Francesco Clemente is in Kochi in connection with biennale

Drawing on the similarities between Indians and Italians, author Salman Rushdie wrote in an article on celebrated Italy-born artist Francesco Clemente, who shares his time between Varanasi and New York, that some Indians think that perhaps Italians are just Indians who drink wine.

“And if the Italians are the Indians of Europe and the Indians are the Italians of Asia, and not only because we are both southerners, Indians and Italians, not only because we hang off the bottom of our continent of origin, Italy like a giant leg, India like a giant, dripping nose. And standing upon the Italian-Indian border, that fantastic frontier, straddling, or, better, leaping back and forth across this imaginary borderline, smiling his wicked commedia dell’arte smile, at once satyr-like and iconic—satyriconic—is Francesco Clemente, mingler of the two worlds, artist of spiritual cynicism and erotic chastity, or perhaps of cynical spiritualism and chaste eroticism, his face hugely above his dreamscapes like the moon,” commented Rushdie.

Sitting at the Kashi Art Gallery in Fort Kochi the other day while on a site-scouting sojourn ahead of the forthcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale later this year, Mr. Clemente remarked: “All the worst characters of India and Italy are common. But on the good side, India wins hands down. I admire the country and relate to it, including all its contemporary traditions. My friends get annoyed when you point to India that way. But Kabir wasn’t born in Paris. Nanak didn’t come from Oklahoma. Buddha was not from Moscow.”

But Clemente isn’t apolitical. “A lot of religious activities and experiences in India are homemade and there’s something very radical and political about it,” he says.

For someone who arrived in India in 1971, he has been, in his own words, ‘a closeted artist in India’. He made most of his works here and is keen to come out of the closet. “I spent my formative years in India in Madras when I was very young at the Theosophical Society making liberal use of the library there and going through all those esoteric books, books connected to contemporary traditions etc,” the artist, billed to be among the pioneers of transavantgarde art movement, recalled in an exclusive chat with The Hindu.

His arrival in India, ‘a defining moment’, was propelled by severe discontent for the situation in Europe, which was then witnessing civil strife and political insurrection.

“I just wanted to make a lateral step to get away from the entire dynamic of civil war. I thought I would go somewhere else, but I was looking for a contemporary place. I didn’t have any romantic or Orientalist vision in me. I just wanted to go to a different situation which was still contemporary but by a different parameter. There weren’t really many places like that back then, if you were really looking for a different ‘contemporaniety.”

And he found it in India, “a democracy with a vibrant social and cultural situation, a visual sensibility and a sense of visual reality”.

What made him comfortable here was also because of his belief in the maxim that “the task of an artist is to go past his own cultural background”.

Mr. Clemente found India’s ‘fantastic wealth of diverse cultures unique’ and thought that an artist should speak a language that can be understood by someone brought up in an entirely different culture. “This is completely different from what globalisation proposes. It [the idea] doesn’t mean to make the language flat so that everybody can speak the flat language. It means to speak your own specific language touched with experience so that it is accessible to someone from another background.”

He would believe in globalisation the day a boy from Paris would drive a car in Karachi!

As an artist, Mr. Clemente thinks he is not really a builder. “As a painter, I’m a manual labourer… But I don’t build anything. I am just waking up everyday, trying to retrace the origin of my experience and notate the images that this experience generates.” All the contemporary traditions of India as well as the West have strong visual vocabularies. He says he often wondered the nature of the experiences that generated these images. His artistic pursuit, therefore, is to rewind those narratives of contemplation to their point of origin and see what would come out of that.

Influenced in his youth by Beat poetry, Mr. Clemente, who received formal education in architecture in Italy, collaborated with Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Gregory Corso and works like ‘White Shroud’, an illuminated manuscript he made along with Ginsberg were born. Mr. Clemente’s affinity to poetry is thanks to its inclusiveness, which he firmly believes in. So are the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti.

For someone who worked with the likes of Andy Warhol, the towering pioneer of Pop art, Mr. Clemente also collaborated with Indian craftsmen, including those who made miniatures in Jaipur and Orissa besides sign and billboard painters in Chennai.