Fire and Earth

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Nalini Malani and Jayashree Chakravarty go to Paris, heralding the international triumph of Indian women artists

ALMOST A YEAR AGO, Shukla Sawant, a professor of critical studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, stood up at a talk in Delhi and asked the founders of Group 1890 (a famous all-male group of visual artists formed in 1961) why they hadn’t included any women in the group? As the speakers stuttered about how they’d never thought about it, many eyes instinctively turned to Roobina Karode, the curator of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), and the person who, along with Kiran Nadar, has been responsible for bringing contemporary women artists like Nasreen Mohammadi and Zarina Hashmi to international acclaim.

Sure enough, by October 2017, Karode is curating a Jayashree Chakravarty exhibition called Earth as Haven: Under the Canopy of Love at Musee Guimet, Paris. At the same time, KNMA is also supporting a retrospective of Nalini Malani—one of India’s most important contemporary artists— at Centre Pompidou in Paris. The second part of the retrospective will be shown in Castello di Rivoli in Turin in 2018.

The importance of Centre Pompidou in the art world is immense. It’s among the top 20 most visited museums in the world and contains the Musée National d’Art Moderne—the largest museum for modern art in Europe. This show seals Malani’s importance in the international art world. Earlier this year the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam also held an exhibition of Malani’s works.

So can we extrapolate that the season for Indian women artists—long denied their rightful place in the list of both monetary and critically successful Indian artists—has finally arrived? After all, contemporary artist, Shilpa Gupta is also exhibiting in France this year. “I wish it were true,” Malani says, bursting my bubble. “I would say, Indian women artists have made more outspoken art, due to the oppression in Indian society of gender, caste and class. We had to and still have to. Indian society may be equal on paper, but in reality our everyday experiences show that it is not. In fact, we have to strengthen our voices in the next decades if we want to achieve a more equal humane society.” When we speak she is recovering from a cold, and with the opening of her exhibition just days away, she still has to create the wall drawings.

“Indian women artists internationally, just as Indian art in general, still plays a very, very small role in the International art world. It is true, female artists have recently had better chances to exhibit, even more than the Indian male artist. But if you look at the list of museums where, for instance, other non Western female artists are exhibiting, like for instance, South African artist Marlene Dumas, or Japanese Yayoi Kusama, or the Cuban, Ana Mendieta, one would say we Indian female artists are just about entering the stage,” says Malini.

Malani speaks with candour about issues like female subjectivity, violence in its insidious and mass forms, the vulnerabilities and precariousness of life

Still, given the paucity of Indian voices on an international platform, it’s an interesting conversation between the exhibitions of two contemporary Indian women that will open within a day and a few miles of each other in one of the art capitals of the world. Malani speaks with candour about issues like female subjectivity, violence in its insidious and mass forms, the vulnerabilities and precariousness of life, her vision of India and the role of women in the world. She openly condemns the cynical nationalism that exploits the beliefs of the masses. She uses legends of women like Cassandra, Medea, Mad Meg and Sita who were all suppressed and subjected to violence, as the basis for her observations. And her range of media is as vast as her oeuvre.

This retrospective in two parts selectively covers 50 years of creativity. In the Centre Pompidou exhibition, the artist presents works from 1969-2018, including her latest painting series All We Imagine as Light and the site responsive Wall drawing/Erasure Performance Traces. But the most prominent piece is Remembering Mad Meg, a three-minute video shadow play, which has two single- channel animations and eight rotating reverse painted Lexan cylinders with sound that will surround visitors when they enter the 20x7 meter long room. Sophie Duplaix, the Pompidou’s chief curator of contemporary collections and the curator of Malani’s retrospective across both museums, had purchased this piece for the Pompidou’s collection after her 2011 exhibition called Paris, Delhi, Bombay… that showcased works by Indian and French artists.

She says that Malani’s art has an exceptional and important place in the history of modern and contemporary Indian art as well as a presence within the international art world. “The uniqueness of expression, with, for instance, her video/shadow plays, combined with the political engagement and complex layering of contents and layering of references makes this art incredibly rich and touching. It is the lens-based background, as we show in Malani’s first films of the late sixties and early seventies, and her photograms, which made her develop a ‘filmic view’ that we can find in her paintings, theatre work and of course her immersive video plays. This trajectory in her art and the way each individual work speaks keeps fascinating me.”

But, what prompted her to organise two exhibitions of Malani’s works in France and Italy? “When working on the retrospective in collaboration with the director Carolyn Christov Bakargiev and the curator Marcella Beccaria of Castello di Rivoli, it was clear that we both had our own favorites in the rich oeuvre of 50 years of Malani’s art,” she says with a laugh. “Now instead of minimising our visions, and coming to a compromise that could travel, we thought out of the box. This resulted in two unique selections (not even one work is similar) in Part I and Part II, that together gives a much broader representation of Malani’s work. Both Museums were delighted with the unusual idea. It of course meant that the budget and catalogue needed more effort, but I strongly believe that the outcome will justify this.”

