PROFILE: Navanshu Kumar / Like Looking in a Mirror..only, Not / Sushma Sabnis
In his portraits, artist Navanshu Kumar goes beyond mere ‘likeness’ of the sitter to masterfully excavate those hidden faces blurred by fine veils of beauty, political correctness and cultured upbringing, to reveal the rawness of their true identity.. writes Sushma Sabnis
The 1954 portrait of Sir Winston Churchill by modernist painter Graham Sutherland’s met with an untimely death by fire, the reason being that Sutherland portrayed the sitter as vulnerable and susceptible to the pressures of monarchy and governance of the country, instead of appearing as a formidable statesman, intimidating the country’s rivals. Similarly, in 2018, Portuguese football sensation Cristiano Ronaldo’s infamous sculpture by sculptor Emanuel Santos was unceremoniously replaced with a more ‘sombre’ looking one at the International airport named after the star player. Art/History is ridden with examples of insightful artists whose portraitures went beyond a mere ‘likeness’ of what they saw in their sitter be they monarchs /leaders/religious icons and received scathing criticism ranging from idle persiflage to the guillotine. Thus it is quite refreshing in contemporary times when a young MFA final year student artist Navanshu Kumar from Khairagarh University (IKSVV), Chhattisgarh, defies convention and goes the Sutherland – Santos way of portraying his models adhering to ‘his’ perception of them.
This multiplicity of perception has raised the question of the ‘true’ identity of the sitter; is it as perceived by the artist or is it who the models assume themselves to be or who they actually are? Today the question of identity is of prime importance, right from a government issued document to social media handles, the identity of the individual is multi layered. We have even conjured up fresh linguistics around the concept of identity which prove our multifaceted roles while promoting a ‘Selfie’ culture, eg: ‘Aadhar Card number’, Passport number, ’email id’, an Instagram handle, a WhatsApp number, A Facebook id, a Blog handle, etc. Navanshu tries to trace the metamorphosis of identity in subliminal states, in the inconsistent, volatile, self-absorbed world of today.
What this globalisation clobbered generation of today has gained is an added appendage of the Virtual to an existing Reality. This virtual-reality comes with its mandatory Pandora’s box of human behaviour towards one’s socio-political environment, while casting a net which shrinks the boundaries of national/global, time/space – the Internet. Hence, today’s citizen/netizen is not just connected to a family, a society, a community and a nation, but also to an identity which is defined by the politics of their virtual and real presence.
Add to all this is the fact that there is a ‘perceived identity’ as seen by the eyes of the beholder/the lay person which inadvertently does contribute to the whole image of the person. These fragmented images create schisms between perceived and real identities, the true identity possibly emerges from this medley of projections. At times it is quite easy to see the synergy of the true self and the perceived self work well, at times these identities exist like immiscible liquids in a vitrine called schizophrenia, but apart from these two extreme states, most of us manage that awkward mental/physical, actual self/projected self/perceived self balance quite effortlessly.
Navanshu’s works go beyond capturing mere physical traits of the people around him, instead he absorbs the marrow of their experiences at that given moment for portrayal. While some of his works are canopied under a series broadly termed ‘In search of Identity’ he manages to uncover several identities embedded within a single portraiture. This has been the quest of the quintessential portrait painters, to somehow be able to extract that scintilla of character which animates the sitter with life force. Navanshu does it primarily, by layering his works in a kind of mosaic, much like a weathered wall which forms the backdrop, from which the persona emerges within a specific textured composition, either with leitmotifs supporting the buildup of the identity or poised with a sharp comment directed at the viewer.
Portraits can be quite polemical in content and Navanshu seems to seek subtle voices in his subjects. For e.g.: in the 2016 work titled ‘A War Inside’ he creates a visual of a tense pondering face devoid of any indicative identity, apart from the lucid eyes and deepening worry lines. A question looms over the entire backdrop where a map of a land barricaded by barbed wires separating two territories stand as a mute witnesses. The ‘war’ in the title refers to the irremediable situation of refugees driven out of one state/country to another across borders or into places where they are unwelcome. The work is an allegory of their uprooted lives and livelihood, annihilated identities, decimated dignity sending them across oceans as it seems to be the only unclaimed territory where barbed wires cannot cordon off trespassers or people without a country.
While physical appearance and geopolitics define one’s identity (nationality, race, religion, etc), it is the prerogative of the state to exercise control using law and order for control of the populace. In some of the works, Navanshu addresses these complex ideas of state and governances in the most curious of ways. A few portraits titled, ‘Monocle’, ‘Binocular’(2017) and an earlier work titled ‘Key to Soul’(2013) at first glance appear to be innocent renditions of how one looks at things, also mimicking the observation skills of certain people. Upon deeper thought, one encounters the trajectory taken. Key to Soul is a work where a child seems to pull at its face in a way to open his eyes, hence baring the windows of his soul; while Monocle and Binocular are later works related to the concept of ‘being observed’ by someone. It could be as harmless as a love interest, or a scrutinising eye of a parent or teacher, or the cctv ‘eyes’ of the ‘big brother’ constantly watching harmless citizens or certain ethnicities in particular in the name of protect and serve. In each of these works, there is a sharp satire employed in the imagery and the artist tries to humour it up to avoid confrontation by ‘hurt sentiments’ of faceless agencies angling to take offence.
