Karl Antao's wooden sculptures use the imagery of myths and legends to probe the human mind
Peeping out of the complex web of narratives and their several meanings and interpretations are Karl Antao's intriguing sculptures created in wood — Burma teak and sevan. Even the material has a story to it but we will touch on that later. The figures, fantastical and mythological, might transport the viewer back in time on account of their appearance — they look pre-historic — but are equally rooted in the present. Antao, a former advertising professional, uses the legend of Varaha, the boar-headed avatar of Vishnu in “Varaha in the stars of the knights”, a take on the 26/11 terror attacks.
The man seated on a boar is symbolised as a soldier, who went all out to save the innocents caught in the horrific Mumbai terror attacks, just like Vishnu who saved the Goddess of Earth by lifting her on his tusks. The two tusks have been replaced by Vishnu's serpent, his famous seat. The tail, touching his head from the back then represents the human mind, the larger subject he is exploring in this solo in Delhi “Couple of Differences” taking place after a gap of six years.
An avid reader, Antao was reading up on Vishnu when the attack happened. “And I wondered about the human mind, that if it can save somebody's life, it can also take somebody's life. The terrorists too came from the sea,” says the Ahmedabad-based Antao. Antao's interest in mythology isn't confined to his art practice. It extends to his penchant for collecting various specimens related to ancient rituals, like ritualistic sculptures.
Antao's entire collection of 13 sculptures and five drawings exhibited in the gallery approach the subject of the human mind through the myths and legends of different religions.
A perfect example of his skill, in “Rational Brawny Heart”, Antao showcases a woman on her knees as in prayer, holding on to her heart with one hand while the other one raised vertically holds on to her hair coming from the back, forming myriad shapes before finally touching the ground. Blending the ethos of Christianity with the strong visual imagery of the Hindu goddess Mahishasura Mardini, Antao yet again looks at the mindscape and its issues of attachment and detachment.
In all the pieces, hair has been depicted as extending into thoughts as if portraying the innermost feelings, doubts, beliefs of the mind. It must have been a task to render roundness and lyrical quality to the work in a material like wood, but Antao achieves the effect superbly with all the twists and turns in place as if moulding clay.
At times, Antao flirts with bronze as well — there is a bronze sculpture in this show — but it is wood that has remained his all-time companion. “I never say I work on a log, I always say, I work with a log. The material is such that it takes over for most of the time and directs you to do things. It is like having a conversation with somebody,” explains the artist who, for the latest project has chosen sevan wood for its whiteness. Its significance lies in the fact that the wood is used to make the idols of deities in the Swaminarayan sect as the wood is considered to be pure and lasting.
“I was looking for something that could also become my canvas as I paint on the sculptures. And the kind of logs, larger ones I was looking for, are available here,” says Antao.
(The show is on at Gallery Espace till November 30)