Ashok Ahuja: The Digital Traveller

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Ashok Ahuja has not stopped discovering himself

DO NOT BE fooled by his grey locks and professorial appearance. Ashok Ahuja is a 65-year-old ‘geek’ who is as adept in the digital world as any 24-year- old youth who was born into the digital era. Whether it is a drawing or painting, photograph or an installation, Ahuja has translated space, light, memory and form into mysterious shapes and imagery for his solo exhibition ‘Allured’ that opened at Gallery Espace in Delhi.

Ahuja may be seen as a man ahead of his time, for he bought his first computer in 1985, an era when many people in India were not even aware of words like ‘email’, ‘surf’ and ‘download’. His inquisitive mind has always been interested in the ‘allure’ of technology and he has extended his creative streak to many avenues and mediums. An author and a filmmaker, Ahuja is the kind of artist who is comfortable in several mediums of expression, without becoming a ‘Jack of all trades’.

“I am grateful to work in more than one medium,” he says, “My mind is the first site where the creative idea germinates. Then the idea itself tells me whether it wants to be translated as a drawing, a photograph, a film or a book.”

While it may seem like a redundant question in the age of Photoshop, one cannot help but wonder if Ahuja faced any criticism for working primarily in a digital medium, especially since he does not hail from a typical art-school background. “Does a poem become less of a literary work because it is written on a computer? I am guessing the answer is ‘no’. So why should it be different for art made on a computer? I look at the computer as a tool. The same way a painter would use a brush, paint or canvas, I use the camera, Photoshop or the inkjet printer. As long as the ideas take shape in my mind, how does it matter if I used paint or a printer?” asks the artist.

Given that digital art has been around since the 1950s in the UK and other overseas countries, the debate around whether it is art or not may appear superfluous and dated. It is a concern that galleries, art critics and lay viewers have debated since the 2000s. Sean Frank and Margot Bowman (from 15 Folds, an online gallery that brings together GIF images by artists on the web) in a conversation at the British Council last year, discussed whether digital art is subjective. Bowman said, “The general public perception of art has definitely softened. Experiencing digital art is something that shouldn’t be intimidating because people have lots of other experiences digitally that they wouldn’t normally do in the real world.”

Ahuja’s digitally produced art undoubtedly occupies the gallery in the same manner that a painting or sculpture would.

Ahuja’s images are also an interesting coalescing of two worlds. Where his concerns are informed by over five decades of history and travel, his practice is informed by a digital era. His digitally produced images are not easy to decode. The viewer is required to spend time before the images reveal their meaning, whether it is the patterns formed by a repetition of familiar objects, like tiffin carriers, abstract line drawings, stick figures, or digitally montaged photographs of architectural spaces.

Ahuja's digitally produced images are not straight forward. In fact, the viewer is required to spend time before the images reveal their meaning

He has also done a series of self- portraits that bear a faint resemblance to American pop artist Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe silk-screen prints. However, while Warhol talked about Monroe’s contrasting life in mass media through black-and-white and colour images, Ahuja’s self-portraits are a dialogue about race. The image is titled, tongue firmly in cheek, CMYK: Portrait of the artist as a Man of Color and consists of four images of the artist with his face coloured green, indigo, yellow and brown. The last figure is the portrait of the ‘artist’ as a Black person—a person of colour. It is significant that ‘CMYK’ stand for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black), which are the inks used in colour printing. “The work has to do with race, identity, and with discrimination. When you mix all the inks you get black! It refers to the origin of the human race—in Africa,” says Ahuja. The set of portraits is about the formation and fixing of identities, how we perceive them and react to them. “I believe a true artist is a sensitive person who empathises and identifies with those who are discriminated against,” he says, recalling that the work came out of two trips he made to Africa where he visited the International University of East Africa, Uganda, in 2010 and 2012.

“Africa was a land of fertility and fecundity, its red soil, rushing waters, vast landscape and blue skies reminded me of our evolution. However, it provoked me to question my own unawareness about the world,” says Ahuja. “It made me question the self and the collective, society and its structures, like family, tribe, community and nation. It made me face unattractive truths about how racist people can be.”

Questions also arose about politics and domination, about greed and the will to power, and the corruption of the human soul. “I wondered about the nature of hope, of peace, of faith and religion, and of the relationship between individual and collective destinies,” he adds, explaining further that CMYK: Portrait of the Artist as a Man of Color is only a small part of his process of a slow absorption of that rich and profound experience.

Another set of works that catches one’s attention is a set of simple line drawings and stick figures. Titled Celestial Fables, they are inspired by the constellations. “The work is about universality, about ancient wisdom and understanding, about recognition and memory,” says Ahuja. These drawings speak about the magic of simplicity in a highly complex order.

An installation titled Plan 1999 consists of seven framed units embedded within a single platform painted with cement to represent the structure of a building. They are laid out like an architectural plan of a dwelling, but they have many layers of detail and lived narratives. “Placing them horizontally brings out the idea of it being like an architectural ‘plan’. But once you enter, you realise that it is not just spatial but has other dimensions too,” says Ahuja. The collage-like nature of the work speaks of a fragmented memory, one that selectively recalls bits and pieces of one’s existence. His love for architecture grows from his fascination with how light creates shapes out of spaces. “For me, architecture is not just about bricks and mortar, it is about capturing the mood and the soul of the building, the way light falls on it and creates patterns and depth,” he says.

Since the exhibition features works from different phases of Ahuja’s oeuvre, one is tempted to think of this as a retrospective. Ahuja, however, is quick to refute that notion. “I work all the time and often do not show my work, which is why I have decided to show works from over the last 12 years, but it is not by any standards a ‘retrospective’. I say this because I feel I have so much more work to give and to show,” he says. “Mostly it’s because my work is not ‘topical’. It tends to span time and can always be seen as relevant even after a long time.”

(‘Allured’ is on till 15 October at Gallery Espace, New Delhi )