The Earthiness of Vipul Kumar’s Ceramic Sculptures

 

Ankush Arora

 

The ceramic works of Jaipur-based artist Vipul Kumar, currently on view at Delhi’s Threshold Gallery, demonstrate a strong sense of the Earth element, while exploring the turbulent relationship between humans, as a profligate race, and Nature, as a depleting yet bountiful force.

 

19 Gallery View of Jantar Mantar and Untitled 2

Gallery View. Picture Courtesy: Threshold Gallery

 

Kumar’s ‘Earth Diaries’, as the show is titled, engage with two materials – stoneware and porcelain, which are different types of ceramics. Sculpted into dissimilar shapes and forms, his exhibits embody decay and doom, palpable through cracks and lava-like formations coiling over the objects. The artist, a student of fine arts at Benaras Hindu University, attributes his experimentation with ceramic art to his brother Kesarinandan, who runs a studio in Delhi. Prior to that, he was trained under famous sculptor Balbir Singh Katt, known for his adept use of marble and wood materials on a large scale.

As a trained stone sculptor, Kumar said he began with geometrical, rigid forms that found a new visual vocabulary in the ceramic medium. Maintaining the rigidity of his stone sculptures, his has used the delicacy and richness of clay and porcelain materials to enhance his artistic practice—an experimentation that has preoccupied him for the past ten years. The exhibition at Threshold Gallery highlights his foray into this new medium, that also doubles up as a platform to voice his concerns about the effects of climate change. It’s a concern that has shaped his life too, having left Delhi to setup a ceramic studio in Bhaislana, so “he could breathe better”.

 

2  Cheraweti Stoneware 49x46x16 inches  2018 II.jpg

 Cheraweti Stoneware, 49x46x16 inches, 2018. Picture Courtesy: Threshold Gallery

 

At the entrance of the Threshold Gallery is placed a big slab-like sculpture, titled “Cheraweti”, believed to be a Sanskrit word from a Hindu scripture, that roughly translates into “chalte chalo” or keeping moving. The sculpture’s powerful visual imagery and an unmistakable ‘ancient’ quality set the tone for the show. Depicting the only human form in the entire exhibition, the sculpture invokes divinity as an omnipresence witness to the birth of civilization and eventual degradation, which is characterized by termite-like cavities.

 

11 Global warming II Porcelain 13x11.5x11, 2010 II.jpg

Global Warming II. Porcelain 13×11.5×11, 2010. Picture Courtesy: Threshold Gallery

 

The theme of deterioration extends into other exhibits: in “Nature’s Signature”, for example, the dull green protrusions and cavities acquire an expanded form; an “Untitled” window-like installation shows it is slowly being consumed by the same termite hillocks; and the “Global Warming II” sculpture shows volcanic eruptions in an increasingly altering environment. (An expanded version of Kumar’s “Nature’s Signature” sculpture has been mounted at the Indian Ceramics Triennale in Jaipur, a first-of-its kind homegrown initiative that acknowledges the finest experimentations in Indian and overseas contemporary ceramic art.)

 

Natures Signature, Stoneware, 168x120x65 cm .jpg

Nature’s Signature, Stoneware, 168x120x65 cm. Picture Courtesy: Indian Ceramics Triennale. 

 

Adding to the symbolism of humans corroding nature’s largesse is the sight of consumerism and capitalism depicted in “Untitled-II” object at the Delhi show. Formidable and fragile at the same time, the comparatively smaller sculpture in the collection is an ironical reference to the architectural grandeur of today’s day and age.

Humans, the exhibition shows, are not all that powerful despite their extractive tendencies: we are governed by “astral phenomena” or zodiac signs (Untitled Mural) and the concept of the movement of time (Jantar Mantar-II), inferring to the infinitesimal nature of human existence.

 

13 JantarMantar Stoneware Woodfired II 15x24x12 in.JPEG

Jantar Mantar. Stoneware. Woodfired 15x24x12 inches. Picture Courtesy: Threshold Gallery

 

The intense visual imagery of these exhibits takes a break when you notice these 15 objects. Playful and organic, this installation doesn’t seem to be conveying a moral tone, unlike the rest of the collection. On closer look, it turns out that other materials such as chips, glass, bangles and even husk have been added to these objects, giving them a peculiar ornamental quality.

Seen together, the exhibition does not confirm to the common ideas of art being necessarily beautiful or pleasing. Instead, the show is about Kumar’s reflections on the prevailing ugliness in the world. Working out of his large ceramic studio in Bhaislana (which is also the site of black marble mines), the artist is one of the handful of Indian practitioners to have earned the reputation of elevating “the humble pot or clay sculpture to the status of high art”.

One of the oldest human inventions, ceramics have, for long, been identified as a traditional, artisan-based craft for industrial, functional, ritual/temple, and architectural purposes. Even though ceramic art has witnessed renewed interest among artists to experiment with multiple techniques and concepts in the medium, a historical gap has been noted in terms of the ‘stepchild’ status given to ceramics when compared with painting or sculpture.

 

3 Untitled Mural, Poreclain, 120x48,14 in (40 pieces each 10x10 in side view) and An Accident.jpg

3 Untitled Mural, Poreclain, 120×48,14 in (40 pieces each 10×10 in side view) and An Accident. Picture Courtesy: Threshold Gallery

 

Kumar was born in Sitamarhi in the state of Bihar, which has a centuries-old history of ceramics. But he considers himself to be primarily a sculptor, who happens to work in the ceramics medium. And yet, a conversation with him reveals how his own brother, a trained ceramist, often felt he was just a “kumhar”(a potter), instead of being a visual artist.

