Click here to read “Sense and Sensuality“, a profile of artist Jazmine Labana.
Category Archives: Art
Click here to read “Bharti’s Bindis“, a review of Bharti Kher’s first show at Hauser & Wirth, London. (“News India Times”, 2 April 2010).
“Bharti’s Bindis” by Kavita Ramdya (“News India Times”, 2 April 2010)
Bharti Kher is both social and suspicious. At a recent private viewing of her bindi paintings, I observed the gallery staff buzzing around her like bees to newly-sprung spring petals and a stream of friends and associates congratulating her on her show. It took a dozen walks around the room before I grabbed the perfect opportunity to introduce myself, knowing full well that any moment now another of the gallery’s soldiers clad in all black, a poor and paradoxical attempt at blending into the egg shell-painted walls, would tempt her into conversation with a beer or introduce her to another figure in the art world.
In person, Bharti looks nothing like her press photos: she is, instead, a far better looking version of the weary and smile-less artist in her publicity materials. However, she reacted to my friendly American introduction with a level of tiredness and suspicion that reminded me that not all artists enjoy the chance to talk about their work off the cuff nor are they all rabid self promoters. Quickly reading the situation before me, I told her the show was beautiful (an understatement) and meandered off for a lucky thirteenth whirl around what I call “the mirrors room”, a collection that Kher has decorated with bindis, forehead decorations popularly worn by women in countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
For months I’ve been looking for an opportunity to write about Kher’s work so it was with great joy that I heard that she had travelled from New Delhi to share her work internationally. As a writer covering the photography and fine arts coming out of India, Kher’s work is exciting for its inclusiveness of a common, everyday object in South Asia, bindis, as the focus around which Kher creates mixed-media sculptures. Her three-dimensional works, what I call bindi paintings, speak to ideas around femininity and interiority in South Asian women’s lives. Who wouldn’t be interested?
The bindi, I recently learned, still holds the same fascination among non-South Asians as it did when people of the subcontinent first started immigrating to the West. During a recent trip to New York, after showing a slide show presentation of second-generation Indian-American women in various styles of bridal garb to promote my book “Bollywood Weddings”, a hand shot up from the audience. A woman asked about the bindi and tilaka, inquiring about their respective significance and how they might be connected with a woman’s marital status. The rest of the audience listened with rapt attention as I described tilakas as a type of make-up for women, whatever her marital status. Whereas my answer didn’t satisfy the audience’s thirst for a revelatory and culturally significant answer, Kher’s works provide a more meaningful and culturally-insightful one.
On a very basic level, Kher’s works are aesthetically pleasing and eye catching, a trait that already differentiates her work from that of contemporary modern artists such as Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney. However, Kher is no different from Gupta, Kapoor, or Burman: artists from the subcontinent continue to prioritize both aesthetics and concept. In an interview with Sophie Leris, Kher explained why she left England and permanently moved to India: “Conceptual art is part of our culture, there’s installation everywhere… People understand the abstract—they believe in the ideas of an object.”
Two pieces in Kher’s show, in particular, are as stunning as they are intellectually exciting. “Confess” is a “sizeable Christian confessional box bedizened with bindis” whose interior is decorated floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall with a colourful array of differently-sized bindis. However, their placement is scrupulous and methodical: using bindis, Kher paints the confessional box’s interior with the precision of a royal calligrapher. Each bindi is part of a pattern or over-arching design made up of thousands of discreet bindis. The effect is one that immediately satiates the viewer’s primordial thirst for beauty and while paradoxically awakening the desire for more. Maria De Lamerens, who represents Kher at the gallery, described the bindis as “a diaphanous skin”, forming a “colourful exterior for interior space”. “Confess”, as a reviewer describes it, reflects Kher’s “interest in the gap between inner/outer lives”, the confessions box signifying the inner and the bindi the outer.
What I call “the mirror room”, a collection of approximately a dozen six by three-foot, wooden-framed mirrors decorated with bindis, interrogates the industrialization and proliferation of everyday objects in relation to the individual consumer’s participation in mass consumption. Whereas a woman traditionally wears one bindi for as long as it remains sticky, taking it off at night and placing it on the mirror before waking in the morning and removing the bindi from the mirror to wear again, Kher’s mirrors are scarred with cracks and overwhelmed by bindis, some so large that their sheer size and number threaten to block the viewer from seeing his or her reflection. The mirror collection, what the artist named “Indra’s Net Mirrors”, suggest that South-Asian women adorn bindis and are likewise adorned by them. Kher asks, “Might bindis wear women as women wear bindis?”
In addition to Kher’s mirrors creating an aura of magical design in their whimsical yet precise, colourful yet serious, feminine yet assertive qualities, their texture begs for touching. I observed one brave mother spend much of her time swatting her infant daughter’s hands as they stubbornly reached out to touch the mirrors. The bindis’ patterns, some like creeping sperm and others like acquatic bubbles, cartoonish yet critical at the same time, form designs that also double as “markers of time”: the sheer number of bindis remind the viewer that bindis are worn and collected over a lifetime.
