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Verve People
July 24, 2015

Meet 6 Boundary-Pushing Contemporary Artists

Text by Zaral Shah and Huzan Tata. Photographs by Anshika Varma, Ranabir Das, Miguel Benavides, Tejal Pandey, Lalit Vikamshi, N Prasannakumar

Portraying engaging stories through their work, they share their journeys over the years

1. Shalini Arora, 42 — Mastering Lines

Armed with a degree in architecture, the artist started her adult life by trying to build a career in the world of lines and spaces, until she decided that she needed to devote more time to her first love and greatest passion — drawing. Completely focussed on this path since 2011, Shalini Arora has since created several art works with her pen, and held her debut public show, Disappearing Staircases, in January this year. And of course, she loves that her architectural experience brings in “structure, control and a love of geometry” in all her creations.

For the joy of art
“For me, the biggest advantage of being an artist is the freedom it gives me. In my drawings, architecture and space are explored through the lens of my imagination — I am not held back by real-world structural or client-driven constraints, unlike an architect.”

On inspirations and influences
“I am actually influenced more by art movements and genres like cubism, minimalism, Russian constructivism and Japanese sumi-e ink drawings. Artists whose work I admire include Paul Klee, Eva Hesse, Nasreen Mohamedi and Zarina Hashmi.”

On concerns expressed through drawing
“Architectural and environmental issues find expression in some of my work. The Exploding City series reflects my concern regarding uncontrolled growth — the mindless overbuilding we see in the form of banal apartment blocks that are mushrooming all over. My other works, Landscape/Ruin and Stepwell, speak of my love for ruins and heritage sites — calling attention to the need to conserve and recognise their incredible richness and value.”

Telling tales through art
“I employ a form of storytelling where series of drawings are looked at as ‘animation frames’ — expressing movement and the progression of a spatial idea.”

On disappearing staircases
“The title reflects my long-held fascination with staircases, which I see as metaphors for mystery and the unknown. The drawings fuse my spatial explorations with my interest in Buddhist thought and the minimalist Zen aesthetic of traditional sumi-e Japanese ink drawings. I am inspired by their notion of ‘emptiness’ — where the empty blank space of the paper completes the drawing and is as important as that which is drawn. Like the sumi-e Japanese artists, I strive to say more with less, using an economy of means to express with simplicity what I perceive to be the essence of a subject — a spatial idea or a memory of a place — while reducing my lines down to the essentials.”

Changes I want to see…
“I would like drawing to be given more attention by viewers and be acknowledged as a practice in its own right, rather than being seen as lesser than painting, as is often the case in India. This differs from the West, where drawing is being celebrated through biennales, special institutions and galleries dedicated to the art.”

2. Payal Kapadia, 29 — Reciting Visually

Presently pursuing film direction at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, the film-maker and visual artist recently won the Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique/International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Jury Prize. She’s also received a special jury mention at the International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen, for her film The Last Mango Before the Monsoon. Payal Kapadia’s work addresses issues related to identity, memory and Indian myths. Currently, she’s working on a video piece on ancient rock structures of Maharashtra’s Western Ghats.

On her choice of career
“Both my parents were involved in different forms of art, which helped me gain wide exposure. My interest in cinema was sparked off at a very young age while I was studying at Rishi Valley School, Andhra Pradesh. It is a residential school and the only form of entertainment we had was films shown to us over the weekends. These included movies by directors like Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky and Satyajit Ray.”

On artistic storytelling
“It isn’t the story in itself that interests me. The story is a medium through which one reflects upon a human condition. Director Kamal Swaroop said, ‘A story is like a capsule that stores information in codes of narratives. It is for the audience to open it up and let it reveal a whole lot of information, history, memories and philosophy.’ This idea of a story really stayed with me. It is like a time capsule, passed on by word of mouth.”