Sharing this insight into the existing barriers within the art market, Kumar said: “There seems to be a ‘class distinction’ in painting, graphics, sculpture and pottery. I have tried to use ceramic as a material to shake up the image of ceramic craft, transform it into the form of sculpture and elevate its status in contemporary art”.

‘Earth Diaries’ is open for public viewing at Threshold Gallery until October 27, 2018.

 


276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.

Advertisements

When Art Transcends Human Creativity

 

Delhi-based Nature Morte Gallery’s recent exhibition, ‘Gradient Descent’, seeks to establish artificial intelligence as a new genre of contemporary art-making

Ankush Arora

What happens when a statistician and an artist decide to create a new form of art? The outcome is an experimental initiative for artists and technologies of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) to reimagine creativity in contemporary art practices, while establishing a collaborative human-machine relationship. That is the stated goal of ‘64/1’, the Bengaluru-based art curation and research collective founded by brothers Karthik Kalyanaraman, whose interest in visual arts predates his career as an economist, and Raghava KK, a multidisciplinary artist known for creating an art book for children on the iPad.

And what happens when a gallerist realises that AI (broadly, the ability of machines to replicate human intelligence) is slowly beginning to shape the way we access technology? The result, this time, is a startling collection of seven exhibits and installations, made entirely by AI algorithms (or computer codes), establishing AI as a new medium to make art. This is a rare show curated by an Indian art gallery, joining an emerging movement of AI-based art in other parts of the world.

 

Imaginary_Landscape_2018_Nao_Tokui

Imaginary Landscape, 2018, Nao Tokui. Courtesy: Nature Morte, Delhi

 

Featuring mixed-media elements like AI-generated sounds, videos and images, the exhibition at Delhi’s Nature Morte Gallery debates the common apprehension that technologies like AI could make human labour or creativity redundant. Instead, human expression in art can be reinvented by technology as a combination of man and machine, the exhibition ‘Gradient Descent’ demonstrates, even though different forms of human labour are being replaced. The exhibition’s six overseas artists and one Bengaluru-based practitioner have trained AI networks to produce the final artworks by exposing them to multiple audio-visual materials.

Here are excerpts from a conversation with Karthik, who taught econometrics in the UK and US for about four years, before setting up his art curation and research collective. He has curated this exhibition with Raghava, who began his career in art as a cartoonist, moved to painting and simultaneously began experimenting with digital processing and programming tools to create art.

How did the two of you get interested in AI art?   

We were both obsessed with art and somewhat frustrated with the lack of deep engagement of artists with what we thought are issues of the future: the rise of AI as a symbol of continuing labour replacement by technology and climate change. So it was natural for us to start looking for artists who were engaged with AI.

What does the title of your show, ‘Gradient Descent’, mean? 

It’s a pun. ‘Gradient Descent’ is the name for a particular mathematical (optimization) routine that the AI algorithm performs in order to learn. At the same time, we want to imply that there is a gradient, a continuum, between man and machine.

Has your show, in any way, changed perceptions towards AI art in India?  

I think most people in the art world did not really realize the developments made by AI art, so it was a bit of a surprise for them. So I’m not sure that it has changed perceptions, because I think initially there was a huge lack of awareness. But I think now we have definitely seen younger artists become more interested in using AI as a tool. As for people in the tech world, our hope is that they have started to realize that their world intersects with the art world in interesting ways and will want to experiment with cross-overs.

Perception Engines_Tom White

Perception Engines, Tom White. Courtesy: Nature Morte, Delhi.

 

How is the AI art market in India shaping up?    

The potential is huge. But the truth is there are very very few artists truly engaged with AI in India, despite the fact that the kind of AI needed to create interesting images is actually taught in computer science departments like say, at Ashoka University. This is because of the wariness with which our art schools still regard this media art space. The challenges are not technical. We have the technology. The challenges are in getting more members of the art world (art school faculty, students, critics, curators) to engage with this space.

Your show is dominated by international artists, with only one Indian artist from Bengaluru. Did you intend to make it a global show or does India not have too many AI artists?    

Both. It was a pioneering show globally too: the first time a mainstream art gallery organized such a show in the world. So we wanted it to be global. As for India, after intense search we only found a few artists in this space and of them only Harshit Agrawal was doing stuff that was both at the forefront of technology and conceptually interesting.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Algorithm_Harshit Agrawal

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Algorithm, Harshit Agrawal. Courtesy: Nature Morte, Delhi.

 

It appears that while talking about AI-based art, the medium takes the centerstage, somewhat marginalising the actual theme of artworks. And that has also happened in the way your exhibition has been received. Is that problematic or even unfair?

Very much so! I think because of the novelty value of this kind of show, purely the ‘AI’ part is getting stressed. We see this globally too: for instance the piece auctioned off by Christie’s is really quite unoriginal and has been done by other AI artists, so they are primarily selling as made my AI, creating a kind of idiotic mystique around the whole field. The truth is the human artists have gone nowhere! In a group show like ours, you could really see the aesthetic diversity of the artwork and this stems mainly from human decisions, because all the artists are starting out with more or less the same raw algorithm.

The human artist designs the concept, the human artist trains the machine in a specific visual style, the human artist curates the output. So then whole completely produced by AI idea is a myth. So yes, it is unfair.

In India, how are you planning to keep the conversation going regarding AI work?

