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March 04, 2019

Priyesh Trivedi’s Art Uses Nostalgia To Look At The Future

Text by Shubham Ladha

…in a delightfully dark yet comical way.

In the art world, it is generally advised to steer clear of nostalgia, since it panders to that which is familiar, and clouds it with bias. But visual artist and designer, Priyesh Trivedi’s interest in the past makes sure he breaks the rules.

In the October of 2013, the 28-year-old, Mumbai-based artist shared on social media — what would be the first of many in the series Adarsh Balak — of a school boy in a blue shirt and khaki shorts, rolling marijuana, with the text,  ‘ट’ से ‘टोक’ emboldened in red beside him, reminiscent of the Hindi barakhadi charts, depicting the usages of the Hindi alphabet to what qualities makes an ideal boy or girl. The art work and series catapulted into social media popularity, eventually placing Trivedi’s subversive, darkly comical perspective on nostalgia on the art radar. Since then, Trivedi has amassed a following, especially the millennial community.

We catch up with the artist on what inspires his uniquely nostalgic perspective and how he moulds it into a way to look at the future:

What inspired you as an adolescent to get into the visual arts field?

I’ve been creating art ever since I can remember. I found out very early in life that I was good at it and just kept getting better as I grew up. Also, it was a healthy form of escapism for me, being the weird loner kid that I was for most of my school life. I was mostly inspired by cartoon shows, old 8-bit games and nature books I used to heavily indulge in. I would also make my own action figures out of cardboard. As I got older I was slowly introduced to influential artists from the past and I would try to paint in their styles and fail miserably. So, all the way till my mid-to-late teens, I was just pointlessly trying out different styles and mediums and learnt as I went along.

Your work is heavily inspired by artistic influences from vintage and propaganda art from the ’80s and ’90s. What brought about this initial fascination? What about its aesthetic appeals to you?

I have a fascination for vintage and archived material. I think people in general have a notion that authenticity is lost overtime and that things were better and truer in the past. Most of us feel there could never be another Hendrix or the advertisements on TV are no longer iconic and memorable. Personally, I feel every decade leaves a unique mark and there’s something to take back from contemporary popular culture. With my work, I try to merge my fascination of the vintage with pop culture and the contemporary human condition at large using nostalgia and subversive dark humour. My love for propaganda posters fall under that as well. If you strip away the political messaging you see some of the best design and typography works. I guess that’s why they were so effective in their indoctrination.

There are also some psychedelic influences involved. How did they come in?

PT: For a few years in my early twenties, I was really interested in studying cultures and tribes in the past that have used psychotropic plants and fungi as part of their rituals or even for recreational purposes. It’s not something I can condense in a few lines but simply put, there is an innate desire in humans to crossover to the other side of the psyche either by using these substances or naturally through meditation or other techniques. All the way from the tribes in the Amazon to the hippies in the late ’60s. I painted out my own experiences because that was the only way I could express them. I know the potential that these things have and I tried to rid them of the stigma associated with them in my work, particularly in the Adarsh Balak series.

What’s your creative process like?

PT: It starts with an idea that usually hits me out of nowhere at the most random times. And I start to figure out in my head the best way to show it all the way down to the little details. Something that takes anywhere from few minutes to few days in some cases. Most ideas end up in the bin but the ones that truly compel me, I go ahead with. Also there have been works that were almost complete and never saw the light of day simply because I don’t find them cool anymore. If it’s based on something that already exists I collect as many visual references as I can and start making rough digital mock-ups to set the composition since it’s easy to move and edit things around and once I’m happy with how it shapes up, I draw and paint the same thing on paper as the final illustration or painting.

Can you describe the ideas behind some of the projects you’ve embarked on, such as Adarsh Balak, reworking old advertisements, paintings and other pop culture references? How did you think of the subversion you wanted to evoke through them?

PT: Adarsh Balak started off as an inside joke that just snowballed into something else entirely on social media. It’s a series that parodies the educational posters that we had in schools in the ’80s and ’90s that were highly indoctrinating and stereotypical in nature. I once happened to stumble upon a blog that compiled all those original posters and when I saw them again as a grown up with an entirely different worldview, all these ideas started to hit me of how I could subvert the imagery and turn the idea of being an ideal child over its head by showing the protagonist and his friends doing things that go against societal norms and conventions.

With Sadvertisements I wanted to show a very existential and nihilist take on the vintage ad posters that also comments on the post-capitalist landscape and the nature of commodity itself; all driven by a very cynical escapist impulse.

Even with my other works, it’s the same feeling that drives them. Anytime I look at something, I just immediately see how I can subvert it almost naturally with humour and tongue-in-cheek sarcasm.

In what way has your art evolved since you first began?

PT: I began a long time back so I’ve certainly come a long way. In the last few years, I’ve become more patient and attentive to things that I would either ignore or underplay before. Everything from how the idea is developed to how it’s shown. I also have crippling self-doubt and I can be hard on myself so every work is a learning curve. My humour and perspective have also developed a lot. I also do a lot of video, new media, and experimental art revolving around very different sets of idea and concepts. Most of those works were produced in residencies I’ve been a part of in the past. But they are certainly not as popular as my illustrations or paintings.

In what way are you able express your perspectives through your art and combine it with historic references?

PT: I’ve been told I’m a very layered person and with my art I tend to peel each one off. There are hints of my state of mind in every work either explicitly or in subtle references. For example, with Adarsh Balak, I painted out certain frustrations, like the painting where they blow up the school comes from the deep resentment I had towards my own school. Or the work from Sadvertisements where the lady is sipping tea while the city in the back is getting destroyed by meteors is in a way me when I’m extremely cynical and nihilistic about everything and indifferent to the condition that the world finds itself in. Every work is a mirror in a way. Associating those feelings with vintage iconography is just something that naturally comes out.

Since you rework such reverent posters and artworks in a darkly comical way, has your art ever been the subject of hate? If so, how do you deal with it?

PT: Not yet. And I’m quite surprised by that. Adarsh Balak is filled with enough reasons for people to be pissed at me but in those few years of working on that project, I faced almost no pushback at all. Even if there was, it didn’t hit my radar. Nor with any of my recent vintage works. Except this one time when some art account on Instagram shared the painting of the lady lighting a cigarette with a traditional lamp. There were many people who thought I was ‘ruining Indian culture’ and ‘insulting women’. But I don’t think I’m answerable to self-appointed saviours of culture and tradition, so I usually let criticism of that nature slide.

Which project have you enjoyed working on the most?

PT: I take up very few commissioned projects. I only agree to work with people if the idea is cool and if I have enough creative liberty. One of the recent collaborations was with Puma for their new sneaker line which was quite good. Another project some time back with British Council and Aardman called ‘Saptan Stories’ was fun too. Apart from that I’ve really liked working on the album covers and posters I’ve made in the last couple of years.

What’s on the cards for the future?

PT: Well, apart from making art, I’ve been working on a few ideas around apparel and fashion. I’m also working on side projects around photography, mixed media and film. There are commercial projects underway where I’m handling art direction and the overall creative process.

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