Ultimately, Kher’s bindi mixed-media works are both political and apolitical at the same time. Her use of the bindi as her primary medium interrogates its simplicity and captures its cultural significance in the South Asia Diaspora. Bindis are a modern piece of decorative jewelry and make-up, has its origin in revealing a woman’s marital status and symbolic of an “arcane symbol of fertility”. Despite their material significance in the lives of millions of South-Asian women, Kher’s art refuses to be politicized, instead focusing on concerns around identity, cultural hybridity and shifting social mores.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html
“Faiza Butt in ‘The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan'” by Kavita Ramdya (Issue 2, February 2010 of Harvard University’s “Modern Art Asia”
Faiza Butt is obviously well-versed in talking about her work. She has done it countless times, breathless and quick, at ease yet also distant. Not once in the evening we spend together at the show or at a café afterwards where we continue our “conversation” does she let herself look me in the eye. It seems she has saved her gaze for her canvas.
In The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan at Aicon, Butt’s paintings are distinct from those of her peers’ for their focus on the feminine: children playing, turkey dinners and kitchencleaning supplies. Clearly her role as a mother and wife inform her work. Tellingly, in both our phone calls prior to our meeting I could hear the voices of laughing children in the background. I later learned that her marriage to an English national and role as a mother inspire an autobiographical flavour in her work, as does her youth growing up in a matriarchal family with five sisters.
Born and raised in Lahore, Butt spent a few years teaching in South Africa before attending London’s Slade School of Fine Arts, her first time living in Europe. In East London, she began what she describes as “a crash course in learning the fabric of society”. Here Butt started painting canvases that spoke to her “feminine” concerns but with a politicized and global perspective.
Ironically, two of her three works on show at Aicon Gallery are of hyper-masculinized, fundamentalist Muslim men and yet the feminist concerns which have inspired Butt are loud and clear. Two tales of Whopped Fantasies, a series nspired by the photorealism of Gerard Richter’s work, are two separate realist paintings of traditional Muslim men. The viewer is forced to scan the canvases horizontally due to the visible and linear color lines that layer the subjects. This linear repeated linear pattern is meant to replicate the movement of a printing press, she tells me. In addition to the linear
swathes of pastoral colors that sweep Butt’s canvases, the “western, edible beauty” which each man carries (one wearing plastic, yellow cleaning gloves while holding a cake decorated with a generous amount of frosting and the other proudly presenting a traditional Sunday roast) points straight away to the artist’s original concerns: fitting gender expectations to cultural and religious traditions and making them compatible though they may in reality be polar opposites.
The two portraits are humorously paradoxical through their fusion of religious images with secular values. One the one hand, they wear old-fashioned clothing, but on the other hand they carry opulently-decorated Western dishes as a result of engaging in what is traditionally deemed ‘women’s work’. The contrast is inspired by Butt’s identity as a Pakistani-Muslim woman who married an Englishman and faced the pressures of integrating into an English, Christian family. The image of a Muslim man humbly yet eagerly offering his Sunday roast to the viewer, presumably after many
hours of slaving over a hot oven, expresses Butt’s own personal story in trying to win over her in-laws
and the cultural and religious sacrifices she made along the way.
Butt’s art work and biography remind us that some stories, like one of a woman trying to win over her inlaws by attempting to recreate their seductively succulent cuisine, are universal. Her work is refreshing in its appeal to the most petty yet powerful conflicts young wives all over the world face as a metaphor for the changes that occur with globalization.
Faiza Butt’s works showed at the Aicon Gallery, London until January 9th. The Aicon Gallery is the best place in Europe to view and learn about contemporary Indian art. The gallery, formerly known as Gallery ArtsIndia, originated in the United States, where it began as an online gallery of contemporary Indian art before opening the New York (2002)
and Palo Alto (2004) gallery spaces. After exhibiting the works of established artists such as Laxma Goud, F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain, Aicon has collaborated with such artistic institutions as Tate Britain, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum. On both sides of the Atlantic, Aicon Gallery is noted for its mission of promoting contemporary Indian art.
The London gallery opened in 2006 to serve as a “launch pad for Indian art in the capital” and showcases the works of radical and experimental artists rather than the Indian Modernists whose work is most commonly shown in the Aicon New York gallery. Located in a swanky part of town, off Regent’s Street, Aicon Gallery London is a cultural refuge amongst high-end stores and restaurants where people dine to be seen. As an Indian-American Hindu who moved to London almost four years ago, I remain amazed at the city’s established and well developed South Asian cultural scene.
Kavita Ramdya received her PhD from Boston University. She is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating,
Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”, visit www.bollywood-weddings.com
Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Depicting Love in India’s Royal Courts” in “News India Times” (1 January 2010).
“Depicting Love in India’s Royal Courts” by Kavita Ramdya in “News India Times” (1 January 2010 edition)
The V&A exhibit “Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts” shows how depictions of love between royal couples evolved from the early 18th century to the mid-1930s. Anna Jackson, the show’s curator, describes how “never before has a show been devoted entirely to the rich material culture of the maharajas”. In fact, the subject of the maharaja is a neglected one in the art world. Anna and her team’s objectives in organising the show included breaking stereotypes of the raj as well as showing how the princes were respected and powerful patrons of art whether through the commissioning of royal-court paintings, Rolex watches for playing cricket, or jewel-encrusted weaponry.
The main intent of the exhibit is to serve as a history lesson for how India evolved politically from the early 18th century when the Mughal Empire was in decline to 1947 when Gandhi secured India’s independence. However, what struck me as most memorable in the sweeping show containing approximately 250 objects was the ways in which the raja and his rani’s relationship were depicted in paintings of the royal court, silent wedding videos, and black-and-white photos by avante-garde fashion and portrait photographer Man Ray.
