used stitching, pasting, cutting, colouring and drawing for making these works speak to the viewers. She has not resorted to any particular narrative structures so that the viewers could understand the living conditions of the plantations workers. In that sense, Mahula does not intend to make a sociological visual document, rather her effort is to make a sort of revisiting to the annals of her own memories that have been lying dormant for all these years. The sudden spur that initiates into this revisiting must be very personal verging to the level of identification, not really physically but experientially. The constant drudgery that the plantation women goes through must not be radically different from the drudgery that an artist like Mahula goes through in her very urban existence.

 (work by Mahula Ghosh)

This identification does not come from a sort of class consciousness but from a larger category that makes each and every woman irrespective of their social and economic standing one and the same in the contemporary world. Tea plantations carry the history of colonialism in any part of the world. And also these plantations are the standing evidences of human trafficking or forced migrations for the purpose of farm and plantation helps. There is a fundamental difference between those people who have migrated to the rich forest lands and also to the barren areas in order to tame and cultivate, and also possess the land for themselves. Plantations were regimented places and spaces where economy and the power of economic and political supremacy had consolidated their presence in subjecting human labour to the level bondage and the creation of wealth and profit. The colonial sagas always neglect the stories of women, old people and children as they are treated as third rate animals lesser than the farm animals perhaps. Births and deaths were not really marked and signed, and only the survival of the fittest made the plantation workers confident about their living even in the subhuman bondage.

Women carrying baskets hanging from their heads or shoulders and snipping tender tea leaves in chorus silently, steadily and rhythmically provide a very beautiful romantic backdrop for the backpacker who visits these plantations as a tourist. Popular culture has always made these locations into backdrops for the romantic love to thrive and jive. Plantation workers, in these magical conversions of the spaces, either become props or when the imagination runs wild, become chorus who move behind the singing and dancing lovers. In the blurred faces that grin from ear to ear as if they were experiencing immense pleasure in becoming just props, we fail to see the hardships that they go through and even the horrendous histories of colonial exploitations etched on their faces. Mahula is definitely not a backpacker tourist. She had lived and had made memories there. She had thought about the plights of the migrant populations that neither belong here nor there. They are the creatures of labour who are devoid of all kinds of human rights. In a very poignant effort to give them their rightful place in the contemporary discourse of human rights and aesthetic consideration Mahula has come up with a very sensitive body of works in this exhibition titled ‘Shifting Portraits’.

(Work by Mahula Ghosh)

As I mentioned above, what envelopes all these works is a subtle sense of femininity which is fast disappearing from our own female artists these days. Femininity, a majority of them see as a weakness. Keeping the western art historical traditions as a point of reference, most of our feminist artists are a bit vary of using ‘feminine’ sensibilities in their works. Still, as women they just cannot go out of the feminine experiences either. This is a very interesting conundrum that they try their best to negotiate. Many, by overtly using sexual imageries or sexual bodies as mode of communication go to the extreme of expressions, which is bold and beautiful (at times) and daring experiments in the conventional art scene of India. Many, by being overtly sentimental about the issues of women, paint or sculpt them as ideal beings which often end up as decorative pieces. Hardly we see those women artists who could manage an in between path where both boldness and beauty converge to highlight the strength and integrity of feminine experiences. We had Nasreen Mohammedi with that sense of femininity using very straight and slanting lines (can you just feel it?). We had Rumanna Husain and T.K.Padmini. In the contemporary art scene we have Shobha Broota, Madhvi Parekh, Arpana Caur, Nilima Sheikh, Anju Dodiya and Arpita Singh with such feminine sensibility. Mahula Ghosh belongs to this league of artists though she is young in age. One may wonder why I left the names like Amrita Sherghil who is considered to be the epitome of feminine or feminist voice. Also one may wonder why I am not talking about Rekha Rodwittiya. Amrita Sherghil was competing with the modernist male artists of her time and one could see the ‘male’ visual language. Rekha started off as a sloganeering feminist artist and has turned her feminist protagonists in her works into icons that oscillate between tradition and modernity, not finding an escape route to transcendence.

 (Work by Mahula Ghosh)

Mahula does not paint like any of them. One has to really look hard into the paintings to see portraits of women and children. But they are all there. On the tea bags, on the stitched and cut and pasted pieces of paper, one could see the floating figures. Stitching that one has learnt in schools come back to Mahula’s scheme of painting and she uses it as a ‘mending’ activity of women than a ‘decorative’ activity. They are coarsely done but with a purpose of survival. That is the way women in plantations do. Mahula in a very quirky twist connects women and machines. Machines in the tea factories are often run by men. But the raw materials are culled by women. One could say that women themselves become the raw materials for the machines, while in turn they all become just hands and shoulders that cull tea leaves; they are just machine parts so that the gigantic machine of colonialism of different sorts could work smoothly. This connection is repeated in most of the works done by Mahula. She chooses to work in watercolour because she feels that in tea plantation there is always moisture and dew. In watercolour what binds the images and colours is wetness. For her, when she touches the paper with watercolour she does it with the morning dews from Darjeeling that still moisten her memories. Two little pieces of ceramics in the form of two obscure machines are really sensitive works and Mahula could work more in this medium.