Personal gems
“My latest project, The Last Mango Before the Monsoon, is important as the film made me introspect a lot about my work. Dealing with myths, personal memory and temporality in elliptical narratives are some elements that I tried to explore and hope to work on in my upcoming projects.”

When not working…
“I enjoy cooking as a hobby. I see a similarity between that and making films. In both, it is all about getting the ingredients and timing right. A lot of times it features in my work as well. The passing down of recipes is in some way similar to the passage of stories, with their own secrets.”

On Indian art over the years
“As far as moving images are concerned, the changes have been mostly positive. People are now a lot more open to moving image as an art form. A gallery space is elitist and a lot of people do not feel comfortable in it. Having said that, I feel spaces like Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum are bringing visual arts to a large audience.”

3. Anindita Dutta, 42 — Moulding Figures

At first glance, they look like clay figurines. But look again, and you realise that what you see are actually human beings covered in wet mould. Everything Ends and Everything Matters, brainchild of the Montana-based artist, has individuals literally becoming artworks. Born in Punia, Bihar, Anindita Dutta received her degree in sculpture and ceramics from Purdue University, USA in 2003, and has since pushed boundaries to create art that’s not only visually pretty, but also makes one think.

Fledgling steps
“I’ve always been aesthetically and conceptually attracted to the human body as a subject and form of expression. Over the years, it became an inspiration and a medium through which I expressed myself. Through my artistic journey, I discovered that the medium of clay and performance had a bearing on my philosophical and emotional bent of mind.”

Telling stories…
“I do look for stories to tell but they are not topical ones; the stories, if they can be called so, are abstract and universal…and more about human emotions. It is only through letting go of a concrete theme that I can express my art in a more conscious way.”

On Everything Ends and Everything Matters
“This exhibition is a product of around six years of work on the concepts of death and impermanence. It’s the culmination of all my ideas and experiences that question human existence. I have taken clay to a space where it is removed from its everyday-ness, and have brought materiality of our lives to the forefront through it.”

Creative milestones
“My first landmark was when I transitioned from working with clay sculpture to using it in my performances. It started when I first used wet clay partially on my body in a brick coffin work in 2005. Over a period of time, clay became a medium of expression. The second milestone was in 2010 when my work was acknowledged by the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. It was this international recognition that inspired me to push towards further growth as an artist.”

Inspirations and models
“I admire Louise Joséphine Bourgeois for her sensibility, softness, and strength; Mexican painter Frida Kahlo whose works reflect her struggle with her physical handicaps and the courage to continue working despite them; and painter and sculptor Henri Matisse. I am inspired by personality and will power.”

4. Hemali Bhuta, 36— Devising Depths

A diploma holder in interior designing and a graduate in fine arts, she sculpts spaces and creates mind-boggling installations. Hemali Bhuta has received the reputed Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant and holds in her kitty a joint project called Representing Histories. She is also the co-founder of the artists’ initiative, CONA Foundation, Mumbai.

On creating sculptures and installations
“Interior decoration, the notion of the constants, and an abusive boss inspired me to get into fine arts. Sculpting spaces is interesting but I would rather call it ‘drawing’ in spaces. Drawing has been an integral part of my practice from my college days. What excites me is the fragility, vulnerability, and ephemerality of the line. My installations are experiments — exercises to enjoy this line in a constant state of change.”

A personal favourite
“My first installation-turned-video called Movement is very special to me. It was shown in 2007 at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai. There was something airy and fresh about that work. To me, the best things happen when there is less sophistication. I am able to construct more within the limited. Movement is about the playfulness of rubber bands and drawing with them in space. It triggered many things for me.”

On inspirations
“My two most integral and constant inspirations are Paul Klee and Nasreen Mohamedi. Both their works come out of organic matter, substance and being. They have the ability to deceive the viewer.”

The idea behind CONA  
“My passion is not just mine but my husband and fellow artist Shreyas Karles’ too. We have founded an artist initiative CONA Foundation, which as the name suggests, is situated at the edge of the city. It’s a residency that aims to dissolve the hierarchies between art and design.”