Much of the show is dedicated to the idea of the procession because this was the method with which the king’s material wealth was put on display. Maharajas regularly commissioned works of art that showed the raja as central in a procession, whether to meet members of the East India Company or political allies. These processions were the equivalent, I came to realize, of watching New York’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a Broadway show in Times Square or Cirque de Soleil in Las Vegas. Processions were not only a way for a king to show off his splendour but also a form of entertainment for observers eager to feast their eyes on fantastically creative objects of conspicuous consumption, often times designed and produced by European designers such as Cartier, Rolls Royce, and Luis Vuitton. This display of wealth was instrumental in reinforcing the raja’s power and influence among his subjects.
Having just published a book about Hindu weddings in America, I pondered the significance of the maharaja’s procession in relation to the baarat, a popular element in the Hindu wedding ritual where the bridegroom travels to the wedding site, often on a horse, surrounded by friends and family. What is the significance of this bridal custom in relation to the maharajas’ processions in celebrating religious holidays and court-related events? Perhaps the widespread tradition of the baarat, an element of the Hindu wedding ritual which until recently I didn’t consider having any religious significance, is in fact meaningful in light of the Hindu philosophy that life is organised into four distinct stages. Just like the royal king is seen to express his darshan as a superior being by displaying his kingliness via a procession, the bridegroom symbolically moves from the brahmacharya, student, stage to the Grihasthya, householder, stage via the baraat.
In these processions, royal women are invisible. Whereas the raja is often times depicted in the public sphere of the procession, the rani is only depicted in the private sphere such as the palace’s women’s quarters, hunting grounds and gardens. However, the Indian ruler and his wife are rarely depicted as sharing the same space. There is the occasional painting or drawing depicting the raja behaving intimately with a courtesan, but these works are meant to convey his sexual prowess, thus his manliness. His relationship with his wife remains private.
Just as royal women are conspicuously invisible in the courts, so is the evidence of their existence. The vast majority of material objects on display are ones used by the rajas. Many of these objects have an effeminate flavour to them; their splendorous qualities betray an element of girlish lavishness rather than mannish austerity. For example, a Jaipur sword and scabbard dated from 1902 is encrusted with diamonds and other jewels, making it impractical to slay enemies on the battlefield; instead, this sword was an instrument for displaying wealth rather than martial agility.
The central object in the vast exhibit and, ironically, the one which most powerfully indicates the raja’s position as, to appropriate a much-abused phrase in the contemporary fashion world, “fashion icon” is the Patiala Necklace. Commissioned in the mid 1920s, the necklace took three years to complete. It originally contained almost 3,000 diamonds and weighed approximately a thousand carats. Its size and weight make it impractical for any woman to wear. So it should have come as no surprise when, next to the necklace, the museum visitor can watch a rolling black-and-white video of a tall, bearded, heavy-set maharaja swinging his arms alongside his staff as he swaggers and shows off the Patlia Necklace draped around his neck. The ethereal collection of interwoven diamonds conjures the illusion of light rays emanating from the raja’s burly chest; the necklace, despite its mass, is as effeminate as the raja is brutish.
It is not until the early 1920s when “modern” maharajas emerge as multi-dimensional beings rather than models for manliness. These maharajas struggled with their dual identity as an English-educated, modern-thinking individual versus the pressure of maintaining a public image as Indian maharaja restricted by tradition. One of the most interesting displays in the exhibit is a photograph of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda wearing a traditional gown and turban side-by-side with another photo of the same subject in a three-piece suit and hat standing outside the Royal Courts of Justice. The repetitive theme of the procession, hyper-masculinity of the raja and sexually-vexed femininity of their purchasing habits display the move towards Modernity as a time characterized by a state of flux in gender roles and social mores.
Likewise, just as these maharajas began to challenge customary depictions of rajas, royal women emerge from the background and are instead the subjects of fashion and portrait photography by re-known artists such as Man Ray. The invention of photography is in itself an insidious yet visually-powerful influence in royal paintings. For instance, a work depicting Ram Sing II of Jaipur worshipping is amazingly realistic; worry lines from royal pressures and court feuds are woven into his face like waves in the sea. Additionally, the notion of “perspective” is appropriated as a technique utilized by palace artists who have been radicalized by court photography.
Man Ray’s playful yet dignified, accessible yet classy black-and-white fashion/portraiture photographs of Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar II and his wife Maharani Sanyogita Devi of Indore are the highlight of the exhibit. After looking at hundreds of objects which illustrate the divide between the public and the private, adhere to the formality of royal etiquette, and honor tradition and customs over individuality and self-expression, these few photographs offer a brief yet oceanic respite.
Holkar’s slicked-back hair, 30-inch waist and dainty mustache place him in a historical period and Modernist mindset as different from his maharaja predecessors as the Krishna-designed Rolex cricket watch is to the Greek civilization’s Sun Dial. Holkar’s wife, Devi, has a slight wave in her shoulder-length hair reminiscent of 1930s film actress Marlene Dietrich. In Paris, specifically at Cannes, Man Ray photographed the royal pair playing games together, posing affectionately, and teasing one another. The photographs justify the couple’s and their contemporaries’ eagerness to live abroad where they can live both privately and publicly as man and wife without the burdens of custom and tradition weighing on them like the Patlia Necklace on a brutish maharaja.
