Spanning craft geographies

Contemporary artist Praneet Soi’s artwork is usually influenced by his constant search, journey and observation of cultural contrasts between various places. The 45-year-old artist in his ongoing show Notes on Labour pays tribute to artisans and craftsmen of Kolkata, Srinagar, and Guangzhou in China. The works, which are being exhibited in India for the first time, are part of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum’s curatorial series, ‘Engaging Traditions’, which invites contemporary artists to work with the history, archives and collection.

Spanning craft geographies

As you step into the museum, you are greeted by an untitled painting on a wall that is designed to resonate with the museum’s architecture. Made on-site, the painted motifs reflect Soi’s exposure to the Journal of Indian Art and Industry published by W. Griggs and Sons in 1886 with illustrations by Lockwood Kipling (Rudyard Kipling’s father) that are a part of the museum’s library. Soi said, “Kipling had documented the origin of architecture, carvings and old brass patterns from India in the journal. Some of the images on the curving wall are inspired from there.”

Using images from the journal, Soi has transformed the Origins of Mumbai gallery into an interactive environment housing his ‘Astatic Machines’. Designed to communicate the artist’s studio methodology to a larger audience, these are drawing machines, inspired by artist Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook. Kipling’s images from the journal are interspersed with imagery from Klee’s manual and the artist’s archive. “It’s interesting to see how Kipling had collected designs and patterns. I have used those as a starting point and mixed them with indigenous drawings. The idea is that visitors can put an image on the machine and draw their own visual on it. In a way, it will help them overcome their fear of drawing,” shared Soi.

Spanning craft geographies

Printer at work

The three interconnected Kamalnayan Bajaj Special Exhibitions Galleries in the museum have been dedicated to Soi’s interactions with artisans from Kolkata, the Kashmir and China. The first room is dedicated to Kumartuli in North Kolkata. Soi’s fascination with Kumors (craftsmen), who specialise in making religious clay effigies, began in 2010. He started with exploring the adjoining areas of Kumartuli and noticed defunct jute warehouses that now housed a variety of workshops. In one such space, he observed a printer who made cards for local pujas, weddings and small businesses. His repetitive motions of printing and working on an old-fashioned machine intrigued Soi. The first work, which is on display at the exhibition, resulted from this observation. Titled ‘Kumartuli Printer, Notes on Labour’ (Part 1), the slideshow portrays the printer’s hands as he works an anachronistic treadle press. As each slide progresses the images, being printed, are in fact documentation of the printer’s hands working, revealing a circle of labour and the working process between the artist and the printer. The artist, who hails from Kolkata but now stays in Amsterdam, said, “I clicked his photographs and realised that they were unfolding a narrative. I asked him if we could print some of his pictures on his machine. So, we went through the entire process of regurgitating the images. That’s what the slide show is about. It’s about me watching him at work, interspersed with images of his commercial work and my references to his studio. I’m very curious about how people work and their repetitive motions of labour.” The next work is a short animated clip of another labourer who worked in the adjoining workshop making plastic balls for children. Soi decided to capture his work by drawing a series of images and then reanimating them.

Visual repositories

The central room showcases Soi’s interactions the craftsman, Fayaz Jan, in Srinagar in the year 2016. As the craftsmen of the Valley passed on knowledge of patterns and designs to each other orally, Soi decided to conceptualise a work as an archive of patterns, borders and floral tropes that they used. Painted on handmade papier-mache tiles, the installation is arranged in a square consisting of 100 tiles each measuring 30 x 30 cm. These consist of extracts from the artist’s notebook that describe his interactions with the craftsmen. Soi explained, “The installation is a visual repository of the work that these people do and the language they use to communicate.”

Spanning craft geographies

A diagram from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, explaining the phenomena of anamorphosis, is a central image in the room. Soi uses anamorphosis as a metaphor to describe the political turmoil in Kashmir. He elaborates, “One of the reasons I went to the Valley was to understand what life would be on the borders of my country. I live in Amsterdam so I’m sensitive to what a minority faces. But when I went to Kashmir, I realised that because there were so many agendas, I wasn’t sure what was my ground.” Soi says he found himself attracted to the Valley’s craftsfolk and away from the overtly political narrative. “We could understand and trust each other as our relationship wasn’t influenced by any socio-political factors. I decided to capture this through anamorphosis which shows a distorted projection or drawing that appears normal when viewed from a particular point or with a suitable mirror or lens. This for me became a metaphor for the situation in Kashmir as over there everything depends on your viewpoint,” he says.

Sound and craft

The last room is dedicated to works that Soi created with a porcelain craftsman in Guangzhou (Old Canton) in China in the year 2015. A set of 22 hand-painted porcelain tiles, which were created within the Hui Porcelain Studio in historic Haizhu district, uses historic Qing dynasty patterns along with images and patterns that he brought from Kashmir. A video includes quotes from ancient Chinese texts on aesthetics which are typed and pasted in cut-out style. Animations related to the construction of patterns he was working with at the porcelain studio are also on display. Soi says, “This is the first time I have used sound as a medium. These are collected sounds and entail some of the research that I did on Indian monks who travelled to China centuries ago. Their names have been translated into Cantonese. I found a girl with a beautiful voice in Guangzhou and requested her to repeat the names, so that they sound as chants.”

Soi emphasises that working on this show across three cities made him aware that art has no boundaries. “I learnt that that forms migrate constantly. I realised that a pattern that I saw in Kashmir popped up in Guangzhou, a place where I least expected. So contrary to popular notion, there is very little that is really endemic when it comes to the arts and crafts,” he asserts.

Notes of Labour ongoing at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Byculla until July 25

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 11:55:26 PM |

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