‘Shifting Portraits’ drew me particularly because recently by providence I had the chance to involve in the tea plantation workers’ strike in Munnar, Kerala. Women workers, under the common banner of Penpilai Orumai (Women’s Unity) came to the streets asking for wage hike and they could persuade not only the managements and the state government but also the conscience of the people in Kerala. Women, in a bold move chased away all the political parties that came down to declare support to the striking women workers. They did not allow any political leader to sabotage and hijack their strike. It was a legendary and historical strike by women. As a social worker I could join hands with a few intellectuals in Trivandrum to support this strike. When I look at Mahula’s pictures I remember the solidarity of those women down south striking for better wages and human dignity. Those women reverberated the question raised by the first black feminist and the ex slave, Sojourner Truth, ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ In Mahula’s paintings I hear the same question in a conscience pricking murmur. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Crossing the Lakshmana Rekha: Absence of a Curator

(Katharina Kakar)

The role of a curator in an exhibition is many things including being a check point ‘for/of the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings and emotions’ of the artist who at times fails to understand where to draw the line of control. This creative overdrive could be hazardous for a solo show which is neither a retrospective nor a stock taking kind. A solo exhibition is often an exhibition by a single artist who would present his/her works done in a particular period of time, mostly with thematic as well as stylistic coherence. A curator helps the artist to build a coherent narrative which would take the viewer to those zones of understanding from where he/she could take off to a preferred trip of making sub-narratives, meta-narratives and even counter narratives. While both creating as well as interpreting art could be whimsical to certain extent, it is curator’s job to hold the logic tight and in place so that the madness of making and interpreting could be methodical therefore palatable. Absence of an architect or planner could make a city of cancerous edifices and the absence of a curator could make an exhibition metastasizing itself into innumerable artifacts which perhaps say the same thing again and again, like a ‘like a tale told by an idiot’. 

(Crossing the Lakshmana Rekha by Katharina Kakar)

When I stand before the works of Goa based Indo-German artist, Katharina Kakar exhibited in her first solo show ever at the Visual Arts Gallery, IHC, New Delhi, I remember Shakespeare who qualified life as ‘a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ That does not mean that my attempt is here to write out Katharina’s first solo show. Titled ‘Crossing the Lakshmana Rekha- Shakti, Sensuality, Sexuality’, this exhibition is curated by Dr.Alka Pande and strangely I have been looking for the touch of the curator throughout the show but in vain. My statement needs qualification and to furnish it before the reading public, I would like to analyze the basic theme of the show and then would like to go on to see how the curator’s hand is absolutely absent in this show which thrives on multiplication of ideas and artifacts. The show, as the title implies is all about the assertion of the takes of the ‘empowered women’, their ability or inability to articulate the sexuality and sensuality, and if at all articulated the ways in which such articulations are handled in the conventional Indian society. Katharina being an anthropologist who has been working amongst Indian women for more than two decades now, has a very good grip over her subject, but I need to add that a complete grip on a subject would not perhaps make one a good artist exactly the way his genius in economics would not make Dr. Amartya Sen a great painter of poverty alleviation.
(Connected by Katharina Kakar)

The mediums that Katharina uses range from the traditional to found objects to the industrial products. Except for a few mediums she has touched almost everything that is employed in creating works of art. A cursory survey would bring the following mediums into our ken of attention: bronze, copper, fiber glass, wood, wax, pen, pencil, paper, plastic, digital imaging, resin, iron, steel, flowers, clay, liquids resembling blood, books, video, lettering, light, latex and so on. There are rugged surfaces as well as highly polished ones. There are two dimensional works as well as three dimensional works. Katharina has raked through ideas and mediums like a greedy child in a confectionary shop. She has done a lot of works that would satisfy her non-stoppable flow of ideas. The gallery looks very impressive with all these works but the moment you progress from one work to another, a sense of futility start enveloping you for the simple reason that you get the insatiable urge of the artist to hammer in her ideas into your head and you start slowly resisting it. Result is the rejection of the show after the initial feeling of awe. 