I recently met Lucia King at her film screening of “At Play” at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in West Kensington, a documentary of film director Roysten Abel’s adaptation “In Othello” of Shakespeare’s play “Othello” (talk about meta texts!). “At Play” got me thinking of the recently black-faced model Lara Stone and how skin color continues to determine people’s perceptions of beauty, class and education in India.
Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Blackness in India“.
“News India Times” December11, 2009
“Blackness in India” by Kavita Ramdya
“Blackface” as a performance tool is not solely relegated to nineteenth-century minstrel shows or early-twentieth-century films such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). Most recently, the use of blackface re-surfaced when French Vogue published Steven Klein’s photos of a blacked up Lara Stone. Cynical yet true, blackface has a shock value that generates free marketing and publicity unmatched by YouTube promotional videos and Google advertisements. Blackface, in addition to remaining relevant in today’s fashion circles, is also topical on stage. In Roysten Abel’s production of “In Othello” (2004), an adaptation of the Shakespearean classic performed by Indian actors and actresses and interspersed with Hindi, the actor who performs the part of Othello blackens his skin in order to suggest that his color is what results in Desdemona’s murder and Othello’s own suicide.
In “Othello”, Shakespeare’s anti-hero is a foreign man who has won the heart of fair Desdemona. Despite his military success which places him in high esteem among the men under his command and poetic language with which he woos Desdemona, the insecurities of his status of an outsider, a Moor, get the best of him. Shakespeare, rather than write a seminal play about racism had in fact written a psychological study of the effects freedom and democracy have on an individual making the transition from the pre-civilized world where social hierarchy is determined by violence and war to modernity where education and language skills define success.
Lucia King, film-maker and painter, whose documentary of the making of Abel’s “In Othello”, entitled “At Play”, documents the use of blackface by the Kerala-born director who transformed the play into one about racism against northeast Indians. While working as a set designer during the filming of “In Othello”, Lucia decided to take her role as a “fly on the wall” amidst the actors, actresses and director one step further by filming while on set.
The introduction of “At Play” is a few minutes worth of video footage of the actors and actresses in full costume and make-up quietly poised and motionless as they model for the film’s publicity shots. It is initially striking to watch Indian actors wearing long, wavy moustaches and Indian actresses sober from the weight of heavy, velvet gowns.
Abel chose to focus on the anti-hero’s color rather than the psychological tensions that climax in the brutal murder of Desdemona. However, in the case of the film “In Othello”, Indians’ widespread prejudice against dark-colored brethren is the crucifix upon which Othello hangs himself. Every Indian woman I know has been subjected to comments about the fairness or darkness of her skin by family members raised in India where skin color among Indians plays a significant role in the politics of marriage. Whereas growing up in America, I was envied by friends for my “year-long tan”, I was also conscious of NRIs assessing my skin color.
Bloomberg reporter Saikat Chatterjee’s article “Fair-Skin Fashion Boosts Sales of Whitening Creams in India” describes how major global consumer product companies such as Unilever are marketing products such as the popular Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream, providing the growing middle and upper classes with an alternative to the old-fashioned “turmeric and sandalwood paste” remedy for dark skin. Hindustan Unilever is not the only company marketing skin whiteners to Indians. Blockbuster brands such as L’Oreal SA, Beiersdorf AG and Emami Ltd. Have have found success in selling “fairness creams”. Chatterjee reports how “sales of whiteners increased 17 percent to 20.5 billion rupees ($432 million) in the nine months to September from a year earlier, according to research by Haarlem, Netherlands-based Nielsen Co.”
Browsing my parents’ copies of “India Abroad”, the back pages which contained the Personal Ads inevitably advertised single women “with fair skin” and “well-educated” men. The significance of having fair skin, like “wheat”, for a woman is equally as important as completing a graduate education is for a man. Skin-bleaching creams remain popular among Indian women in the subcontinent. Of course, the easiest way to interpret the nation’s obsession with fairness is in relation to India’s social history with regards to the caste system.
Before banishing the caste system, the Untouchables (India’s lowest class), were relegated to the jobs that brought them outdoors, thereby exposing them to the sun whereas Brahmins, the priestly class, worked within the confines of the holy temple. Fairness is more a determinant of class than it is beauty. According to T.K. Oommen, professor emeritus of sociology at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, “Indians traditionally associate fair skin with aristocracy and not having to work outdoors in a menial job.”
The irony is that in looking at Indian-Hindu temple art, Krishna is always depicted with blue-colored skin; in fact, “Krishna” means “the dark one”. Additionally, the Sanskrit meaning of “krish” is “to draw to oneself, to attract”. Krishna is dark skinned yet attractive, contradistinct from ideals about beauty in mainstream Indian society.
It makes sense that Abel produced a version of “Othello” where the main character’s regional origin and skin color result in his unravelling. The story of Othello’s self-hatred and violence is foreboding even seven hundred years after Shakespeare penned the original play. Let’s hope Indian consumers recognize Krishna’s beauty, transcend the antiquated caste system and refrain from purchasing skin-bleaching creams; unifying India despite its regional differences, varied dialects, disparate customs and religious sects may depend on it.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com
A few weeks ago I attended the opening of Saad Quereshi’s group show at Aicon Gallery London. Saad is a young, Pakistani-English artist whose highly-conceptual work is both rigorous and well crafted. He was extremely grateful for his parents’ support of him pursuing a career in art which I found endearing.
Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s article “An Alien Artist”, a profile of artist Saad Quereshi.