We are in the initial stages of first moving the show to a couple of other cities. We would love to be able to create an outreach to art schools and engage young artists with the art of the future. Another idea was to create a lab that would provide the resources for young artists to engage with this stuff.

Self-Portrait - Mario Klingemann

Self-Portrait, Mario Klingemann. Courtesy: Nature Morte

 

According to the exhibition, AI art is just two years old. How did you arrive at this timeline? We do know that artists have experimented with the idea of creating art independent of humans for more than 50 years. 

In a sense you can say (French modernist) Marcel Duchamp kicked off that process with his readymades so I would date it even earlier. But the idea that an image can be made, where one has no control at all over the final look of the image, where the machine is not given any procedure or recipe for creating images, but is only fed a whole lot of examples to learn from, is very new.

The main idea for allowing a machine to generate an image, pixel by pixel, came in 2014 with the publishing of the paper on Generative Adversarial Networks by Ian Goodfellow and co-authors. Before that there was some experimentation with things like style transfer and Google DeepDream, but these were not as aesthetically interesting to artists because of their limited image-making capabilities.

‘Gradient Descent’ concluded at Nature Morte Gallery, Delhi, on September 15, 2018.


276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.

From ‘India and the World’, a gallery tour of masterpieces on 200-year-old freedom struggles

 

Ankush Arora

An oil painting by Amrita Sher-Gil, recently mounted at New Delhi’s National Museum, showed a confident-looking European girl with a comparatively demure Indian. The European, painted in bright yellow, had her arm around the shoulders of the visibly dark Indian girl. While the painting has been interpreted as an exploration of the artist’s mixed identity (she was born to a Sikh father and a Jewish-Hungarian mother) and her corresponding artistic influences, it also deals with a transforming social and political landscape.

‘Two Girls’ was painted by Sher-Gil during her brief visit to Budapest in 1939, around the time Europe witnessed the rise in fascism, and India a nationalist, anti-colonialism struggle against the British rule. The artwork, by one of the greatest avant-garde artists of the 20thcentury, was part of a large-scale, transcontinental collaboration that offers a unique perspective on India’s history by placing it in a parallel global context.

 

Two Girls.jpg

Two-Girls, Amrita Sher-Gil, Oil on Canvas, 1939, Budapest, Hungary, Private Collection. Image: National Museum

 

Titled ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’, the exhibition brought together nearly 200 iconic objects from New Delhi’s National Museum, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), London’s British Museum, other Indian museums as well as private collectors. Inaugurated at the Mumbai museum late last year, the exhibition was open for public viewing at the National Museum until June 30.

Spread across nine galleries, each section juxtaposed masterpieces from India and rest of the world through different themes focusing on—the beginning of time; the emergence of first cities; empires; the relationship between state and religion; divinity; trade; court cultures; struggle for freedom; and the representation of time in art.

Sher-Gil’s figurative painting belonged to the ‘Quest for Freedom’ gallery, which told the story of different kinds of freedoms—from slavery, imperial rule and patriarchy—covering a period of more than 200 years. The timeliness of this particular gallery, with its wide array of paintings, photographs, posters, everyday objects and contemporary artworks, is significant as the entire exhibition was launched ahead of the seventy-year celebrations of Indian independence.

Page from a Slave Register.jpg

Page from a slave register, Paper, 1871, Manatí, Puerto Rico, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

It is a well-known fact that India was the one of the first countries to gain independence from European imperialism. The freedom gallery charted a timeline of India’s story through a series of landmark events, such as the colonial masters’ discovery of the country’s history and art; the 1857 revolt; swadeshi movement; the adoption of Indian constitution; launch of the first currency notes; universal adult suffrage; and the contemporary project of digitally mapping populations.

One of the biggest draws of this exhibition was an original copy of the Indian constitution, designed by a team of Bengal’s Santiniketan artists led by Nandalal Bose, and calligrapher Prem Behari Narain Raizada. According to exhibition co-curator Naman P Ahuja, “The constitution is not just an important piece of legal document, it is also extremely beautiful and aesthetic. It brings together a variety of Indian art styles and episodes from Indian history, mythology into a united modern Indian art style.”

In India, Mahatma Gandhi’s charkha, or the spinning wheel, became the rallying point for freedom from British exploitation of Indian raw material, and eventually from their rule. The advent of indigenous textile mills in India, presented in the exhibition through a 20th century advertisement, found resonances in the African artworks made of cotton which celebrated freedom from colonialism and male domination.

The ‘Quest for Freedom’ gallery dramatically recorded the scale of violence involved in the freedom struggle, particularly in the Indian context. For instance, a photograph taken by famous war photographer Felice Beato, known for re-staging conflicts in order to document them, re-constructed the devastation of a building and loss of life during the 1857 revolt. Another image showed two Indians, identified as mutineers, hanging from the gallows.

Execution of Mutineers from the Album of Canon Richard Warner of Lincoln

Execution of mutineers from the album of Canon Richard Warner of Lincoln, Photograph by Felice Beato, 1858, The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi. Image: National Museum

 

Parallel histories, war and reconciliation

Viewed together, the gallery’s various artefacts attempt to stitch together a web of trans-border histories, through paintings, sculptures, archival documents and textile material. A grand self-portrait by German artist Johann Zoffany, who lived in British India during the latter half of 18th century, is placed close to a Nigerian wooden sculpture of Queen Victoria, the symbol of British imperial domination.

