Fulbright scholar Sarah Sohn is drawing inspiration from Kathakali to fill her canvases.
Ever since the democratisation of traditional temple arts such as Koodiyattam and Kathakali through public institutions like Kerala Kalamandalam, scores of scholars, dancers and theatre practitioners from the West have been engaged in exploring the hitherto hidden treasures of Kerala’s performing arts. Of them, painters and sculptors have been few and far between. Sarah Sohn, who received her Masters of Fine Arts in painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, got carried away by the beauty of the stylised and semi-stylised hand-gesture and body language of Kathakali.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in California, United States, Sarah has been in Kerala for six months as a Fulbright Scholar to conduct research on the abstractions intrinsic to the movement-vocabulary in an art form like Kathakali.
When Sarah saw an excerpt of a Kathakali dance by the Kalamandalam troupe from Kerala at the Art Institute of Chicago in March 2011, she was struck by how it alluded to concerns she had regarding her own art practice. Sarah’s exposure to Kathakali reaffirmed her interest in abstract painting through narration and storytelling, and that, eventually, became a starting point in her wish to study in India.
In the language of gestural abstractions, myths and symbols, Sarah finds echoes connecting different cultures, languages and art forms. “As I am maturing as a painter, I realise how certain gestures in my paintings are becoming a choreography of mirroring movements, each painting acting as a rehearsal for another painting. Through abstraction, I am inventing a stage with my own characters, dancing in front of the canvas, moving in and out of the painting.”
Through painting, Sarah has been subverting and synthesising mythologies that cultivate a constantly shifting analysis on how we reconstruct images, and deal with our own biography. Imageries produced by mythologies, especially emotional performances like Kathakali, fuel her imagination as the gestural forms arise from her memories but soon become strange forms that are no longer easily identified.
As Sarah was growing up in Seoul, storytelling became a time of support and sharing in her family festivities. The Korean War had a huge impact on her grandmother, as she had to flee from the war zone, leaving behind some members of her family and friends and most of her belongings. Her grandmother had the gift of captivating an audience through personal myths and recollections, garnishing the stories with new details with each retelling. Sarah would make paintings and act out these tales, with her own embellishments. She seldom questioned the absurdity of it all, and it was then that she realised the complexity of art, in its ability to express something that is ineffable otherwise, opening up part of a world that neither emotion nor thought could penetrate.
Abstract painting allows Sarah to collapse the historical and the autobiographical within a single frame. Her interest in the overlapping of narration, storytelling, and performance is a source of inspiration that Sarah would like to explore during her studies in India.
In India, her research is a deep inquiry into how abstraction is used in expressive artistic practices, and how to inspire others by the incredible dance and power of Kathakali, and the artistes and landscape of Kerala.
Along with the resources available at Kalamandalam, Sarah has also been learning Kathakali, taking dance lessons from Kathakali master Kalamandalam Venkitaraman. By sketching on-site during Kathakali performances, Sarah has been able to gather source material for her paintings. Through interviews and her interactions with the actors, she was able to get to know the performers, learn about their life’s work and dedication to Kathakali.
Images inspired by Kathakali fuel Sarah’s imagination as gestural forms and figurations are interpreted through painting. A great painting, according to Sarah, continues to provoke infinite questions of what it is that is being seen.
As a painter wedded to the performing arts tradition of Kerala, Sarah considers painting as a living organism and a constantly evolving exploration. In this highly stylised art form she is deeply concerned with the process of creation.
For her Fulbright research project, Sarah is building her own vernacular through abstraction, a personal language that is created through intense viewing and response to Kathakali. The epic scale and beauty of Kathakali is what she strives for in her paintings, as she successfully attempts to impart this energy and power into an art that celebrates and transports its viewers to a transcendent state.
As an abstract painter, Sarah’s passion for highly evolved Indian dances, while enriching her medium of self-expression, is likely to provide fresh dimensions to the prevailing perceptions of aharya in our performing art tradition.