“News India Times” November 20, 2009
“An Alien Artist” by Kavita Ramdya
Saad Qureshi is easy to pick out in a crowd. At “Wound”, an Aicon Gallery group show, Saad sticks out: he wears immaculately-white high-top sneakers two sizes too big for his feet. Saad’s sneakers are the discerning feature of his “artist costume”, an outfit that must have taken him a week of internal to-ing and fro-ing plus phone conversations with friends for him to pull together. He wears the multiple layers indicative of his current status as an art graduate student at University College London’s Slade School of Fine Art including a white shirt, red tie, purple cardigan and black jacket. His hair is tussled and he isn’t clean shaven, giving him the appearance of looking disoriented from having just left his art studio for the first time in days.
The young Pakistani artist furtively scans the gallery while speaking to friends, family and associates, giving the feeling that he is half present in all his conversations. However, when speaking with him, I have his full attention. What I quickly realize is that for all his posturing as iconoclast, he is not immune to the guilt young South Asians feel over rejecting more practical vocational choices (e.g. law, medicine, business) for embarking on a creative career as an artist. Saad describes how his parents, although initially unsupportive of his artistic interests, started to come around when his school teacher, Mrs. Robinson, explained to them that Saad was a “chosen one”. Now, he continues, his “parents are 200% behind me” and “would do anything to help me in my career”. Saad’s parents surface again and again, so much so that I begin to feel like I am his shrink rather than an Arts Op-Ed columnist. Alternatively, and I wouldn’t put it past Saad whose youth is a powerful cover-up for his shrewdness, he may be planting material on me that he knows a South-Asian reading audience subscribing to “News India Times” would find endearing.
Saad Qureshi, despite his formulaic style and earnest concern for his parents’ approval, is an exceptional conceptual artist. Not only is his work well-crafted and of the highest standard of quality, but its themes and concerns are relevant and timely. When he tells me that he works constantly and needs to be coerced into leaving the 24-hour art studio to eat and sleep, I am not surprised. His work is the conceptualisation of issues of immigration, terrorism, and victimhood, all as current as the daily e-mail alerts I receive from the “New York Times” and “Washington Post”.
Qureshi has two qualities that will stand him in good stead as he moves forward in his career. First, he is prolific. Second, his work is a response to his personal experiences as a young Pakistani growing up in the suburbs. However, these personal themes reverberate on a global scale: the alienation and marginalization he captures in his sculptures and on the canvas also speak to the current political climate with regard to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the proliferation of racism.
Jagroop Mehta, the gallery’s Sales Associate, explains how a collection of black, life-sized alien figure sculptures symbolize marginalized societies. On a more personal level, the black sculptures refer to the artist’s adolescence while living in the suburbs, where he felt like an outsider. When I ask Qureshi about his tribe-of-aliens sculptures, he refers to Frantz Fanon, a black, mid-twentieth-century French post-colonial philosopher whose writing serves as the intellectual backbone in Qureshi’s own work. Fanon discusses how the “other” is only a different version of oneself. After learning the intellectual underpinning of Qureshi’s work, I silently applauded his ability to inspire repulsion and intrigue in the viewers of his sculpture collection. He successfully mirrors the viewer’s own grotesqueness by drawing his or her attention to the quality of the “other” in his works.
In addition to the alien-like sculptures, a collection of Qureshi’s “edge paintings” are in the show. From a distance, the pieces look like fresh, egg-white canvases waiting for the artist’s attention. However, upon closer viewing, Qureshi has meticulously painted, drawn, and “scrap-booked” in marginalized figures on the edges, where the canvas bunches up and threatens to be overlooked rather than on the smooth, white, fresh surface. The scrap-book nature of the canvas’ edges is a result of Qureshi’s use of multi- media. Along with drawing and painting on the canvas’ edges, he also utilizes photographs and currency to convey concepts around “the other”.
When asked why he refrained from utilizing the medium of the canvas in a traditional way, Qureshi describes his frustration with painting: “I felt restricted, like painting was a limited medium… I discovered the edge of the canvas instead.” He goes on to describe his images threaten to “slip off the canvas” and Qureshi’s role as the artist is to “catch these images before they fall into oblivion”. Niru Ratnam, the gallery’s curator, describes how despite Qureshi’s age (he is not yet twenty-four years old), the artist’s installation works “are conceptually very well developed”. The use of Fanon and Qureshi’s ability to discuss his work on a theoretical level are testaments of the thought process he puts into his art.
Ivan, an art student enrolled in the same program Qureshi is finishing his studies, rejects the notion that his friend is a painter. Instead, Ivan describes Qureshi as a “designer” who “arranges things”, designing canvases like Tom Ford would “designer jeans”. Although on the face of it, Ivan’s comments might seem unfriendly, in the context of looking at Qureshi’s painstakingly-detailed work, one quickly realizes how much of his art is based on the conscientious placement of details.
Clearly a workaholic, Qureshi is managing well during a defining moment in his young career. Currently his work is showing in a well-respected gallery while he is still completing the final year of his Master’s degree. Finally he has just finished filming what I am guessing is a reality television show on BBC2. Throughout the private viewing of “Wound”, my ears pricked when scattered associates referred to a television production of some sort which incorporates various young artists including Qureshi. The production is not meant to be public, but then artists are not known for their ability to keep secrets.
