The aesthetics of slum: Hema Upadhyay on urban displacement

Indian artist, Hema Upadhyay’s installation works reflect on displacement and urbanisation, depicting city landscapes as a jubilant chaos.

Art Radar features the stunning oeuvre of the recently deceased Indian artist Hema Upadhyay, one of the brightest voices that the global arts scene could ever lose.

Portrait of artist Hema Upadhyay (1972-2015). Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Portrait of artist Hema Upadhyay (1972-2015). Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Catching the pure essence of the Indian nation is not an easy task. Diverse are the angles – cultural heritage, the power of ornament, tradition, religion, migration and society, among others – from which artists may commence their own critical discourse on such a multilayered cultural society.

Hema Upadhyay, 'Modernization', 2013-2014, Dimensions variable, site specific, Aluminum sheets, car scrap, enamel paint, plastic sheets, found objects, m-seal, resin and hardware material. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Hema Upadhyay, ‘Modernization’, 2013-2014, site-specific installation, aluminium sheets, car scrap, enamel paint, plastic sheets, found objects, m-seal, resin and hardware material, dimensions variable. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Hema Upadhyay (Baroda, 1972 – Mumbai, 2015) opted for a focus on the urban environment, in which individuals are challenged, lose themselves, fight and strive to build their own lives. Her research stemmed from the experience of dislocation, which she experienced first hand when moving from her native town Baroda, where she concluded her studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts at MS University, to Mumbai. Drawing inspiration from her own personal and family history of migration from Pakistan to Gujarat, India, Upadhyay’s photography and sculptural installations are deeply imbued with her empathy for the marginalised community of migrants. Her work sublimates the feeling of displacement that is explored in light of the dominance of the city over individuals.

As Beth Citron, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Chelsea Rubin Art Museum, underlines in Upadhyay’s oeuvre,

Having experienced a journey paralleling that of the hordes who arrive in Bombay seeking work each year, the artist became a self-aware agent for the anonymous urban migrant. In her renderings of displacement, Upadhyay privileges her own impressions of the urban landscape and the performative gesture.

Hema Upadhyay, 'Fish in a Dead Landscape', Acrylic, gouache, poster colors, dry pastels charcoal photographs and Copyright free images on paper, 72 x 48 inches each. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Hema Upadhyay, ‘Fish in a Dead Landscape’, acrylic, gouache, poster colours, dry pastels charcoal photographs and Copyright free images on paper, 72 x 48 in each. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

On the occasion of her residency at the Atelier Calder from September 2010 to January 2011, which saw her moving from a metropolis like Mumbai to the much smaller town of Saché in central France, she explains in an interview conducted by Selina Ting for InititArt Magazine thus:

When I came here, I realized that my proportions as a human being fit perfectly inside, in an interior. Once I am outside in the nature, it was too vast for me to understand my proportions. Nature has its own speed, site, growth and process. Comparing that with the manufacturing process of an artist, it’s a very different thing. I am confronting this right now. I am given a studio to work in, and I have this big house and the big forest, I can work anywhere. But I feel my proportions are right inside here. The moment when I go outside, it’s a complete upheaval for me.

Hema Upadhyay, 'Modernization', 2013-2014, Dimensions variable, site specific, Aluminum sheets, car scrap, enamel paint, plastic sheets, found objects, m-seal, resin and hardware material. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Hema Upadhyay, ‘Modernization’, 2013-2014, site-specific installation, aluminium sheets, car scrap, enamel paint, plastic sheets, found objects, m-seal, resin and hardware material, dimensions variable. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Upadhyay’s approach to space recalls that of Romantic artists to nature, to which, astonishingly, they used to relate with contrasting motions of pleasure and pain. In the words of English philosopher Edmund Burke,

[…] astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Hema Upadhyay, '8' x 12'', 2009, Aluminum sheets, Car scrap, Enamel paint, Plastic sheets, found objects, M-seal, Resin and Hardware material, 243 cm Height x 366 cm Depth x 243 cm Wide. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Hema Upadhyay, ‘8’ x 12”, 2009, aluminium sheets, car scrap, enamel paint, plastic sheets, found objects, M-seal, resin and dardware material, 243 x 366 x 243 cm. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Dread and exhilaration is what one feels once stepping into the approximately nine-square-metre installation 8′ x 12′ (2009). With this work Hema Upadhyay catches the most intimate feeling of alienation and claustrophobia of a stranger in the city. The dismay of finding oneself immersed into a small-scale upturned slum suddenly becomes a feeling of protection, and suffocation turns into reassurance. The inner area, made out of scraps, aluminium sheets and found car elements and objects, giving the space a sense of disorganised crowd and poverty, contrasts with the combination of bright colours and crafted skyscrapers and dwellings that convey a diverse happy imagery of the slum – thus excitement opposes the terrible feeling of entrapment.

As the artist continues in the interview with InititArt Magazine,

[…] so much chaos in my work actually came from the city. When I work in my studio in Mumbai, there are lots of elements, of decay, of life, of chaos. It’s a double-edged condition when you see development in the making – you see growth but decay, you see modern skyscrapers but the mushrooming of slums, etc. It is the dichotomy which existed within us and outside us as well. Here, it seems to be no chaos but an internal chaos is there in the forest. A construction and deconstruction cycle is taking place. As an artist, I am constantly confronted with the idea of creativity, of how the natural elements or conditions affect the manufactured work.