Johann Zoffany with Colonel Polier, Claude Martin and John Wombwell.jpg

Johann Zofanny with Colonel Polier, Claude Martin and John Wombwell, Johann Zofanny, Oil on Canvas, About 1786-87, Victoria Memory Hall, Kolkata. Image: National Museum

 

The theme of slavery, which was abolished in the 19thcentury, was explored through a Puerto Rican slave register, containing details about a twenty-five-year-old slave. In another artwork, a striking Tanzania-made kanga (East African garment) celebrates the victory of Barack Obama as the first African American to hold U.S. presidency.

Barack Obama Kanga.jpg

Barack Obama, Kanga, Printed Cotton, 2008, Made in Tanzania, found in Nairobi, Kenya, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

In the end, the exhibition curators could not have thought of a more befitting way of rounding off the Freedom gallery tour, showcasing objects representing peace and reconciliation.

A Mozambican throne, made by welding together pieces of decommissioned civil war weapons, became the symbol of hope and transformation in post-war Mozambique, which is still suffering from the effects of a 16-year war that ended in 1992. The context behind this installation is the country’s post-civil war project that encouraged people to exchange weapons for agricultural, domestic and construction tools.

2002 Af 01 1

Throne of Weapons, Cristóvão Canhavato (Kester), Metal, wood and plastic, 2001, Maputo, Mozambique, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

Complimentary to this installation was a bronze sculpture by Colombian artist Alex Sastoque, who has modified the barrel of an AK-47s rifle into a cultivation tool, while retaining the rest of the weapon. The object is titled ‘Metamorphosis – A Symbol of Peace.’

 


276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.

Colours, only

 

A new exhibition in Delhi introduces the rare genre of ‘colour field’ painting to art lovers

Ankush Arora

How does an artist’s canvas reflect natural landscapes, without using any kind of recognisable shapes, images, forms or human figures? A good example of this style of art-making is the work of Pandit Bhila Khairnar, who is known as a ‘colour field’ artist. Delhi-based Gallery Threshold recently inaugurated a solo show of the artist, who hails from Nashik city in Maharashtra.

Nashik_Flickr_Deeku's.jpg

Nashik. Courtesy: Flickr

 

As a young man, Khairnar found himself drawn towards abstract painting, and began his training in art at Yashwant Kala Mahavidyalaya, Aurangabad, and L. S. Raheja School of Art, Mumbai. His early interest in abstract painting deeply influenced his artistic vocabulary that we see today, so much so that he is now considered one of the lesser known, but foremost, colour field painters of India.

 

Pandit Bhila Khairnar Profile Photo.png

Pandit Bhila Khairnar. Courtesy: Gallery Threshold

 

How Colour Field Painting Started

Before we discuss his paintings and other sources of creative inspiration that shaped his art, let us look at the genre of colour field painting, which is a very uncommon form of art seen in Indian galleries or museums. Colour field painting is understood to be an offshoot of Abstract Art, which was one of the most defining characteristics of the Modern Art movement that emerged during the 20th century in the West.

The term ‘colour field’ began to be associated with artists during the 1950s and 1960s in the US. These artists were in pursuit of an abstraction far beyond familiar realities. Their canvases largely depicted (deceptively) simple compositions using one or more flat colours, without adding a specific shape, form or any obvious focus of attention. Often, their art acquired mysterious, spiritual, and sometimes other-worldly proportions. One of the earliest pioneers of colour field art is 20th century American painter Mark Rothko, who is known for “significant open space and expressive use of colour” in his paintings. The result is a ‘meditative’ effect on the viewer, who is exposed to a large expanse of colour on the canvas.

The Non-Physical Art of Pandit Khairnar

When I walked into Delhi’s Gallery Threshold, Pandit Khairnar’s oil paintings had the same contemplative effect on me. His paintings are colourful explorations of his inner thoughts, without figurations, decorations or complicated patterns that we often see in art. Mounted on bare walls, these large canvases not only imbued a sense of stillness in the gallery, but the whole experience of looking at his works was no less than taking a solitary walk in the countryside. And this is exactly what the artist is seeking to convey through his paintings.

 

Gallery View of Pandit Khairnar Exhibition_2.png

Gallery view of the exhibition. Courtesy: Ankush Arora

 

Khairnar’s upbringing in the historically rich and verdant terrain around Nashik, which is known for antiquated monuments and (now) sprawling vineyards, shaped his artistic sensibilities. As a school boy, he showed a lot of interest in drawing and painting, which caught everyone’s attention. Soon, he befriended the potter community in his village, and began painting their statues for local festivals.

As a young man, he moved to Mumbai, where he stayed for 25 years. He then returned to the serene beauty of Nashik, which inspired him to paint. His Nashik memories are full of regular jaunts to agriculture fields, often helping his father cultivate fruits and vegetables on the farm. Being in regular touch with the soil made him dabble in statuette-making too. He was also taken in by the mysterious colours of twilight and dusk, which he explored in his art.

From Colour Drawings to Abstractions

Through shades of greens, oranges, blacks, reds and yellows, the artist splashes his memories on the canvas, creating an ‘infinite’ or ‘limitless’ field. In other words, he is trying to portray his experience of observing a vast natural landscape, instead of actually painting a tree, sky or river. His canvas could be showing the pigment of a leaf or the mixing of colours in the sky when night begins to fall. To such representations, he gives an ‘intangible’ or a non-physical form.