It was great to interesting to see how Subodh Gupta integrates humor into his art work. In his sculptures, Gupta pokes fun at the western art world’s description of his work in relation to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as if there is no way to understand eastern artists without a reference towards western art.
Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Worshipping the Common Man“, an art review of Subodh Gupta’s show “The Common Man” at Hauser & Wirth.
“News India Time” 30 October 2009
“Worshipping the Common Man” by Kavita Ramdya (review of Subodh Gupta’s art show at Hauser & Wirth)
Subodh Gupta, known as the “Damien Hirst of Delhi” and “India’s Jeff Koons”, worships the “common man” as opposed to, respectively, hyper-commoditized morbidity and the mass consumption of name-brand art. Hauser & Wirth’s Old Bond Street and Piccadilly galleries are currently showing Gupta’s work in a show entitled “Common Man” which pays homage to India’s labourers rather than the Hindu gods and goddesses typically displayed in museums and galleries exhibiting art from the Indian subcontinent.
“Common Man” integrates everyday objects, from mangoes and chappals (slippers) to tiffins (steel lunch boxes) and thalis (pans used during worship), to create thought-provoking yet aesthetically-profound sculptures. His attention to detail combined with his commentary on India’s labor population confirm why Gupta is currently India’s most celebrated living artist.
There are a number of untitled works, including a seven-foot wide stainless steel thali pan filled with kitchen utensils, tiffins, and pails, a work meant to pay respect to the way labourers eat: employing re-usable eating utensils and tiffins brought from home to the work site. In another untitled yet striking piece, Gupta’s team took a mould of a tree growing out of a window from the artist’s hometown of Bihar as a way of highlighting how nature forms around and in spite of man-made objects.
What differentiates Gupta from his contemporaries is not only his worship of the common man but also the humor in his work. In another untitled work, the viewer recalls Damien Hirst: a large fibreglass skull is ringed with stainless steel eating utensils. Here, the artist makes fun of the western media’s description of him as “the Damien Hirst of Delhi”, as if contemporary Indian art can only be understood in reference to western artists.
Likewise, in an attempt to recognize the western media’s description of Gupta as “the Jeff Koons of India”, the artist took two years to create fifty aluminium boxes bearing the Jeff Koons “Puppy” branding in a work titled “Jeff the Koons”. In a marketing ploy, Koons had created an “unlimited” rather than “limited” edition of his art work as a way to turn the economic model of supply and demand on its head which Gupta subsequently pokes fun at for Koons’s obvious effort to position his art for widespread, mass consumption.
Perhaps the most poignant and devastatingly hard-hitting piece is “I Believe You”, another large thali pan, this time covered with battered shoes worn by day labourers. While visiting an Indian village, Gupta traded the labourers’ old shoes for new ones. The shoes are served on a thali pan normally used to carry coconuts and candles as well as other assorted fruit, rice and spices as offerings when worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses. In a clockwise motion, worshippers will move the thali pan in front of a Hindu idol or photograph as a way of doing arthi, or making an offering. In Gupta’s sculpture, he places worn shoes on the thali pan as a way to worship and pay tribute to “the common man”.
Likewise, “Aam Aadmi” (Hindi for “man people”) is a collection of mangoes surrounded by hay sitting in a wooden crate. It was only after reading that the mangoes were painted bronze that, upon looking more closely, I could see the reflection of the overhead lights in the mangoes; the reflection was the only clue that betrayed the mangoes were not made of their original organic materials, a true testament to Gupta’s craftmanship. I remembered eating mangoes every summer, mangoes my parents brought home from the Indian grocery stores in Jackson Heights. When visiting my in-laws in Trinidad & Tobago, I remember rejoicing in the juicy mangoes which grew from the trees in their yard, quickly wiping the sweet juice escaping from my mouth after each succulent bite. Gupta talks about how he chose to highlight mangoes for their accessibility to the wealthy and poor alike in India, but he forgets the fruit’s universality in South-Asian communities globally.
The only piece which is romantic in nature is “Spooning”, a play on the western term. Two nine-foot long stainless steel spoons nestle, or spoon, on the gallery floor. “Et tu, Duchamp?” is yet another comedic poke at western culture. Gupta, also known as the “Subcontinental Marcel Duchamp”, upon seeing Duchamp’s “Mona Lisa with Mustache and Beard” (1919), sculpted a bronze rendering of the painting in an effort to “have a dialogue with [Duchamp].”
“A Penny for Belief II” is one of the few pieces global in scope rather than a commentary on India’s “common man”. The work is an oversized thali pan which gallery employees and Gupta threw coins into, coins from all over the world including British sterling, American quarters and Euros, before pouring olive oil into the pan. When I bent closer to the pool of coins, I smelt a strong odor of olive oil which is more popularly used in European and American cooking rather than Indian. Maria de Lamerens, the Press coordinator at Hauser & Wirth, explained how throwing a penny for good luck is a universal practice which Gupta wanted to capture in the work. Clearly the practice has benefited Gupta whose name and work are counted among the best contemporary, living artists in the world.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html
“An Artist with no nationality” by Kavita Ramdya (review of Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy of Art)
The Anish Kapoor exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art is all the rave right now. You can’t escape it: Anish Kapoor’s name decorates Tube turnstyles, double-decker buses, and cabs. Completely turned off the by hype and marketing, I was more than skeptical that the show would live up to the rave reviews; it’s as if art reviewers are foaming at the mouth for Anish Kapoor, stark-raving mad for more. Unbelievably, the show DOES live up to expectations. I loved it as did my husband and friends who accompanied us, an accupuncturist and the owner of a technology company. The Anish Kapoor show is among the best I’ve ever visited, and it’s fair to say I’ve seen my fair share of art.
