At a time when India is in what seems like a rape epidemic, when female foeticide and horrific honour killings make it to headlines every other day, the gender-rights movement in India has an ardent supporter in artist Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar who uses a bold visual language to celebrate the strength of womanhood, gender and sexuality with her installation art, paintings and pen and ink sketches.
Katharina exhibited her collection of work, ‘Women, Bodies and Goddesses,’ at the United Art Fair in New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan that concluded the other day. Among the eye-catching installations were humanoid forms made from scrap iron and works with extensive use of coconut shells, turmeric and whole red chillies. Katha, as she prefers to be addressed, says she likes to use materials easily found in her surroundings as these add an earthy, warm touch to her art.
“There are scrap dealers around, and coconuts fall from the trees in my garden. If I were in Germany, I might have used different media,” she says.
The installation works, though abstract, bore a resemblance to human features like eyes, nose, forehead, arms and breasts rendered in bright red and yellow colours. “To me, each woman has immense innate strength and power; she is a Goddess herself! So when I was making these installations, I fondly called them Goddesses,” says Katha.
The exhibition also included a series of nude self-portraits titled ‘This is My Body’, intricately designed ink sketches that depict couples in sexual positions, and an abstract series consisting of superimposed photos, paints and different media. She is also currently working on an art project called ‘Reflecting Death’. ‘Women, Bodies and Goddesses’ is scheduled to be shown again in early 2014 at the Visual Arts Gallery of New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre.
Katha finds it surprising how many people object to a frank dialogue on gender and sexuality and are up in arms against expressions of creativity — even simple personal choices like dressing and lifestyle — when the Hindu philosophy considers creation sacred as well as sensual, and sexuality along with dharma and artha as a goal of life.
Sometimes, Katha notes, being a foreigner may work as a disadvantage because she is immediately labelled as a ‘Westerner’ who is just fascinated by the Indian culture without understanding its finer nuances. But, she doesn’t pay attention to people who judge without making an attempt to know her background. When Katha speaks about religion and philosophy, she indeed has a list of facts and texts to back her thoughts.
Katharina, who studied Comparative Religion, Anthropology and Indian Art History at the Free University in Berlin and received her doctorate in Comparative Religion from the same university in 2001, first came to India when she was 19 and fell in love with the land. She settled in Goa in 2003. She has also written a book called “The Indians” with her husband, psychoanalyst and author Sudhir Kakar.
While she beams as she attests to her husband’s constant and unconditional support, she also remarks with a smile, “I find it awkward that this question is mostly asked to women professionals. How often do you ask a man what role his wife played in his success.”
Besides writing and painting, Katha has also taken art to children by establishing a non-profit organisation, Tara Trust. The goal of this initiative is to motivate children within the marginalised communities to study by encouraging creative engagement with art. Katha believes that traditional forms of education alone are inadequate to ensure a child’s self development, and Tara Trust conducts extensive art-based and creative workshops, intercultural programmes and fun activities that help children discover their own abilities and inspire them to reach their full potential.