In an exploration of the duality of life, the artist uses an ephemeral imagery to merge myth and reality.
Goa-based artist Minam Apang presents her new collection of charcoal drawings at a solo show running until 14 October 2017 at Chatterjee & Lal in Mumbai. Art radar has a closer look at the artist’s present work and the evolution of her practice.
Abstraction, figuration and spirituality
Minam Apang was born in Arunachal Pradesh, India’s north-easternmost state. The sobriquet for this picturesque and mountainous part of the country that is nestled in the foothills of the Lower Himalayas is “Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains” in Sanskrit. Apang seems to be transforming the physical existence of what is familiar to her in her natural surroundings into a spectral, dream-like version that almost vanishes into the ether as the viewers gaze scans the artworks.
The misty slopes of the Siwalik mountains in the moonlight and the sun rising above a majestic skyline of a snow-clad Himalayan landscape dominate the imagery of these works. In a few of the drawings it is evident that Apang is also enticed by both the vastness and the turbulence of the Arabian Sea which would be a familiar sight to her in Goa, on the Konkan Coast of India, where she currently resides.
“Much of my work draws from a feeling of dislocation and the need to make sense of the many contexts I have come to occupy,” said Apang in a statement given during her 2008 show “War with the Stars” at Chatterjee and Lal, Mumbai. She credits the contradictions that she has always wrestled with in her practice to the disparate belief systems prevalent in her home in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh where “we follow ‘Pagan’, animistic practices and tribal rituals” and her schooling in Mussoorie, a hill station in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, where she had “a distinctly Christian upbringing”.
Apang earned her BFA from Elmherst College, Illinois and her MFA from the Sir J. J. School of Art, Mumbai. She has become well known in India and internationally for her drawings on different media and her unique subject matter. Apang has always been inspired by both the mythology and the landscape of the region of her birth and uses acrylics, watercolours, ink and charcoal on cloth and paper to create exceptionally detailed works that are a conflation of fluid abstraction and ethereal figuration.
Apang has shown her work at various prestigious locations including the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (2012); “The Ungovernables”, curated by Eungie Joo, the Triennale at the New Museum, New York (2012); the Prague Biennale V (2009) and the Asia-Pacific Triennale of Contemporary Art (APT6) (2009). She has been invited to high profile residencies such as one at the Arts Initiative, Tokyo (2009) and has won several scholarships and awards – including a fellowship from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, Umbertide, Italy (2013).
Most of the works on display in “Drawing Phantoms” show Minam Apang exploring nature as a theme albeit in a fantastical and highly imaginative manner.
In this new series of works Apang uses her chosen materials – charcoal, cloth, paper and a monochromatic palette – judiciously, bringing subtlety, movement and a three-dimensionality to her work by using creases in the cloth and smudges on the paper to her advantage. The execution of her work is meticulous and it involves first applying the charcoal on the cloth or the paper and then folding and unfolding the drawing to create additional texture and patterns. This adds an element of spontaneity and unpredictability to Apang’s drawings that gives them a distinct visual language.
The appropriateness of the title “Drawing Phantoms” is evident in the illusory nature of her subject matter and the artist’s imaginative translation of her life’s experiences and narratives. In this series, Apang is continuously seeking the spiritual form and the incorporeality of all that she has had a close relationship with – the natural surroundings, geographies, stories and memories of her past – bringing them into the context of her present.
It is her renderings of wraithlike, other-worldly figures in some of the works that draw the viewer in, to participate in her imaginative exploration of the identity of these hybrid creatures. Whether it’s a man with a fox’s head, a bird standing erect on human legs or a feline form with glowing eyes, all floating singularly against a stark-white background, Apang’s work tests the tangible memories of her childhood and her imagination as an artist to the limit.
In these fantastical beings the symbolism from her past and her deep spiritual connection to who she is and where she came from is apparent. As the artist has said some years ago,
Much of my works are an expression of this process of reclaiming my own sense of location. The disconnected, non-linear dream-vocabulary of myths and folktales offered me a form of expression ideally suited to my hybrid teleology.
A World of Myths, with ink and paper
The artist’s present series differs from her earlier painting style despite her work’s continuous commitment to being grounded in her personal and cultural history. She has done away with the freeform splattered imagery evident in some of her past paintings or the interdependencies of text and images in others. In her “War with Stars” exhibition at the same venue in 2008, while she remained true to her interest in mythical-animal figuration, she used a technique of splashing multiple liquid colours on paper, which she would later touch up with deliberate pen-and-ink work.
During these years, her work displayed a unique hybridity by combining the spontaneity and freedom of fluid patterns with the meticulous, crisp lines of the final detailing. In her own words, in an artist’s statement in 2008, she admits that through her work she frames “a visual re-reading that draws on the liquid worlds of myths in which the elements of the narrative are not restricted by formulaic structure or logic”.
Drawing and the digital medium
It is this unrestrained, expressionist style of painting and her versatility of materials that has given her practice a distinct visual language that sets her apart from her contemporaries. More recently in her exhibition “Death in the Rainforest” (2011) Apang introduced a new hybridity into her work, by merging the manual with the mechanical. She scanned her drawings, and digitally mirrored and layered them before printing them out on archival paper.
While the animistic and peak motifs that have always been seen in her work were omnipresent in this series, Apang’s use of technology marked a new milestone in her career. Commenting on her deeply personal subject matter, Apang has stated that it acts “as a point of connection, back to a history that is inevitably changing rapidly” and her paintings are her “contribution to this eternal flux of transmitted histories”. This sense of urgency and a need to combat her persistent feeling of dislocation has resulted in the stylistic changes we see in her work, over the past ten years.
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