October 23, 2009
News India Times
“An Artist with no nationality” by Kavita Ramdya
Tube (London subway) platforms, double-decker buses, and cab doors, not to mention magazines and newspapers as diverse as The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Economist, and Mayfair Times. The Mumbai-born artist the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the elite Royal Academy of Art, one of London’s most well-respected and revered cultural institutions.
Outside the Royal Academy of Art, during all hours of the day and night, there is a glut of people spilling onto the Piccadilly pavement.
They wait on line to buy tickets to the show as well as marvel at the fifteen-metre sculpture “Tall Tree and Eye” in the Annenburg Courtyard: a Babel-inspiring pyramid made up of seventy-six large, polished, stain-less-steel spheres reaching for the sky. In it, viewers see reflections of the museum, the clouds, and themselves.
As his name suggests, Anish Kapoor was born in Mumbai before schooling and working in England where he made his career. Expecting to see art inspired by his heritage, I was surprised by the lack of references towards Indian culture, mythology, current events, and imagery. In fact, I later learned from Dr. Adrian Locke, a curator at the RAA, that the artist finds his Indian origin irrelevant and defies art historians, patrons of the arts, and museum directors to categorize his work as “Indian art”. As a writer of South-Asian descent, and one who is highly conscious that my ethnicity, faith and gender shape my concerns and thus my work, my interest was piqued upon hearing that Anish Kapoor rejects the idea of nationalizing his work. Do works of Art have a nationality? Is it possible to reproduce art which doesn’t lend itself to having a national identity?
Upon entering the exhibit, which takes up five galleries, I quickly observed that for Anish Kapoor, “bigger is better”. The scale of his work is surreal.
As I made my way past “Svayambh”, the heart of the show, where a thirty-ton block of licorice-red wax creeps its way across the gallery on a set of tracks, and walked through “Mirrors” where kids contort their faces and jump up and down while their parents sneakily took photos on their iPhones, I felt like I was walking through an “art funhouse”.
Two major differences between the Anish Kapoor exhibit and other shows I’ve attended is the interactive play between the viewer and the art and, as a result, the preponderance of young children running and screaming throughout the galleries… and, of course, the accompanying noise that further confirmed my analogy of attending the show like visiting a carnival funhouse.
Although “Svayambh” is the heart of the show and the towering courtyard sculpture tempts shoppers and pedestrians while greeting museum visitors, “Shooting into the Corner” is the most infamous piece in the show. The title borrows from a dirty, adolescent joke and with good reason. The work is made up of a canon which fires wax pallets through a doorway from one gallery into another.
There is an element of penetration in the work and expressions of masculinity and violence. And, of course, the joke is on the viewer when the semen, I mean, wax hits the wall and then, in an anti-climactic way, slowly creeps downwards into a mess of old wax. On a psychological level, the work spurs notions of sexuality – not coincidentally, the work was first exhibited in Vienna, the home of Freud. From an architectural point of view, the wax is shot into a corner: the corner as the origin of any building. And, finally, from an artistic point of view, the slowly dripping wax is in its own way a constantly-evolving piece of art work, changing and growing like a human inside and outside the womb.
Is there anything in the Royal Academy of Art show that betrays Anish Kapoor’s Indian origin apart from one work’s Sanskrit name? In my opinion, yes—the scale and the colors with which Kapoor creates his works suggest the artist’s country of origin is at the very least a subconscious force in creating his oeuvre. “Tall Tree and Eye” resembles the shape and size of Rajasthan’s ancient Hindu temples, and the vibrant crimsons and yellows in Kapoor’s work are reminiscent of common Indian spices used in cooking like red chilli powder and turmeric as well as the most popular pigments used to paint family and friends on the popular Hindu holiday, Holi, or the Festival of Colors.
Originally skeptical of Anish Kapoor’s rejection of the label “Indian artist”, after viewing the exhibition I am convinced that although Art need not require a nationality, or a specific country culture from which it originates, I stand by the fact that Art cannot be produced in a vacuum; it comes from somewhere, is inspired by something, and is in conversation with other cultural products.
However, Anish Kapoor’s body of work does not come from the culture of nationhood, specifically India’s, but from the Culture of Science. Anish Kapoor’s ambitious attempts at creating perfectly symmetrical geometric shapes, experiments with pigment, play with materials to create textures, and problem solving behind integrating two seemingly-incompatible materials into a single piece, is the most successful demonstration of Art originated from Science I have ever witnessed. Which begs the question, what does this Culture of Science indicate about Anish Kapoor’s own identity as an artist?
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html
In the summer of ’08, for my “Contemporary British Literature” class, I taught Hanif Kureishi’s “The Buddha of Suburbia”, a coming-of-age novel about a young Indian-English Hindu Brit obsessed with celebrity culture and incensed by his father’s re-invention as a yogi master in their suburban English community. So you can imagine my interest when I heard that the National Theatre, in conjunction with Tara Arts, adapted Hanif Kureishi’s “The Black Album” to the stage. Unfortunately, the play did not live up to my expectations. The characters were shallow and the scenes a blur. However, there is value in staging such a production as “The Black Album” as a way to spur conversation about the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in London, the identity crisis and ostracization young Muslims experience in the modern world, and the question around whether religious faith is incompatible with contemporary, secular forms of art such as Prince’s “The Black Album”.
