Bindis, bodies and saris: the art of India’s Bharti Kher – artist profile

Internationally acclaimed Indian artist Bharti Kher presents her first solo exhibition in Australia.

Art Radar profiles Bharti Kher and explores the themes at the heart of her diverse body of work.

1.Bharti Kher at the exhibition ‘Bharti Kher: In Her Own Language’, photo courtesy of Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.

Bharti Kher at the exhibition ‘Bharti Kher: In Her Own Language’. Image courtesy Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.

From 18 February to 16 April 2016 the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery is holding “Bharti Kher: In Her Own Language”, the Indian artist’s first solo exhibition  in Australia as part of the Perth International Arts Festival. The works in this exhibition focus on bindis, bodies and saris and range from abstract wall panels to tactile sculptures.

This is a big year for Kher, with her works being shown in the 20th Biennale of Sydney and as part of a retrospective staged by Vancouver Art Gallery. Previously her works have been exhibited at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Tel Aviv Museum of Art and Centre Pompidou to name just a few.

Born in 1969, Bharti Kher grew up in London where her father worked in textiles and her mother was a seamstress with her own fabric shop. It was perhaps being surrounded by vibrant colours and Indian silks while growing up that later influenced her sculptures. Kher had a passion for art from an early age and studied painting and design at Middlesex Polytechnic in London and then at Newcastle Polytechnic. In 1992 she moved to India where she met her future husband, artist Subodh Gupta, and she has been based in New Delhi ever since.

Kher is represented by influential galleries such as Jack Shainman Gallery (New York), Hauser & Wirth (London), Galerie Perrotin (Paris) and Gallery Ske (New Delhi and Bangalore) and her work has gained the attention of collectors such as Francois Pinault, Charles Saatchi and Frank Cohen (PDF donwload).

8.Bharti Kher, ‘Cloud Walker’, 2013, fibreglass, wooden rake, sari, resin, stone, steel, 186 x 115 x 93cm. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Bharti Kher, ‘Cloud Walker’, 2013, fibreglass, wooden rake, sari, resin, stone, steel, 186 x 115 x 93 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Even though her early experiences in the UK and explorations of identity influence her work, Kher doesn’t want to be solely defined by her background. In an interview (PDF download) with Whitewall Magazine Kher explains:

I don’t want to be known as a “diaspora” artist. Find another name for me – I’m not interested in that one. Why categorize? I’m a practicing artist who works. Where I come from, what I do, where I live… I think those ideas are a little bit dated now. It’s limiting.

Bharti Kher, ‘Cell III’, 2013, bindis on painted board, 249 x 188cm. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Bharti Kher, ‘Cell III’, 2013, bindis on painted board, 249 x 188 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Kher gained widespread international recognition in 2006 with her life-size sculpture of an elephant covered in bindis called The skins speaks a language not its own. The elephant is lying prone and it seems uncertain whether it’s dead or resting. The bindi is a reoccurring motif in Kher’s work, and can be found in pieces such as the wall panels Cells I, II and III and Dark Matter.

The work Virus has an impressive number of 10,000 bindis that form a mandala. Kher sees the bindi as representing the third eye, a link between the real and the spiritual worlds. By using bindis in her work, Kher also challenges the misinterpretation around them, questioning people’s perceptions about such a common object.

Bharti Kher, ‘Dark Matter (M M)’, 2015, bindis on painted board, 244 x 183cm. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Bharti Kher, ‘Dark Matter (M M)’, 2015, bindis on painted board, 244 x 183 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Kher describes herself as an abstract artist, as well as a figurative one. In an interview in 2015 (PDF download) Kher explains that it’s the ideas which are paramount in driving her work, adding that her “works all together can be confusing, and I think that sometimes people ask themselves, ‘is this three artists?’’’ The styles might be diverse, but her works are tied together through themes she often revisits. Kher goes on to explain:

You’ve got to look at the longer picture and at what my practice does over a duration of time. I like to string the work out; To drag it through my life so to speak.

When talking of the sculptures of women, for example Cloud Walker (2013) or Warrior with cloak and shield (2008), Kher sees them as part of a project that might well last 15 years, culminating with a group of them meeting as friends in a crowd, talking with each other.

Bharti Kher, ‘Warrior with cloak and shield’, (detail) 2008, Edition 3, resin, steel, banana leaf, thread, fabric, 241 x 170 x 196cm. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Bharti Kher, ‘Warrior with cloak and shield’, (detail) 2008, Edition 3, resin, steel, banana leaf, thread, fabric, 241 x 170 x 196 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

As curator Margaret Moore describes in the exhibition catalogue,

Her work in all its trajectories can most persistently be traced to the body. The figures – though part hybrid and mythical – are goddesses, saris and bindis adorn women exclusively, and the ingrained rice might signify nourishment and nurturing. Bharti Kher’s art is imaginative, sentient and visceral yet in its physicality it can be strangely ethereal and allusive. Exhibitions filter though never entirely define Kher’s art such is her conceptual agility and mutability.

Bharti Kher, ‘Portrait from memory IV’, 2012-13, sari, resin, concrete, 201 x 30.5 x 40cm.
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Bharti Kher, ‘Portrait from memory IV’, 2012-13, sari, resin, concrete, 201 x 30.5 x 40 cm.
 Image courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

The exhibition also shows a number of sculptures of saris wrapped around pillars and covered in resin. The tactile and visceral nature of the pieces combines both an abstract and minimalist style with implied figures – the absent women who normally wear the material. The conceptual thoughts behind the pieces, the way Kher turns objects into symbols, is a strategy she uses to great effect throughout her work.

Claire Wilson

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Related topics: art and politics, gallery shows, artist profile, Indian artists, sculpture, installation

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