FEATURE REVIEW: Not a Soul or a Leaf Squandered / Sushma Sabnis
Taking lessons from Nature, and an invisible sisterhood of nurturing one’s own creative pursuits, these four artists create art from what they see through their mind’s looking glasses and their windows to the world… writes Sushma Sabnis.
At this juncture as medical personnel in Mumbai and other places grapple with the rising numbers of the pandemic, the disturbing dearth for doctors, nurses and medical professionals points to the ruthlessness of a looming community spread and also the fear which spreads wider and more rapidly than the pandemic. In the continuing series on lockdown and the pandemic related art by artists all over the country, we look at the works of artists still dealing with lockdown, fear, misinformations and a relentless virus inching closer and closer.
Artist Mahula Ghosh from West Bengal deftly captures the pulse of an ongoing battle of humans with Nature’s strongest weapon so far, the Coronavirus. In her sensitive works, she tries to bring together a mosaic like composition of the ongoing multiple level happenings one would witness as in a newspaper or as social media bombarded information that we endure daily. The palette is kept vibrant almost in contrast with the gloomy situations all around, yet, in the works one finds portrayal of the chaos and anxieties of medical professionals, nature, people, abandoned buildings, masked faces contrasted with vibrantly blooming flowers, animals, birds and butterflies reclaiming the earth etc. The artist seems to depict the interconnectedness and coexistence of numerous living beings; plant, animal or human. In the work titled ‘Crystal Clear World’ Mahula portrays the world like a mind map with nuances of pain, death, life, revival, religion, faith, angels and demons, the limits of human consciousness and the sub-conscious, all of it fighting for attention of the viewer, mirroring reports of some of the overwhelmed medical practitioners who manage hundreds of critical patients in the ICU wards in a battle against the dying of the light. This chaos, as an empathetic manifestation dominates Mahula’s works reflecting her own state of mind and the general state of affairs everywhere. In the email interview she voices her concerns about the prolonged lockdown saying, ‘Longer lockdown will definitely pose a threat to artistic profession. Art events and sales are already facing a question mark and with shattered economy, future of art professionals doesn’t look very bright.’ But there has to be hope, which Mahula resuscitates in her choice of palette in water colours. There is an interconnectedness of things good and bad, revived and destroyed which appear to coexist in Mahula’s works, this is the ray of hope that believes in survival of humankind.
The lockdown and the isolation has different effects on different people. Some get their narratives from witnessing the world being decapitated one limb at a time while others believe in occupying oneself in daily chores to tide over difficult times. Artist Shilpa Nikam from Mumbai chooses the latter. As an artist, her abstract works are a testament to her persistence to ‘not let things fall apart’. Like artist Yayoi Kusama who paints dots and spots as it helps her get through her anxiety issues or the practice of Mandala paintings by Tibetan monks, regular activities however humble, become necessary ritualistic anchors for calming the restlessness and uncertainties within. This ritual need not be spectacular, it could simply be an attempt at tidying up the home or workplace or arranging works in a studio. Shilpa uses stocked up pigments and paper to create a sense of order with her abstract lexicon, and in doing so lays to rest her unexpressed fears and anxieties about the pandemic. In her ongoing engagement to uncover her family’s lost narratives, she tries to recapture some nuances of the place in semi abstractions, focusing on run down doors of abandoned homes in Jafrabad, Gujarat; however, she creates them as if they are fast vanishing portals to a bygone era. The intricate Mughal designs carved on wooden doors/windows/jharokhas, lend to her works a kind of misty nostalgia. Much like the abandoned homes, malls and public spaces due to the lockdown. There are suggestions of life inside the dilapidated structures though, one can see nature’s green limbs slowly embracing and reclaiming that which was once Hers.
Another artist whose works revisit the reclamation of spaces by Nature is Kerala based Aswathy Byju. Aswathy’s works exude a palette deeply dowsed in natural greens and grey tones, interspersed with off tones of white. This earth and sky medley of a palette is seen in many of her works. Addressing the email questionnaire, Aswathy believes artists often work in a self imposed isolation although a lockdown situation could generate a challenge to come up with an experimentative and new body of works. She believes it is a unique experience to be able to create an art work within limitations of medium, making it challenging and hence immensely interesting. Her ideas she believes are of a universal nature as they engage with natural imageries, humans, women in particular, and their internal and external environments along with the correlation between humankind and nature. In her works she portrays a woman, probably herself, fast asleep even as the broken sign board read ‘department’ lies discarded along with an identity card. Around the sleeping woman are floating dreamy fishes, ferns and lotuses quietly rejuvenating as in these lockdown times one notices nature coming back into its own everywhere around the globe. The sleeping figure replicates and is seen laid out between lotus pads floating in ponds of dreams, in unison with the rest of the flora and fauna, becoming one with nature, simultaneously embodying and holding it. A time to recover and reform one’s own thoughts and attitudes, lifestyles and prejudices for a better tomorrow seems to be her embedded message in the works.
There is an adage ‘what you seek, is seeking you’; in the case of Delhi based artist Priyanka Govil, it would read ‘what you see, sees you’. Articulate in her minimalistic renditions, this artist brings to the fore a rarely mentioned aspect of a complete or partial lockdown. Priyanka’s works engage with the concept of looking, seeing, observing, from a vantage point, as a state of constant surveillance. It could be in this case a house window/a terrace/door/a hole in the tree, etc. In her works made during the lockdown, she creates drawings of the empty urban spaces in a state of ‘arrest’; locked gates/entrances, lone standing tree trunks, imagined roots of trees clutching and spreading in the earth undisturbed by human footfall or reaching the sky at the same time with their branches. This is juxtaposed with numerous ‘eyes’ which hold the gaze of the viewer rather abruptly as if in a questioning stance. These eyes are not human, in fact they are the metaphoric eyes of surveillance cameras which one is used to in an urban setting, also now they are eyes of trees, the quietly witnessing sentient beings who stand tall, to replenish what humankind has chosen to so indifferently exploit and destroy. The sign board ‘Silence, Trees at Work’ comes to mind when addressing Priyanka’s drawings and this is what she observes and recounts. As if a person in isolation observes the formation of that one new leaf, or the new branch or tendril which grew longer today or the bud that opened its eyes to the world, the artist’s works become a narrative about the unstopping machine of the earth. Water bodies with eyes, dead tree trunks sprouting new eye leaves become the artist’s way at looking deep into the bustling highway of growth and rejuvenation of nature and acknowledging its omnipresence and omniscience. There are no hints of stress and strain in Nature’s immaculate systems or its microscopic or macroscopic observations, and the results are achieved with efficiency and precision, not a soul or a leaf squandered. Priyanka takes this very message of the concept of control to create poignant works of her impactful muse.
The art world believes that women artists find it easy to create works as they are ‘used to’ being confined to work, home and family most of the time. What binds these four women and other women artists like them together in some kind of an invisible nurturing sisterhood is how they have managed their ambient lockdown conditions beyond their control and have created enough space and time in their daily lives to create works very much like nature, as these women hone their art practices with sheer grit. Nature does move in mysterious ways it appears.
More stories from lockdown days in the next article, till then.
Images Courtesy : The artists