“News India Times” October 9, 2009
“Hanif Kureishi’s ‘The Black Album’” by Kavita Ramdya
I‘m still amazed at how mainstream South-Asian theatre is in London in comparison to New York where the South-Asian community is smaller in proportion. I recently visited London’s National Theatre (NT) to see the stage adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel “The Black Album” (1996) whose title refers to the 1989 Prince album with which the main character, Shahid Hasan, is obsessed. Co-produced by Tara Arts, a long-established South Asian theatre organization in England which “champions creative diversity through the production, promotion and development of world class, cross-cultural theatre,” the play’s themes are still relevant today despite the book’s original publication more than ten years ago. Shahid, a first-year university student, is a music-loving Pakistani Muslim raised in Kent, England.
He moves to London to attend university; there, he has an affair with DeeDee Osgood, his professor of “Post-Colonial Literature,” and falls in with the “wrong crowd”: a group of radical Muslim students who tout that all “whites are racist” and wield violence in Allah’s name. Kureishi attempts to dramatize the events of 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the impending doom of Communist Russia, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses” (1988) and the popularity of rock music by heretics such as Prince whose ambiguous sexuality and mixed race symbolize the secularism that threatens to distract young Muslims away from Allah.
Alas, the play’s context and the players producing it promise much but deliver very little. Word must have spread because although I expected a big showing of support by South Asians, my husband and I were two of only a dozen South Asians in the audience. In the play’s first scene, Shahid is called a “Paki” by the resident drug dealer and meets the leader of the local radical Islam group, a young man from Lahore who expresses homo-erotic feelings towards Shahid. The play turns into a mess of sexual tensions, racial epithets, allusions to historical events, and philosophical discussions of political discourse, a twister of confusion which threatens to envelope Shahid from his love for music and family who pray for him in Kent.
Occasionally, the play is punctuated by a semi-articulate discussion of themes around race and politics, but, for the most part, the play closely resembles the meandering, late night, overly passionate discussions we all had in our dorm rooms while first-year university students. Although this level of discussion is appropriate and even expected for eighteen-year olds, who wants to see it re-enacted on stage? If anything, watching the play reminds us of our own foolishness that we could somehow solve the world’s problems between the hours of ten in the evening and three in the morning in the safe confine of our college dorm room.
Lines such as “Racism turns us away from ourselves” and “music poisons us from Allah… cure us from that white shit” hit the audience with precision and force, like tennis balls shooting from an ac-powered machine. Practically staggering out of the theatre, I felt bruised and beaten from the constant delivery of such heavy-handed dialogue. And it didn’t help that the show’s choreography resembled that of an MTV video: the scenes changed constantly, almost ADD-like.
Another major drawback in the stage adaptation of “The Black Album” is its lack of humour. Having enjoyed reading and teaching “The Buddha of Suburbia” (1990), I expected a good douse of humour to accompany the play’s rather serious themes. However, there are only two instances of humor, the first of which happens in response to Shahid practicing yoga. One of his new radical Islamist friends implores Shahid to stop his practice because that “Hindu shit will fuck your mind” and turn him “into George Harrison.”
As a long-time yoga practioner, I could appreciate how people unfamiliar to yoga might feel threatened by the ancient Hindu practice.
The second instance is one which points fun at all radical religious groups. Shahid’s mother cooks and packs him pakoras which his radical Muslim friends happily devour.
However, one special pakora is saved because it is inscribed with a shape that looks like “alif,” the first letter in the Arabic alphabet and the first character in the Quran.
Anyone who has seen the alif will observe that it is little more than a vertical line so when Shahid’s radical Muslim friends decide it is a sign from Allah, the crowd bursts into laughter at the sheer ludicrousness of the situation.
As we see from following the news, observing G-d’s image in one’s food and other inanimate objects is not uncommon among fervent believers.
As a writer, Hanif Kureishi is never shy about to spur conversation around controversial topics. For this reason I applaud his, Tara Arts and the National Theatre’s stage adaptation of “The Black Album.” But, had the delivery been more suited to a thinking, contemplative and mature audience, this reviewer would have sung the play’s praises rather than written the equivalent of a theatre review death sentence.
Kureishi in New York:
Hanif Kureishi is an English playwright, yet his most popular novel , “The Buddha of Suburbia”, contains a few scenes in which the hero Karim visits his bestfriend Charlie in New York.
Karim’s introduction to life in Manhattan is the crazy speed with which New York City cab drivers chariot their passengers across the city and the experience of feeling jetlag: “when we got out of the cab, I did want to lie down on the pavement and go to sleep” which pretty much sums up my feelings the first night upon arriving in New York from London.
Karim and Charlie find themselves in the Village people watching and enjoying milkshakes “thick with Italian ice-cream” which spurs readers familiar with Manhattan geography wonder whether Kureishi could possibly be referring to the Four Corners Cafes (possibly even Café Figaro where I had my 19thbirthday party celebration while a student at NYU?)
Finally, Charlie and Karim frequent the Russian Tea Room in Midtown West, a restaurant noted for its variety of flavoured vodkas. Reading about fictional Londoners in New York offers the opportunity to connect with these otherwise foreign characters whose adventures on my home turf affirm for me once again, “There’s no place like home.”