Spice girl: Indian artist K. Benitha Perciyal – in conversation

Indian artist uses spices, found materials and incense to create thought-provoking and intensely personal installations.

Indian artist K. Benitha Perciyal speaks with Art Radar about the unusual melding of components in her work and her poignant farewell to a pet squirrel.

K. Benitha Perciyal, "Naan Oru Penn, Yen Yennam Aayiram (Me a Woman, My Thoughts a Thousand)" installation shot, 2016, frankincense, myrrh,cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass and cedar wood essential oils, gourds, sunflower seeds collected and found objects. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

K. Benitha Perciyal, ‘The Fires of Faith’ (detail), 2014, shot, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass, cedar wood, bark powder, coal, leather, gourds, perfume & essential oil bottles, used wood and assorted objects of daily use. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

Chennai-based mixed media artist K. Benitha Perciyal employs precious spices and fragrant materials to emerge with assemblages that take on religion and troubling modern-day issues.

K. Benitha Perciyal (b. 1978, Vellore, India) successfully earned a BFA and MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Government College of Arts and Crafts in Chennai. Her work has been shown at select solo and group exhibitions throughout the world, including the first edition of the Yinchuan Biennale and the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Art Radar spoke to Perciyal to learn more about her artistic practice.

You received your BFA and MFA in Painting and Printmaking. When did you first move to working with found objects? What prompted the departure?

I started such work at the Lalit Kala Akademi Studios in Chennai. Coming from a traditional town at the age of sixteen to live at my relatives’ houses in Chennai, I immediately lost space. I simply did not have space to work for seven long years.

The syllabus at the college did not demand creative work from the students, so graduating from college was a big relief. Only with the availability of the LKA Studios and a junior research grant from the Government of India did my work really start. The atmosphere was similar to my college atmosphere with a lot of fellow artists working and a vast studio space.

Even then I avoided the regular fancy art-making materials and started my assemblages with found material: abandoned material such as seeds, roots, bark, herbs, red earth, charcoal etc. Self-portraits and conceptual installations were the content of my work and it all started there.

K. Benitha Perciyal, "How Could I Say At All Without My Roots" installation (detail), 2012, rice paper, tea stain, fresh water shells, seedpod, cotton paper mache. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

K. Benitha Perciyal, ‘How Could I Say At All Without My Roots’ (detail), 2012, rice paper, tea stain, fresh water shells, seedpod, cotton paper mache. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

Your work The Fires of Faith was exhibited at the 2nd edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Please tell us more about the historical and personal connection surrounding this installations narrative.

My visit to the first edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale enchanted me. There was no ritualistic space found in today’s art galleries! It was a holistic community experience, fully denying the compulsions of galleries through the use of warehouses and other converted buildings. That initial experience offered a really a big opening for me creatively.

I was invited by Jitish Kallat, the Artistic Director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014, to look at the spaces. The first thing that surprised me was how much Kochi really is a port city. For the installation shown at the second edition of the Biennale, I chose Pepper House, which smelt of salt and spices. The sound of the ocean, the activities of a port where there is constant loading and unloading of goods and the smells from the packages all inspired me to create The Fires of Faith.

The impetus behind the installation happened when I visited an antique shop at Fort Kochi, where I saw two Jesus icons. Each had an arm missing. For me, these pieces revealed the true worth of Jesus. It is the faith that started with the smells of the sea and spices and the pieces found at an antique shop. It then manifested into the history of Christianity and its advent into the Indian subcontinent, as I understand it. Incense, my material for my art-making, brought together the real fragments of objects and memories, building The Fires of Faith in the process of my stay at Kochi, a piece that bookends personal time and personal space.

K. Benitha Perciyal, "The Fires of Faith" installation (detail), 2014, shot, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass, cedar wood, bark powder, coal, leather, gourds, perfume & essential oil bottles, used wood and assorted objects of daily use. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

K. Benitha Perciyal, ‘The Fires of Faith’ (detail), 2014, shot, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass, cedar wood, bark powder, coal, leather, gourds, perfume & essential oil bottles, used wood and assorted objects of daily use. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

 Any interesting stories regarding how the audience reacted to the installation?

Total disbelief was the first reaction that I received from my audience. Looking at the brittle nature of my incense material, people could not believe that such stuff could be cast into a sculpture. On top of that, I made them without any armature to hold the materials together, which was another surprise. For my work, I used a combination of various incenses and wood resin that could support an upright, vertical sculpture. My intention behind the use of these materials was to expose the brittle impermanent nature of life with the quality of nature that is constantly recycling.

Another interesting story was the fury of a firm Christian believer. She wanted to know why I was exhibiting Christ with a hand or a leg missing. I told her being a Christian myself, I questioned why someone who prayed and confided to an icon would discard it after it was broken. When the form became damaged was there no way of repairing it?

Don’t we repair our crumbling faith in times of irreparable loss like a beloved’s death? If that is possible, why not repair our relationship with God, who resides at our residence almost like one’s parent or teacher who we revere. I told her that was the message which the work wished to share. After that, she brought a lot of her friends to the venue to see the work!

Please tell us more about your work in the solo show “Still and Still Moving Life” and how the line “In my beginning is my end” is important to your work.

Manoj Nair wrote a foreword for my solo show. In it, like all serious writers, he included the opening lines “In my beginning is my end” from a poem by T.S. Eliot.

To me, I carry my diary, if you will permit me to call my work that. Nobody throws away a diary. It is there to stay for centuries if the elements permit it. So, I brought my collection of pods, shuttles, icons and self-portraits in various moods and contexts. The collection is like a journey of my old work, something that is often revisited – an unfinished agenda. It was to be shown in various rooms at the gallery.

