Gendered themes in art are important, especially in a country where the goddess is worshipped but misogyny is rampant. Until the early 20th century, the role of women in arts was ‘episodic’, due to their social status and the inequality between the sexes. But in the last few decades especially, their under-representation has been challenged. The sheer number of women in the arts has increased globally; in Kurt Beers’ publication, 100 Artists of the Future, 47 are women.
Last month, a suite of leading South Asian women artists, including Arpita Singh, Nalini Malani, Shilpa Gupta and Anju Dodiya, showcased their work at the debut Frieze Seoul exhibition. In London, at the Design Festival, Indian diasporic artists and textile designers, Zakee Shariff and Asha Vaidyanath, unveiled work that explored healing, spirituality, and nature. This month, three new solo exhibitions caught our attention — where memories and the environment are an overarching theme, and where the idea of the matrilineal home becomes a leitmotif in their history, identity and sense of belonging.
When I first saw Kher, she was a striking young woman, her dark hair in a bun, her British accent saved for those she found interesting, and her mind focused on packing brown boxes of tea with volatile socio-political messages within them. It was at a workshop in KHOJ in the late 1990s — when the British-Indian artist had begun her practice in India — and, even then, people had high expectations from her.
Today Kher, 53, is one of India’s leading contemporary artists. Her work moves between sculpture, painting, collage, and mixed media installation, and she often uses found objects to explore individual and collective relations to the cultural past.
Her latest work is Ancestor — 18 feet tall, with 24 heads, and currently contemplating the view at Central Park. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, the painted bronze sculpture will be at Doris C. Freedman Plaza, New York, through August 27 of next year.
The powerful work is Kher’s most ambitious yet. “ Ancestor is about families, and the nature of womanhood and love,” she says, over email from New York. “It’s about long journeys together over time through your shared past and into the future. It’s about knowing, empathy, seeing, forgiving and freedom.” The feminine figure embodies “multiculturalism, pluralism, and interconnectedness”, and as she recently told The New York Times, it also makes a case for universalism because “she [ Ancestor] is part of this idea of Mother Earth. She has no problem. Everybody to her is the same.”
The sculpture seems a culmination of her ‘Intermediaries’ series — assembled by recomposing broken clay figurines. Reportedly, Kher first came across these figurines ( golu dolls) in the local markets in Kochi, Kerala, over six years ago. She ordered a large number of them, but many arrived broken. However, she became inspired as she repaired them, and they started taking on hybrid forms. Much like Ancestor, very Indian in its form but taking inspiration from Artemis of Ephesus. The Greek goddess of the hunt and fertility is often depicted with bulbous shapes on her chest. In Kher’s work, these are the heads of the Ancestor’s 23 children.
The sculpture reflects the New Delhi and London-based artist’s cross-cultural identity and her appreciation of India’s rich material culture. “She [ Ancestor] is the keeper of all things, all memories, all stories. A wish and dream catcher. A vessel for you to travel into the future, a guide to search and honour our past histories,” she explains. “I invite viewers to leave their wishes, dreams and prayers with her; and to pass on their wisdom of living and love to the next generation.”
The Traps We Weave
Aggarwal, 47, connects the metaphorical of the everyday to the larger picture of life. A mid-career artist who began her journey as a painter, she soon became fascinated with mixed media. Working with artisans and craftspersons from around the world (her next project involves people from Australia), her creations incorporate fibre work like crocheting, along with sculpture in wood and fibreglass — combining materials and ways of working she discovered through her travels.
Her latest work, The Traps We Weave — on exhibit at the 1X1 Art Gallery in Dubai till the end of the month — consists of a selection of her sculptural art, installations and mixed media wall art. The highlight is a large crocheted wire work tapestry, titled Trap. Approximately 17X12 feet, the “never-ending project” is a beautiful garment that is also indicative of the traps we weave around ourselves. “This act of weaving — something I carry from childhood — moves beyond its confines and becomes a metaphor through which I understand and view the world,” she says. “I use situations where we are confined and trapped, but often these restrictions are of our own making. We get bound by society and the superstructures built from ‘culture’ and those wires that are either subtly or blatantly political.”
In many ways, Aggarwal sees herself and society as victims of this conditioning — which leaves us with emptiness and a false sense of security.
“My favourite childhood memory is of my mother and grandmother spending their afternoons crocheting, knitting and creating something from cloth. I was not a mute spectator, but actively involved in learning what they were doing. Little did I know then how the experience would surface in my life and art,” she concludes.
Remen Chopra W. Van Der Vaart
In These Verses I Find Home
In her latest show, the multidisciplinary artist — whose work layers photography, drawing, sculpture, textile and wood — retraces the geo-political lines and memories that make up her idea of location, residence and ‘home’.
“My works for In These Verses I Find Home maps the history of lived spaces, and interweaves poetry and objects from my grandmother’s archive — materials like carpets, shawls, wooden boxes, keepsakes and even maps — to talk about feminine identity and to trace a journey of the ‘sacred feminine’, a tale that has been told only haltingly and partially,” says Van der Vaart. “The works are connected to places and language to create dialogues of an imaginary landscape.” Exhibited at the 1X1 Art Gallery till the end of the month, it is her first solo in Dubai.
Her works are organic and each object is sourced from a particular time, either in her own life or the lives of her mother and grandmother. The emphasis is on their matrilineal nature because women’s stories of that time often did not get told or were subsumed into the larger narrative.
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“Although it abstracts the real, it mediates an emotional and connective bond between people and communities that is both sculptural and material,” adds the artist. “Through these works, I question what our familial histories are, where do we come from, where do our journeys collide, and how do we relate to our mothers and our mother’s mothers through objects. I have created site-specific works, and it is a homage and testament to the sanctity of home and that of the Earth as feminine.”
The writer is a critic-curator by day, and a creative writer and visual artist by night.