Pandit Bhila Khairnar Untitled Oil on Canvas 36x72 inches2.jpg

Courtesy: Gallery Threshold

 

Explaining his trajectory as an artist, Khairnar said he initially started with colour drawings on paper. Several of them were abstract in nature that made way for what he is doing now. “In these drawings, I was in a sense opening and discovering the substance out of the frame, to find what I am left with, which is pure and sublime,” the artist said. Interestingly, he rejects the label of being referred to as a colour field artist, calling it a “comfortable categorization” that may lead to “superficial” understanding of his art.

“How would you explain your work to the young learners of art?” I asked him in an email interview.

“Colour is something that gives character. We can’t imagine a monochromatic world. What we see on the canvas essentially arrives from the subtle observations of inner and outer world,” he wrote back, somewhat summing up his style of painting.

Pandit Bila Khairnar Oil on Canvas 84x72 (3).jpg

Courtesy: Gallery Threshold

 

It is because of the nature of colour field paintings, which are devoid of a form, the genre is not only not popular in India; there is also little awareness about it. They could be difficult to interpret too. And that is true of many other forms of abstract art. Little wonder, in India, Khairnar belongs to a small group of colour field painters, which include V. S. Gaitonde,Natvar Bhavsar, Sohan Qadri and Rajendra Dhawan. Gaitonde, Rothko and Dhawan—who are known for their powerful abstractions—inspired Khairnar to explore and question different interpretations of the ‘real’ and the ‘illusory’.

As I spent some time in the gallery, quietly sipping some tulsi chai, I noticed a few subtle forms in Khairnar’s paintings. The sudden discovery seemed very odd as I didn’t remember noticing anything like that when I walked in. Some looked like dots, seen together they could be somebody’s eyes. In other paintings, for example, the forms were far less obvious, resembling vague silhouettes of a human face. Perhaps these lingering forms pointed towards the galaxy, a theme aptly conveyed in the show’s title – ‘Cosmic Balance’.

The exhibition will be on view at Delhi’s Gallery Threshold until September 15, 2018. You can share your thoughts on Pandit Khairnar’s works below.


 

276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.

Interwoven narratives of Indian and Thai textiles   

 

The revival of Thai’s ‘mudmee’ silk industry is the subject of a new exhibition at New Delhi’s National Museum

Ankush Arora

Between the 14th and 18thcentury, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (present-day Thailand) began importing various kinds of Indian textiles for the local market and royal court. These included block-printed or painted cotton from Masulipatnam (Andhra Pradesh), silk brocades from Banaras, and Gujarat’s patolaor double ikat silk—the latter was believed to have been commissioned for the Ayutthaya king during the 1660s.

1024px-Gezicht_op_Judea,_de_hoofdstad_van_Siam_Rijksmuseum_SK-A-4477.jpg

Painting of Ayutthaya c.1665, painted by Johannes Vingboons, ordered by the Dutch East India Company, Amsterdam. Courtesy: Wikipedia

 

While the origin of silkworm breeding and silk weaving in Thailand remains unknown, the early hybridization of Indian-made textiles with Siamese (dated term for Thai people) royal court patterns began to take place sometime during the Ayutthaya kingdom, according to a new art exhibition at New Delhi’s National Museum. Adorned with flame motifs, which is a quintessential form of Thai visual art seen in local paintings and architecture, the textiles began to be commissioned exclusively for the royal court.

For the general Siamese public, textiles with simplified patterns (perhaps keeping in mind the cost), including Indian influences, were also produced. These Indian-Thai patterns and motifs can still be seen in mudmee silk of contemporary Thailand, which is the subject of the exhibition, titled ‘Mudmee: A Shared Silk Heritage’.

“The diamond lattice structure filled with lotus-bud-shaped motif…[was] favoured by the Siamese (Thai) court in the past. The structure…is often referred to as Mughal Indian inspiration upon the Siamese court taste,” reads a note in the exhibition catalogue, on an early 21st century natural silk dye from Surin Province. The exhibition, unfortunately, does not highlight the artistic and historic influence of other neighbouring countries, such as China, on Thailand’s textiles.

Mudmee Silk_1.JPG

Exhibition View by Ankush Arora

Presented in collaboration with the Royal Thai Embassy and the Thai Khadi Research Institute, the exhibits document the history and monarchy-led revitalization of the Southeast country’s mudmee silk, that involves tying off silk yarns, to create patterns, before setting off the process of weaving.

Intricately woven, with complex patterns and vivid textures, around 50 mudmee silk items have been mounted at the gallery, offering a glimpse into the local and royal culture of Thailand, which has been shaped by constitutional monarchy, military rule and Buddhist religion.

Mudmee Silk_3.JPG

Exhibition View by Ankush Arora

The artefacts on display, roughly covering a period of three most recent centuries, are traditional costumes for both Thai men and women; the collection comprises of tube skirts, hip-wrappers, regular skirts, and shoulder sashes. The artistic precision and detail of these textiles are accentuated by the portrayal of local themes that are related to—mythology, religion, spirituality, architecture, nature and fertility.

Since the early 20th century, however, the western style of dressmaking led to the decline of locally handwoven textiles in Thailand. With the expansion and rapid urbanization of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city, and other big cities, mudmee silk was relegated for use by the rural and poor people only. The onslaught of cheaper and machine-made silk sidelined indigenous silk as well. One of the other reasons that may have also contributed to mudmee silk’s decline is the difficulty of wearing Thai garments on a daily basis.