My first room was called “there is no forgetting…. from the lips of people” which hosted images from Christian mythology and also had a stupa-like structure, which looks interesting from the outside but has no inside access. The sandalwood-like beads are made out of clay and newspaper that were adorned by gold wrappers and artificially scented.

The shuttle is like my self-portrait. It is the invisible LINK. Though it weaves the warp and the weft of all clothing, it never is there for anyone to see, nor is it in any way essential when the job is done. It begins and ends within….

K. Benitha Perciyal, "How Will These Things Be Know (Bracelet)", 2014, Jerry’s chopped tooth on embroidery, gold & found object. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

K. Benitha Perciyal, ‘How Will These Things Be Know (Bracelet)’, 2014, Jerry’s chopped tooth on embroidery, gold & found object. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

How about your work in homage to your pet squirrel Jerry? What does this piece say about life and death, nature and mans interest in progress at all costs?

When Jerry came into my life, he was as a small ball of flesh smaller than a 50 paise coin. It took nearly ten days for him to open one eye and a few more days for the other eye. He became my priority and I changed my routine. His care was not a burden but a joyful responsibility. People were against me taking care of him since they felt it belonged to the wild and that it should be returned to the wild.

No mother came looking for him, so how could I surrender Jerry back to nature? Though I often watched squirrels jump about and roam on trees at the campus where our studio was, it was Jerry who took me into the wild. He helped me perceive the aspects of nature buried deep inside of me. One day, he disappeared and I needed to thank him for those seven years that he spent with me. I hope he is still out there somewhere. When viewers of this work understand the history behind it, I hope that they will connect with the message behind it.

In addition to visual cues, your work often includes the sense of smell. Can you please tell us more about how you use spices, perfumes, wood, and other materials in your work?

Smell is connected with food, so it wasn’t so important for me at first. After college, I started making my own colours by grinding and boiling various ingredients. During that process, it was smell that indicated the consistency of my material.

With the arrival of Jerry the squirrel and Johnny our dog, their keen sense of smell became the “medium” of interaction between us. When we fed them, they would take their time to smell first and then accept the food later, even if the level of affection and trust was unquestionable. So smell became most important.

Jaggery, lime and other incense materials that constantly emit a fragrance are boiled together to make the material. Unconsciously, it is smell that even shapes the final look of each work.

K. Benitha Perciyal, "Naan Oru Penn, Yen Yennam Aayiram (Me a Woman, My Thoughts a Thousand)" installation (detail), 2016, frankincense, myrrh,cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass and cedar wood essential oils, gourds, sunflower seeds collected and found objects. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

K. Benitha Perciyal, ‘Naan Oru Penn, Yen Yennam Aayiram (Me a Woman, My Thoughts a Thousand)’ (detail), 2016, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass and cedar wood essential oils, gourds, sunflower seeds collected and found objects. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

In addition, your work has explored the nature of change and the transitory. In particular, your examination surrounding stains – what message can they tell us?

When Jesus lost an arm, he became a doll on the street and the possession of an antique dealer. I suppose that’s an example of material transition. Over the years, the hard core of a piece of incense will transform and its smell will fade. One has to wait and see how long the smell lasts.

Regarding stains, I saw it first as fluids produced during women’s periods. During its application on paper, it became something that marks a territory.

Please tell us about your use of incense in your work in both India and China. Does this particular material transcend cultures, religions and countries? How?

Let us imagine the Buddha. Someone common to both cultures. Both of these cultures share the ritual of burning incense sticks in front of the icons they pray to. A culture that is so sure of itself doesn’t even understand or give top priority to some other language other than Chinese. A culture with rich technology and man-power believes in the ritual of incense stick burning as a sign of respect and obeisance. Though their international connectivity is high their local outreach and interaction seems to be diminishing!

So I consciously pulled in a prehistoric and naïve touch to the work at the Yinchuan Biennale.

K. Benitha Perciyal, "Naan Oru Penn, Yen Yennam Aayiram (Me a Woman, My Thoughts a Thousand)" installation shot, 2016, frankincense, myrrh,cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass and cedar wood essential oils, gourds, sunflower seeds collected and found objects. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

K. Benitha Perciyal, ‘Naan Oru Penn, Yen Yennam Aayiram (Me a Woman, My Thoughts a Thousand)’ installation shot, 2016, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass and cedar wood essential oils, gourds, sunflower seeds collected and found objects. Photo: Prasannakumar Nagarajan. Image courtesy the artist.

I just saw your work at the first edition of the Yinchuan Biennale at MOCA Yinchuan (China). Can you please tell us more about the work exhibited there? How did it address the Biennales theme “For an Image, Faster Than Light”?

The sediment of the Yellow River has a transitory nature. Each layer is consistently accumulating and marking periods of time. The Yellow River is a bed of constant action. Cultures rise and fall. Life gets lived and disappearances of tradition make a mark, like the Terra Cotta Warriors or the Pyramid’s mark on a precise period in time. It sustains.

The pieces I made for the Biennale explore a commentary on the unsustainability of capitalism. As always, my method of executing an installation does not remain faithful to my sketches. There is mobility of the work, with the material that comes alive as it changes.

With this in mind, I did not carry a finished idea of the works with me upon arrival but held the seeds of it, to let it grow at the site. The cylinder became a ruined structure, almost unstable. Even the structure standing there is shaky and might fall if pushed. Such instability! But the man and the woman seated outside are with seeds. Seeds of hope? They don’t inhabit the structure. The seed inside the pod is in a state of secrecy. We know the existence of the seed but don’t see it; just like the hope which we know exists, unseen, unheard of voices and actions that sustain unsustainability.

 Lisa Pollman

1420

Related Titles: Indian artists, sculpture, interviews, mixed media, fragile art

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