On the future forward
“We are currently doing a project initiated by CONA, in collaboration with Mumbai Art Room, called Bartered Collections. I also have two exhibitions in Delhi. One includes the works of six artist friends. The second is about artist diaries. And hopefully a solo show at Project 88 in Mumbai.”

5. Shweta Bhattad, 30 — Sculpting Stories

For the Nagpur-born innovator, it was the passion for telling stories creatively that led her to MSU Baroda (Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda), to pursue a degree in visual art sculpture. Today, Shweta Bhattad dabbles in various mediums — including video, sculpture, performance and public art. After her first public performance at Khoj International Artists’ Association in New Delhi, the maverick has been touring the country with her performances that invite viewers to think, and respond to art.

Creativity without boundaries
“Even while being trained as a sculptor, I found that I needed something more, where I could translate my experiences. That’s how I started making videos and doing performances, and I found them all correlated to each other.”

Open spaces
“Now, more artists are getting involved in community projects. Public art, out of the four walls of the gallery, makes it accessible to more audiences.”

Storytelling through art
“Being an artist has given me a strong visual language to take people’s stories to the world. There are many people who respond positively, connect, and then take it further. Visual storytelling is more expressive — it triggers concerns and sensitivity and inspires people to react and to participate.”

Art in a public space
“Public art is of different kinds, but mostly it’s designed keeping in mind what, where, how and whom to address, what visuals will be more impactful and will involve audiences more. In my experience with public art in India, I’ve never felt that art has a niche audience.”

Into the fields
“My ongoing I Have A Dream project is special. I was invited by the Vancouver Biennale in Canada for an art residency last year, where I initiated it. I invited artists from around the world to connect with farmers of their own countries, choose a farmland and sow seeds to form the words ‘I Have A Dream’ in their native languages. As the ‘dream’ grows, artists and farmers have several meetings to talk about their ideas, which will be recorded via videos and photographs. There will also be community lunches which will be cooked from the vegetables or pulses cultivated. We started Skype meetings between farmers from different countries, where artists play the roles of coordinator, translator, photographer and designer. Concluding in 2016, it has won a Big Ideas Award and is part of the 12th grade curriculum in Surrey, Canada.”

6. K Benitha Perciyal, 37 — Exploring Dimensions

Hailing from Thiruvannamalai, the artist holds an MFA in painting and printmaking. K Benitha Perciyal participated in the fast-growing Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) 2014. An enthusiastic India Art Fair participant, an upbringing in a family full of artists has propelled her passion and introduction to the field.

Down memory lane
“I studied painting and printmaking, but working on three dimensions in sculpture and installation fascinated me, as scale and space became very important here. When I finished art college, I felt that art was my life and that it was something that I wanted to continue. That moment became the most important artistic milestone. In terms of career, my first solo exhibition My Museum was also significant.”

On storytelling through art
“The fragile material that I use in my work transforms with time and tells its own story. Visual storytelling requires no formal training and breaks down language barriers. A fascinating example is Ai Weiwei (a Chinese contemporary artist, active in sculpture, installation, architecture, curating, photography and film).”

On India’s niche audience
“Art is no longer confined to a niche audience. The community studios LKA (Lalit Kala Akademi) and KMB are a testament to growing interest in public art. Witnessing a sea of visitors KMB helped me in many ways to understand ‘the setting’ when it comes to public art. ”

On change for the future and a cherished compliment
“The most important change I would like to see is artists standing with each other and showcasing each other’s works without bias. The second change would be the energy and synergy that like-minded artists can create together and throw open their works to the public. In 2005, at a workshop in my hometown, I compiled my 10-year work process into a presentation. It was special because my father who was in the crowd had never seen my work until then. He was overwhelmed with joy and cried. Recently during my solo exhibition, a renowned artist who I respect said, ‘You are too possessive to display your work’; I took this as positive criticism.”

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