With the support of royal patronage since the 1950s, led by Thailand’s Queen Sirikit, mudmee silk not only made it to annual silk festivals and international fashion runways, the quality of weaving and sericulture significantly improved. Focusing on the rural and backward parts of Thailand, she launched a livelihood campaign by initiating market reforms, introduced training in textile weaving, encouraged people to increase mudmee production, and eventually made large-scale purchases from the local market.

A fashion icon herself, the queen—who turned 86 this year—has made innumerable public appearances, both at home and abroad, wearing exquisite gowns made from Thai mudmee silk. She even hired French couturiers and Thai designers to design fashionable dresses out of mudmee, opening new doors for traditional silk.

Some of the artefacts at the exhibition, such as a collection of chic mudmee silk dresses, have been loaned by Bangkok-based Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, that houses the queen’s personal collection of dresses tailored from Thai textiles.

Mudmee Silk_2.JPG

Exhibition View by Ankush Arora

However, the National Museum show does not acknowledge the contribution of Jim Thompson, the American intelligence official-turned-businessman who is credited for “singlehandedly saving Thailand’s vital silk industry from extinction (Time Magazine, 2016).”

Thompson, famously called ‘Thai Silk King’, was sent to Thailand on an intelligence assignment, just as the World War II was coming to an end. Duties over, he decided to stay back in Bangkok and build a life there. Charmed by its local silk weaving industry, but equally disturbed by its near-extinct status, Thompson began investing in the market, engaged hundreds of silk weavers, and created a market for Thai silk at home and abroad.

As his silk business achieved fame and the industry witnessed a revival, he built a sprawling property of villas in Bangkok, “along the pulse of Thompson’s new world: on the banks of the khlong (canal) across which Bangkok’s silk weavers lived and worked (Time, 2016).” But it was an accusation—of having stolen five Buddha heads—that probably put his reputation at stake. Ultimately, his story ended with a mysterious disappearance, during a walk in a jungle at the Malaysian highlands. His legacy survives still survives in Bangkok, as The Jim Thompson Museum, originally his canal-side residence that is also a repository of his personal collection of local art and antiques.

The exhibition, ‘Mudmee: A Shared Silk Heritage’, was inaugurated on Aug. 10, 2018, and will be on view until Sept. 25, 2018, at National Museum, Delhi.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55

Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.

Native American Art and Totem Poles: An Interview with Tracy J. Prince

Many of you are now introduced to the idea of totem poles through the Grade 3 book of Art1st. You have learnt about its symbolic functions, its aesthetics and also asked students to make their own totem poles. Most of these works were also displayed in the annual exhibitions in the schools curated with the help of Art1st mentors.

Today we will feature an interview with Dr. Tracy J. Prince who is a Scholar in Residence (Research Professor) at Portland State University in the United States. Tracy is also an accomplished writer and has done extensive research on the history of Blacks and Native americans. She was part of the Chateau de La Napoule art residency along with me and I had a chance to interact with her about her writings and research. She also did a wonderful art workshop with the kids who were visiting the museum at the Chateau on Native American art and patterns. In this interview she will talk about the Native American art, the relevance of totem poles and contemporary artists who are using totem poles and the aesthetics of Native American art in their works.

 

IMG_0160

Dr. Tracy J. Prince

Premjish: How was your experience with the students in La Napoule teaching Native American Art? What were your objectives?

Tracy:  I wanted to show the children images of Native American art from over 100 years ago to today, so that students could see that Native Americans have been an important part of American history and that thousands of Native artists are active today. I enjoyed teaching them via an interpreter. They were intrigued that I am a descendant of Pocahontas. They seemed very excited to learn about Native Americans.

 

IMG_1943

Children’s workshop with Tracy J. Prince at Chateau de La Napoule

 

IMG_1929

Children’s workshop with Tracy J. Prince at Chateau de La Napoule

IMG_1944

IMG_2021

Tracy J. Prince with the kids at the workshop on Native American art

 

Premjish: What is your experience with the Native American Art? (In terms of academics and research and outreach)

Tracy: I’ve taught Native American Art for over a decade. I’ve published about Native art in several of my books on Portland, Oregon’s history. I’m working on a book on Native American Art of Oregon, based upon my research and teaching. In outreach, I’ve advocated with the Portland Art Museum to promote the work of contemporary Native artists (though they still tend to focus on historical Native art), and I’ve given hundreds of talks to civic groups in the US on Native American art.

Navajo rugs

A collection of hand-woven Navajo blankets. Courtesy: Tracy J. Prince

 

Premjish: In the Art1st grade books we have a chapter dealing with Totem poles. You have researched a lot on totem poles. Could you give our teachers a brief overview about its functions, visual appearance and relevance.

Tracy: The most important thing to remember is that totem poles are traditional only for tribes in part of the Pacific Northwest. In the US, totem poles were made only in parts of Alaska and a small part of Washington state, and in Canada, totem poles were made only in the province of British Columbia. The Pacific Northwest areas where carving was/is most intense is a rain forest where enormous evergreen trees grow that are excellent for making totem poles—most are made from western red cedar. There are over 500 Native tribes in the US. Less than a dozen of those tribes have totem poles as a tradition. Throughout the world, totem poles have captured the imagination and have come to stand for all Native people of the US and Canada. But in reality, totem poles represent only a small part of a few western tribes in Canada and the US. They capture the imagination for good reason. Totem poles are carved of wood. They are beautiful, grand, and visually striking. They are usually enormous poles carved from a single tree. Totem poles can be found in many museums around the world. Their function was/is to celebrate a person’s achievements, to honor someone still living, to praise a great miracle, to serve as a funeral marker, to tell a tribal legend, and for many other functions. The icons carved onto the pole differ from tribe to tribe. Common imagery includes: a raven (a trickster figure—tricky, greedy, mischievous), eagle, bear, salmon, whale, wolf, frog, and mythical creatures such as the thunderbird and Dzunukwa. Dzunukwa is often depicted with pursed lips. The legend is that when children hear “who, who” calling in the forest, they should run so that Dzunukwa doesn’t capture them. This legend helped keep children from wandering into the vast wilderness of thick forests that these tribes were surrounded by.