(Circling the Universe by Katharina Kakar)

I know Katharina personally and I had seen her foray into the field of visual art in a collaborative work with the noted artist Subodh Kerkar on the ideas of mortality, vanity of life through the unclaimed bodies in mortuaries. She had recited her sociological and anthropological findings in poetic verses, wearing black clothes before a sculptural rendition of a dead head by Kerkar at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon in 2012. After that not so purely visual start, Katharina had invested her energies in writing a book titled ‘Moving to Goa’ which was a very hearty narrative on Goan life in general and her own life there in particular. In this book Katharina describes how she and her psychoanalyst husband and author Sudhir Kakar bought an old house and turned it into a new abode, redesigning it inch by inch. She gives a graphic description of the working patterns of the Goan laborers who come to the premises to rest rather than work. Katharina’s anthropological and sociological training and experience had fully shown the varieties in this writing. However, I wonder how Katharina has lost that power of narrative and discretion in her first solo exhibition which is under consideration now. 

(Hang out to Dry- Katharina Kakar)

This is exactly where I will pinpoint the absence of a curator. As an artist, Katharina has done her best to bring out her pet themes of sexuality and sensuality, and women empowerment, using very special and personalized metaphors like skull, broken limbs, ears, lit up holes, breast like figures, blood flowing veins, vagina, chilly and so on. ‘Crossing the Lakshmana Rekha’ is a field of red petals encircled by the broken limbs of a woman. ‘December 26, 2012’ commemorates the tragic death of Nirbhaya, the rape victim in a Singapore hospital; Katharina has made a very powerful work by using two found objects to suggest forced penetration. ‘Memory of the Future’ is a set of wax skulls pigmented to show the future death of female infants in the Indian shores. ‘Screw You’ is a set of wax chola bronze like female heads with screws pushed into them. ‘Saptamatrika’ ironically connotes the guardian angels (seven Devis) of the villages but Katharina aesthetically minimalizes them into pregnant pot forms fitted with breast like protrusions. ‘Hung out to Dry’ is a series of resin made emblematic vagina’s hung from wax cover clips. Reduction of women into mere vaginas is suggested poignantly in this works.
(work by Megha Joshi)

These powerful works somehow fails in the midst of a group of other works that are deliberately done with some sort of Indian-ness in mind. The patina-ized, pigmented bronze chillies, Shakti piths and so on somehow kill the effect of the other works. Katharina has extensively used verses and images from Kamasutra, the ancient Indian manual of sex, which in a way had liberated women from the male domination. Katharina uses this as a tool (Sudhir Kakar also is very much interested in this text and he has come out with a novel titled ‘The Ascetic of Desire’ too) in order to highlight the possibilities of women’s latent sexual prowess and their ability to express it in ‘heat’. A show with such good intention however goes out of hand of the artist because of the unedited feeling given away by the show. This is where the curator has come to help the artist to pick, choose, edit and display the works. Following the trail of Katharina’s thought, curator Alka Pande also has talked about the artist’s affinities for Marina Abromovic, Louise Bourgeois, Christian Boltanski and so on. In fact Alka Pande uses almost ten names both from India and abroad to substantiate the works of Katharina and forgets to edit the works that have added excessive baggage to the show. Interestingly Chris Deacon, the director of the Tate Modern also has come up with a series of names ranging from Eva Hesse to Yayoi Kusama. Is it because that both these forward writers want to see Katharina in the league of these international names?

(Catalogue of Tentua Dabaa Do-Kill Her by Chintan Upadhyay)

The exhibition proves that simple name dropping will not help any artist to come up with a good show. Katharina’s exhibition could have been really great if she had received curatorial help and edited out fifty per cent of the works from the exhibition. The drawings that she has done do not show any affinity for the cutting edge works that she has done in unconventional mediums. They look as if done by two different artists. The curator has not given any proper reason for including those drawings in this show. Also Katharina has carried away by the idea of Indian-ness. Many works look like three dimensional versions of Raza’s paintings. In my opinion, Katharina could come up with a series of good works if she practices self-restrain. Art is a way of telling things subtly and covertly; art of art is concealing art. But Katharina’s show looks like a protest march rather than a piece of music that makes people think. Though the curator has forgotten certain works that had appeared before Katharina’s exhibition, I need to remind the artist about them for the sake of clarity. In 2007, Chintan Upadhyay had done an exhibition titled ‘Tetua Dabaa Do or Kill Her’. This was a studied result of Chintan’s explorations into the darker arenas of female foeticide prevalent in Rajasthan. In 2013, Megha Joshi had responded to the Nirbhaya issue with a very powerful work that used breast forms as blow horns in a show titled ‘R.A.P.E’ curated by me. If the curator is aware of such exhibits already existing in the Indian art scene, then definitely he/she would find different ways of a presenting a new artist. Katharina Kakar can do good art provided if she works with right curators and in different studios.