Similar to the addressal of the watchful eyes are the works which talk of the contemporary human, the Millennial – the young and restless of the 21st century which are the portraitures of today’s youth. The contemporary human, one foot anchored in the quicksand of traditionality and the other leaping towards the next new age gizmo which unshackles them from it. Today’s human, in a mental conflict zone as much as in a physical one. These portraits titled ‘The Millennial’ (1 and 2) and ‘Extraterrestrials’ are quite interesting in a way that one would actually find these faces in a metro or a bus, or in a shopping mall or the bank, in work places and outside colleges/schools. They all share the same entranced look reminiscent of a human lulled into a willing passivity. There is a sense of dispassion in these faces, even as they adorn their ears with headphones which help them assume some disconnectedness while tuning out of the one they physically are in. The headphones in the work seem to say ’keep off’ without making any eye contact with another person.
The mobile phone and social media generation succumbs to the mighty pull of the multi pronged technology monster making smart phones smarter, and human to human verbal interactions redundant. Since conversation triggers the mind to think and analyse, we are left with people who learn to ‘look and hear’, but never ‘see and listen’. There is a numbing of the sensory apparatus with a technological opiate and this can only be covertly state sanctioned in the name of progress and globalisation. Over centuries there have been numerous opiates (religion, social status, marriage, salary etc), induced by the governing powers to be able to curb opposition and dissuade individual thought, evoke aspiration of a false identity hence typecasting the citizen, to maintain control over the populace with the power to induce peace or war at will, further building upon the identity of the nation/country.
The work ‘Purgatory’ presents the portraits of people who live their entire lives in the belief that they are just passing through to get to some other better future. The artist anoints each of these people with similar resigned visages of plebeian drones as in the earlier ‘millennial’ works. The elusive future remains a mirage in their minds while they live within an oasis. In some of Navanshu’s works, the influence of some iconic fictional characters can be seen, especially in ‘The Detective’, ‘The Eyewitness’ and ‘The Mastermind’, which are based on the figment of Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination, Sherlock Holmes. The works adhere to the astute understanding of the character portrayed and its innate quirkiness.
In recent times, the artist has tried to portray what he believes to be his future Self, a pot bellied man, quite similar to his father in stature he informs, sitting silently looking out at the world while a woodpecker continues its titter-tat on his shoulder. The background sports a disinterested moon and some stars with silhouettes of an urban landscape. Here the artist displays some kind of a resigned inevitability of human life, where dead dreams become the epitaphs on tombstones of a potential life abandoned midway. The constant drumming of the woodpecker is a sign of the nagging conscience, unable to let the person be content with anything.
The phrase, ‘A beautiful woman is never seen’ comes to mind when one sees Navanshu putting bright red stamps as name tags on the faces that he portrays. Some of these stamps are marked with words like, ‘Brainiac’, ‘Migrant’, ‘Purgatory’ etc. which depict the judgement and branding carried out by society on people. These ‘social stamps’ play an important role in the identity one believes to be ideal for themselves yet can be misleading. Most of us do stamp others even if it is on a mental plane like ‘Intellectual’,’Artist’,’Bimbo’,’Playboy’,’Housewife’,’Feminist’ etc. While some of these stamps could be sarcastic/derogatory, others are flattering but in both cases, they are limiting to the whole gamut of a human being’s personality. These could be projections of others’ reading of you, not the real you, necessarily. Navanshu stamps markers on the foreheads of the people he portrays as a sort of metaphor of socio-political branding by the state and its agencies which curbs any attempt at fully deciphering the real person or their situations.
Navanshu’s works have been chosen to be part of the Student’s Biennale at Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018. In his work on display he has presented a video element and an installation work comprising of face masks created out of traditionally used roof tiles from his village. Displayed earlier as the faces of the very people who lived in those dilapidated houses, this work looks at the discriminated side of human existence. Burdened by political, economical and social propriety the villagers of any given village in the country today, choose a mask like existence. We have people in despair, desolation, madness/comical and poverty, all these are vividly masked by the masks of tradition, religion, ritual, politics, faith, false hope and death. Some of the masks in this work appear rebellious and some conformed to their fate. Navanshu converts these roof tiles to present a portraiture of a populace existing listlessly in a dystopian world.
Artist Navanshu Kumar portrays pictures of individual entities and an entire population who appear misaligned with the core of their existence. While his work resurrects the true identity of these people, most of them in reality appear to be bogged down by the vague dogmas of a better life. The artist tries to bring out the quirkiness and humane humour within their faces to balance the absurdity that dictates their lives thereby creating a new identity of the individual. His work questions the core of the viewer, and one is often left asking, How many me, am I?
(Images courtesy – Artist Navanshu Kumar)