Face_of_Dzunuk'wa_(UBC-2009)

Mask of Dzunukwa face (Museum of Anthropology at UBC), Courtesy: Wikipedia and the Museum

 

Dzunukwa

Dzunukwa holding tináa (copper shields) outside the Burke Museum of the University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Courtesy: Wikipedia.

Premjish: Do communities still make totem poles and believe in its symbolic quality?

Tracy: All tribal communities that made totem poles historically are still making totem poles today. Many Native people (in Canada the preferred terms are: aboriginal, indigenous, or First Nations) were Christianized and many of their traditional beliefs and practices were forbidden until even as recently as the 1950s. However, even with attempts to decimate cultures, many Native people still place great value on the symbolism of the imagery on totem poles. All tribes place great value on the cultural importance of the tree, taken from Native land, representing stories that have been handed down in that tribe.

Historic totem poles and village Alaska

Image of a village with totem poles in Alaska. Courtesy: Tracy J. Prince

Premjish: Could you tell us more about the contemporary artists who are working in this visual idiom? Especially abstract, geometric patterns, etc.

Tracy: Wendy Red Star (Crow tribe) satirizes and critiques stereotypical ideas about Native Americans. Sometimes using pop art style, with an underlying critique, she grapples with American history and the present story of Native Americans. She wants viewers to see that Native people are not just people of the past.

Peelatchiwaaxpaash_profile

Peelatchiwaaxpaásh/ Medicine Crow (Raven) with notations from Wendy Red Star’s research.  Reproduction of image of historically significant, famous, iconic 19th century Crow leader, altered by the artist with red pen notations explaining the symbolic significance of each element of his garb and the artifacts he holds. Courtesy: Wikipedia and Wendy Red Star

And she plays with traditional Native American geometric shapes to explore contemporary art.

252148_2107297836848_3883031_n283328_2107294876774_3415883_n

254693_2107289356636_1221556_n

Wendy Red Star, Family Portraits, Courtesy: Wendy Red Star

I like the work of Marcus Cadman (Navajo and Kickapoo tribes). He has strong regional recognition and growing national recognition. I’m especially intrigued by his paintings that use discarded bingo cards from the Navajo reservation as the background. Bingo games are pervasive throughout Native American tribes. So, he is anchoring the viewer to contemporary life on the Navajo reservation by using bingo cards.

Marcus Cadman

Website of Marcus Cadman

(To see Cadman’s works, see his website http://www.marcuscadman.com/carousel.php?galleryID=109931)

I wrote about Pat Courtney Gold (Wasco Chinook) who does basketry. Her designs are quite traditional and are meant to honor the past rather than critique it.

(See the book online https://books.google.co.in/books?id=dCYnDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA95&dq=%22lillian+pitt%22+notable+women&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%22lillian%20pitt%22%20&f=false)

 

 

                                                                      Pat Courtney Gold

 

Premjish: Is it always necessary that Native American artists always work in their own native visual style?

Tracy: In the 1960s and 1970s, Fritz Scholder and T. C. Cannon famously exploded the idea that Native American art must reverentially harken back to the past artistic language.

TCCannon_SelfPortrait

“Self Portrait in the Studio” by the artist T. C. Cannon. Courtesy: Wikipedia

They used abstraction (Scholder) and pop art (Cannon) to play with, deconstruct, and analyze Native American art. Many contemporary artists, such as James Lavadour (Umatilla), don’t feel obliged to paint typical Native American subjects. He paints abstractions of the landscapes near his home on the Umatilla Reservation.

(Read the article on these by clicking here)

Premjish: Could you tell us what are the new interventions happening in the art of totem pole creation?

 Tracy: Being able to carve in the totem pole style and with particular figures is considered the privilege of certain tribes. These privileges are passed down through generations. It is considered cultural appropriation when a Native American person carves a totem pole but is not a member of a tribe where totem poles were carved. Rick Bartow (Wiyot and Yurok) has a fantastic piece at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC that shows a modern interpretation of the totem pole but is not trying to replicate traditional styles. He lives in Oregon with ancestry from  California tribes. So he is not from a tribe where totem pole carving is traditional. Bartow’s spectacular sculpture, “We Were Always Here,” was erected in 2012 at the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum.

Cedar_Mill_Pole_from_White_House_site

Photograph of a work by Rick Bartow, part of an exhibit at the gardens of the White House; url properties list title as “Cedar Mill Pole, 1997”

Bartow says that they aren’t totem poles, but “pole sculptures.” “We didn’t want a totem pole. There is a predetermined idea of what that is going to look like, a built-in iconography. There are traditions. It reflects family stories, lineages. I have no lineage right to that … and it would be stupid of me, who is not Haida or Tlingit … to pretend like I was all of the sudden just for this job. It would look like hell, frankly.”

Rick_Bartow,_We_Were_Always_Here,_2012

Rick Bartow, We Were Always Here, 2012, carved old growth western red cedar, 324″ x 31″ x 15″

Bartow’s work explores a new sculptural form and iconography to delve into contemporary interpretations of Native American art.