Hema Upadhyay, 'Think left, Think right, Think low, Think tight', 2010, Length -240 inches, Width -240 inches, Height – 192 inches, Aluminum sheets, Car scrap, Enamel paint, Plastic sheets, found objects, M-seal, Resin and Hardware material on Marine ply16 mm. Photo: Tetsuo Ito (Aichi Trienniel 2010). Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Hema Upadhyay, ‘Think left, Think right, Think low, Think tight’, 2010, aluminium sheets, car scrap, enamel paint, plastic sheets, found objects, M-seal, resin and hardware material on Marine ply 16 mm, 240 x 240 x 192 in. Photo: Tetsuo Ito (Aichi Triennial 2010). Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

As an artist, Hema Upadhyay is not just interested in the exact reproduction of a miniature slum. Dream a Wish – Wish a Dream (2006) and Where the Bees Suck (2009) deal with the aesthetics of the slums, while subtly delivering a deep knowledge of the socio-economic structure and social hierarchy underneath the urban texture.

Returning to Upadhyay’s interview with Selina Ting, the artist expands on the creative process framing the slum-inspired installations,

When I looked at the architecture, the set up of the area, the form and colours they created, I am seeing surrealism, conceptual art and Arte Povera. But it’s their home. When I pass the area everyday on my way to work, I took the part of a voyeur to spy into their life. I am dealing with the dichotomy of social hierarchy and the whole idea voyeurism where I take the protagonists as the performers. They become the objects for me. So as an artist, how do I relate to these images without an exhibition space? They are not arrangements; they are part of their daily basic life. How could I bring them out in the work? How’s the whole hierarchy between high art and low art? I think that’s the main concern for me. When people come to see my exhibition, then they immediately think that I am talking about politics, I am not. This is the way I look at things.

Installation View, Fish in a Dead Landscape (2014) at Chemould Prescott Road. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Installation View, “Fish in a Dead Landscape” (2014) at Chemould Prescott Road. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

The city of Mumbai has clearly influenced Hema Upadhyay’s work. However, her installations don’t just talk about displacement, they also investigate on the theme of identity and multiplicity. As critic and art historian Zehra Jumabhoy writes in Scroll.in, the artist “fashioned an identity that typified the “new India”, commenting on the radically altering face of its globalising cities”.

Modernization (2013-2014) was mounted at Mumbai Chemould Prescott Road on the occasion of her solo exhibition “Fish in A Dead Landscape” (23 September – 7 November 2014). This large scale work taking over the ground floor of the gallery space is an aerial view of the slum area. It does speak of urbanisation, migration and landscape, depicting the multiplicity of language, ethnicity, religion and culture, while spreading the artist’s personal understanding of a developing city where uncontrolled is the urban expansion.

Hema Upadhyay, 'Modernization', 2013-2014, Dimensions variable, site specific, Aluminum sheets, car scrap, enamel paint, plastic sheets, found objects, m-seal, resin and hardware material. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Hema Upadhyay, ‘Modernization’, 2013-2014, site-specific installation, aluminium sheets, car scrap, enamel paint, plastic sheets, found objects, m-seal, resin and hardware material, dimensions variable. Photo: Anil Rane. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

According to a text published on Chemould Prescott Road’s website, the installation Modernization has been further explained thus:

[Hema Upadhyay] meticulously references and cuts from The World Encyclopedia, creating textures and juxtapositions on painted backgrounds. The much-recognised 18th century Japanese ukiyo-e printmaker, Hokusai’s  “The Great Wave” is recreated using vast texts on migration. The city of Bombay where Hema came as a young “migrant artist” from hometown Baroda, form the backdrop for these conversations that exist and co-exist in her work.

Hema Upadhyay, 'The Princesses Rusted Belt', 2011, installation view at Studio La Città, hand made birds made out of River clay, acrylic paint wire, printed text, size varies from 5 inch to 3 inch. Photo: Studio la Città. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Hema Upadhyay, ‘The Princesses Rusted Belt’, 2011, installation view at Studio La Città, handmade birds made out of River clay, acrylic paint wire, printed text, size varies from 5 in to 3 in. Photo: Studio la Città. Image courtesy Chemould Prescott Road.

Hema Upadhyay’s position of a voyeur flying over the city recalls that of birds. In her work, they would rather be a migratory flock, seasonally moving from one place to another. The installation The Princesses’ Rusted Belt (2011) confirms the artist’s engagement with the history of the city, drawing inspiration from the facts of Girangaon, the mill village located in central Mumbai. With over 130 textile mills, this area contributed to the growth and prosperity of the city until the 1980s, when all the factories were shut down. The installation consists of a long shelf of handmade wisdom-bearing birds placed side by side creating a messy multitude struggling to survive. The work speaks of mass displacement and changing economics, without losing Upadhyay’s genuinely delicate and joyful approach to the occurrences of her native country.

Carmen Stolfi

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Related topics: Indian artists, installation, sculpture, migration, urban, identity, artist and the community

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