Chakravarty focuses on the destruction of natural habitats due to the influx of urbanism. She talks about how man is killing God's best gift and the planet is losing balance

Malani is also one of the first female artists in India to work with other women artists. Her interest was inspired by a visit to the AIR Gallery, the first all-female artist cooperative gallery in the United States, in 1979. She hoped to organise a selected overview and a book of at least 50 artists, that would give Indian women artists a place in the heavily male dominated Indian art world. She and sculptor Piloo Pochkhanawala worked for six years to find funding but to no avail. In the end, Arpita Singh suggested that they narrow it down to four artists. Unfortunately, Pochkhanawala had passed away, but she, Nilima Sheikh, Arpita Singh and Madhvi Parekh did a series of five group exhibitions entitled Through the Looking Glass from 1987-1989. They never regrouped.

MALANI HAS ALSO admired artist Jayashree Chakravarty for a long time, and has often recommended her to foreign curators—like the travelling exhibition curator Betty Seid that started in Chicago in 2007. “With Jayashree, I feel a special bond. When Art Musings in Bombay offered me a solo exhibition, I proposed a female group show with Jayashree Chakravarty and Reena Kallat. Having contact with the younger generations of female artists where you feel the transformation of subjects from a specific female Indian to a global-local focus has always been important.”

Chakravarty’s work is as multilayered and painstaking as Malani’s, but she focuses on the destruction of natural habitats due to the influx of urbanism. She talks about how man is killing god’s best gift and the planet is losing balance even as her work tries to salvage and heal the world in some way.

“She started creating paper scrolls about two decades ago in which she uses nature fragments such as dry leaves, seeds, roots and green stems that she layers in between translucent papers. She also treats both sides of the paper with tea stains and paint …so that the work is three sided,” say Roobina Karode, who curated Chakravarty’s show in Nice last year and is curating the Guimet show. “There is nature-material sandwiched between, as well as imagery and abstract treatment on both sides of the paper scrolls. Nature is both the subject and material of her scrolls, and her method of working is both intuitive and organic, since she will often throw away scrolls that aren’t right. Her scrolls are like leather—so much has gone into making them so resilient. Paper is fragile but she makes it permanent. She’s pulled them to create 12-feet long scrolls. It’s a backbreaking but immersive experience and I’ve always felt drawn to artists who pour themselves into their work,” says Karode.

Musee Guimet and KNMA have been planning this showcase of Chakravarty’s new works for more than a year as part of a Carte Blanche project, where Guimet selects one artist at a time from all over the world and allows them freedom to respond to the 65-square foot space of the rotunda in the museum building. In this case, Chakravarty says the moment she saw the space, she wanted to create another kind of world that we are missing around us, particularly the air and vegetation that is changing as the urban jungle grows. “Roobina, Reena [Lath, from Akar Prakar Art Gallery] and I sat in the rotunda and comprehended the space. It was a huge creative space and I knew immediately that I wanted the windows to be closed off. I’ve created a meditative atmosphere inside the space where nature is brought into the museum,” she says. Karode comes online to add, “When the staff of the Guimet saw how Jayashree had transformed the space, they exclaimed, ‘Magnifique. What a sensitive show’. You can tell that this curator and artist have been working together for a while in the way they complete the missing parts of each other’s thoughts.”

Inspired by the architectonic quality of the wasp-house, Chakravarty has created a huge canopy-like structure with cave-forms and natural shelters that visitors can enter. Chakravarty has closely observed the insect world and how skillfully honeybees and insects build their homes, and the entrance of her cocoon is covered with shimmery, glittery, slippery materials with spotlights illuminating it. “It was Roobina’s idea to use an earthy smell so that it becomes an experience. It looks like nature does in our country— mossy, not dry,” she says. At the same time, the delicate ribbed armature of this built form brings to mind the shape of shanties scattered over the city of Kolkata, and also echoes the slender ribbed vaults of Gothic architecture.

“This variety of unusual materials is another thing that brings together these two uncommon exhibitions. A medium brings with it a history, its unique possibilities to express and I would even say a political statement…Certain things can be said better with the intimacy of an artist book, while it’s easier to create a better group experience with video, when people watch an all-immersive video/shadow play together. To be honest, even now that I’m in my seventies, I’m still happy to explore new media. Who knows? Maybe I will start to make bronze sculptures,” says Malini. “What I am trying to say through this retrospective cannot simply be put into one line or slogan, and I would prefer that my artworks speak for themselves. However, the subtitle, The Rebellion of the Dead, is a good indicator or possible motto of this retrospective. More than ever, in the second and third decade of the 21st century, mankind is going to decide what will be the future of our planet. And in this still male-phallic dominated journey, it seems that our only chance to survive into the 22th century is to listen to the alternative, the female voice from the present and from the past. The dead did not die in vain. On the contrary they could lead the new rebellion that might save us.”

This uncompromising quality of their work and the political statements that they’ve continued to make through their careers about their surroundings is perhaps what has earned them the respect of the art world. Chakravarthy’s works that hearken back to her childhood in Tripura, are still laden with a mixture of naiveté and innocence. Malani’s particular blend of memory, fable, truth, myth, trauma and resistance has seen her create a remarkable individualistic language of imagination and form across personal and political issues. Love or hate her work, it’s always easy to recognise Malani’s oeuvre, across her entire career.

As Malini says, “Ideally for me the Indian and outside world would open to a next generation of artists, from any country, or culture, where the content breaks open the difficult times we are living in.”

(Nalini Malani’s The Rebellion of the dead will run till January 8th, 2018 at Centre Pompidou, Paris; Earth as Haven: Under the Canopy of Love by Jayashree Chakravarty, curated by Roobina Karode, will run till January 15th at Musee Guimet)