Craft of the critters

Artist Nibha Sikander aesthetically portrays a variety of insects and moths that are often overlooked in our own city.

Amidst moss-laden concrete walls, blue trumpet vine flowers shift in the evening breeze. A tiny leaf emerges from a crack in a drainpipe, with its roots dangling in mid-air. For the keen observer, the city holds a plethora of microscopic forests bursting within the urban chaos. Murud-Janjira based artist, Nibha Sikander, is interested in meticulously assembling the residents of these miniature forests using layer upon layer of cut-out paper.

In an ongoing show titled, Wandering Violin Mantis, Sikander presents whole and deconstructed forms of colourful moths, mantises and birds that she has come across the Konkan Coast and Baroda.

Friendly visitors

Sikander’s curiosity first piqued in 2012, during a visit to the Nameri National Park, Assam. The Great Indian Pied Hornbills stirred something within her, and there began a tête-à-tête with craft and nature. “Since my home and studio is right behind the Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary, we are also lucky to see a variety of crawly and feathery visitors right in our garden,” she elaborates. Sikander’s entomological and ornithological passions were also a result of belonging to a family of distinguished naturalists, including well-known ornithologist Dr Sálim Ali, conservationists Laeeq and Zafar Futehally, and nature writer, Zai Whitaker.

The ground floor of the Tarq gallery sees a flock of birds like the Kingfisher, Woodpecker, Fantail Flycatcher, Sunbird, and the Red Whiskered Bulbul lying still, but rather life-like in glass frames. The detailing on the birds is enhanced by their presentation, which divides them by the head, wings, legs, and tail. Flashes of red, bright yellow, and electric blue bounce off the walls, as bits of paper mould into forms that seem to be taxidermied. The segmented feathery creatures are framed beside whole sheets of paper that were used to make them. “I call these my negatives,” says Sikander. “I haven’t thrown a single one since I first began using paper cuttings for my art 15 years ago.” At first glance, a few negatives resemble stencils of marine life, but on closer inspection, it’s evident there’s a tiny leg, a lone beak, circular busts, and jagged shapes used for the wings.

Long journey

Along with the yellow, olive, and rust paper stencils that hold clues for Sikander’s process-driven art, a glass case stands with tiny ceramic plates filled with miniature shapes. The artist explains that she used the dishes to store miniscule pieces of moths, insects, and birds that could easily be lost while cutting.

“I stick and cut simultaneously. So this ensures I have all the pieces of the puzzles intact,” explains Sikander. The patient crafter spent two years putting the show together, with a total of seven to eight hours daily in the studio. “Each of the elements required varying time frames, depending on their detailing. For example, I spent three to four days on each insect, around four to five days on one moth, and 12-14 days for each bird,” shares the artist.

Through the development of the exhibition, the artist’s three major tools have been card paper, an X-Acto cutter, and the glue that binds the layers together. She doesn’t consider herself as a painter, and hence, is careful about picking the right shades of coloured paper to develop her creations. “What’s amazing is that paper has this beautiful quality of being stiff, and flexible at the same time. It shares those properties with an insect that chooses when to be stiff, and then fluttery,” shares Sikander. The artworks require the viewer to go close, and notice the delicate webs made on dragonfly wings, or the network of patterns encompassing the wings of the Luna Moth. Since her craft requires immense attention to detail, Sikander works in daylight, with an attached overheard light to ensure a lack of shadows. While working with elements like the hair on the spider’s leg, or the pincers of the Pomegranate Fruit Piercer moth, she attempted the use of a magnifying glass, but soon gave it up as it distorted her view.

Beholding beauty

It’s also important to observe that Sikander’s representation of these dismembered organisms goes beyond their appearance. As art critic Ranjit Hoskote writes in the note accompanying the show: “Gradually, we realise that the segmented portraits of her subjects are not simply a mode of presentation; cutting against their own loveliness, they encode the barbaric violence that we have enacted upon the other species with whom we share this planet.” Another fascinating aspect of Sikander’s work, is the plethora of colours that drench the moths on display. It busts the common misconception of them solely sporting staid browns, and being less magnificent than their bright butterfly counterparts.

The neon green Crimson Spotted Emerald moth, the cerulean dotted Little Yam Hawkmoth, the blue and orange ikkat patterns across the Lilly Moth, and the dreamy translucence of the powder-blue Luna moth are all testament to the creature’s overlooked beauty.

“I’m most fascinated by the colour combinations that exist on the creatures I’ve encountered. I never imagined those colours would ever work together,” says Sikander. While all the insects on the wall have visited the artist at some point of time, she’s given herself creative license to play around with the colours and patterns of those in the vitrines. But even there, she’s maintained a sense of reality by showcasing a broken wing, a chipped leg, or a torn corner of a moth eaten by an insect or bats.

When asked if she ever set-out days to hunt for the perfect protagonist, the artist laughs before declaring, “I’ve never really had to find them, they find me. Whether it’s on the bench at home where I usually sit, or even in my bedroom, they have a knack of following me around.”

Wandering Violin Mantis is on at Tarq, Colaba till January 4, 2020.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 5:41:03 PM |

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