Rick_Bartow_with_his_paintings_at_Froelick_Gallery,_Portland,_Oregon

Rick Bartow with his paintings at Froelick Gallery, Portland, Oregon. Photo credit: Wilder Schmaltz

 

 

 

Tracy J. Prince, Ph.D. is a Scholar in Residence (research professor) at Portland State University in the United States. She is the author of four books: Culture Wars in British Literature: Multiculturalism and National IdentityNotable Women of Portland, two other histories of Oregon, and is currently working on a book on Native American Art of Oregon. She has taught for two decades, published about, and given hundreds of public lectures on Native American art and literature. Read more about her: https://works.bepress.com/tracy-prince/

 

Art from her Heart …. by Kathy Whitehead & illustrated by Shane W. Evans

Do not wait for the perfect time to create…

A picture book biography of the remarkable folk artist Clementine Hunter, who defied all odds for her passion of painting.

An awe inspiring journey of her paintings hanging on her clothesline to hanging in museums, yet because of the color of her skin, a friend had to sneak her in when the gallery was closed.  Can you imagine being an artist who isn’t allowed into your own show? That’s what happened to folk artist Clementine Hunter.

With lyrical writing and striking water colour illustrations, that capture the essence of her life and work, this picture book biography introduces kids to a self-taught artist whose paintings captured scenes of backbreaking work and joyous celebrations of a farm life.

Art from her Heart written by Kathy Whitehead & illustrated by Shane W. Evans is a book that gives younger readers the opportunity to learn about Clementine Hunter’s important contributions to folk art and the obstacles she faced as an African American woman artist. A picture book about, dreams fantasies and the real life challenges related to farm work, human resources, and discrimination.

 

Gopa

Artist Mentor

Story, First..

 TAW-MP-coverThe Artist’s Way by #JuliaCameron

Story, First..

Books, leading to books is a calling.

A few years ago, when I picked up ‘Who will cry when you die’ written by Robin Sharma, little was I cognizant that it was my calling for a transition. Though it took a few years to realize it, the rusted levers were set in motion by the latent forces of nature, then.

Robin Sharma suggested two books to readers; Walden by Henry Thoreau and The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron.

Unaware of the instant shift in FOC, that evening, I went to the book store and picked up both – it was not an easy decision because The Artists’ Way was a costly ledger – the trade off between entertainment, pleasure, and fun vs. addressing & rediscovering essential deeper self.

I took that chance then….

….and realized a few years later that NATURE could never go wrong. It craves for alignment, always.

I left Walden after fifty pages; my cerebral taste buds were not so accustomed to the compound and dense creation of art. So, I began reading The Artists’ Way which is much easier to eyes and brain. (Confession – I have not yet finished Walden, but plan to do it soon).

Reading through it, this is what I have come to learn about Creativity & how ignorant we are about it.

Let me ask you a questions.

As a parent, would you ever insult your own kid?

I know your answer, it is a big NO!! Isn’t it?
What if I say, You DO, we all DO it consciously or unconsciously.

Don’t believe?

Here is something for us to assimilate.

– We want to be a Singer, but we compare our voice with a celebrity’s voice, the moment we open our mouth.

– We want to be a writer, but we expect to match up to Stephen King or Lee Child, right from the time we write our first page.

….and so on and so forth…

Is this not an insult to our creative child?

Why we forget that time defines the evolution of an artistic flair. Why are we so unfair to us, not ready to give time and chance to the creative child to metamorphose into an adult.

Why do we deny the basics – pampering, grooming, nurturing and hand-holding, every creative child inside us deserves so badly.

Above all, many of us do not even realize that we have a creative child breathing inside us.

Book Review

A book that can be classified primarily as self-help by many but is more like common sense. It is designed to help readers reject the evils of self-doubt and seek for creative indulgence not as a profession or professional but as a form of therapy.

At the core of the book is a custom called “morning pages,” based on the belief that free-form writing, each morning, will unclog one’s mental and emotional channels of all the waste that gets in the way of being happy.

The other essential ritual involves taking oneself on an “artist’s date” each week – planning an outing to a museum or some other site of thought, free from the weight of responsibility or work.

Ending Remarks

Some day I will write a book on this master art, but today, I have to end my review here with two life changing lines by the Author and then my own comprehension of what this book has taught me over the years, and when I re-read earlier this year.

‘Practice Mystery, not Mastery’
‘Artistic people must learn how to emotionally guard themselves against the tides of negativity -both external and internal.’

Creativity is beyond the realms of semantics, a divine blessing guided by higher planes. Unfortunately, our limited intellect barely qualifies to decipher even a spec of it, unless, either it’s HIS will or our aspirations guided by the subconscious.

 

By Maniissh Aroraa

Artist Mentor: Mona Rai, Day 4

The last and final session with Mona Rai began at 3 pm on 27th November.

All the participants reached on time and continued their work, which they were doing in the previous session.

 

Our mentor kept a close eye on each one of them, and the moment a few said they were done!!!! Mona asked them to work over again and try to deform the image.

On sensing a subtle reluctance, in doing so, by the participants, our Mentor indulged the participants in a discussion on, having the urge to work on issues.

A thought-provoking discussion that  began with addressing the major difference between an advertising poster and a painting. The discussion continued for nearly half an hour, that left the participants thinking.

img_3042

We are sure that the participants and the Mentor Mona Rai enjoyed the experience…..