“Unbecoming”: the “humanimal”, queer world of India’s Tejal Shah – artist profile

Kunsthaus Hamburg presents the Indian artist’s latest work encompassing video, drawings and collages. 

Tejal Shah’s “humanimals” are the result of her research on the relationship between society and environment, sexuality and science, ecology and Buddhism.

Tejal Shah, 'Between the Waves – Outer', 2012, mixed media collage, digital print on archival rag paper, 70 x 50 cm.

Tejal Shah, ‘Between the Waves – Outer’, 2012, mixed media collage, digital print on archival rag paper, 70 x 50 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

The “humanimals”

First presented at dOCUMENTA (13), Between the Waves (2012), a five-channel video installation by the artist Tejal Shah, situates the viewer on uncertain terrain. Combining various points of reference, including a costume made by Rebecca Horn for her 1970-1972 film Unicorn, alien visitations, and the environmental crises facing urban populations, Shah suggests that the ecological is situated directly within the political imaginaries of human and non-human subjects.

Shah’s work reads as parable: as the unicorn-horned subjects – “humanimals” in the artist’s terms – traverse various distinct landscapes including forests, beaches and landfills, their relationship to both their environment and to the viewer becomes increasingly abstract, yet engrossing. In each of these settings, the humanimals maintain a distinct connection to their idiosyncratic features, milking and stroking their horns, cradling and stroking each others’ bodies, and posing amidst rain soaked branches, dry excavation sites, and underwater among other, equally alien creatures.

Tejal Shah, 'Between the Waves' (video still), 2012, 5- channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Tejal Shah, ‘Between the Waves’ (video still), 2012, 5-channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Tejal Shah (b. 1979, Bhilai, India; currently based in Goa, India), who has studied at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the Art Institute of Chicago and Bard, has previously exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Oslo (2016-17), the Whitechapel Gallery iLondon (2014), the Gujral Foundation in New Delhi (2014) and the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2011).

Curated by Chus Martinez at Kunsthaus Hamburg, the exhibition “Unbecoming” presents Tejal Shah’s latest series of drawings Unbecoming (2017), which the show draws the title from, as well as the work Between the Waves and a series of collages that relate to the environmental themes of the video installation. 

 Tejal Shah, detail from the series unbecoming, 2017, Courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich, photo: Hayo Heye

Tejal Shah, ‘Unbecoming’ (detail), 2017. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

The flying Bodhisattvas

In these delicately rendered drawings, small, unnamed figures lie prone or supine, their visages obscured by patterned fabric; in some drawings, the figures fly and bend in the air. These drawings are related to Shah’s recent research interests in Buddhism and specifically the figure of the Bodhisattva, a figure in Mahayana Buddhism that delays his attainment of Nirvana in order to help those who suffer on earth. Unlike the rich natural environments in which the humanimals reside, however, these figures are set against a blank white ground, which lends them an equally alien, extraterrestrial appearance.

Tejal Shah, 'Unbecoming' (detail), 2017. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Tejal Shah, ‘Unbecoming’ (detail), 2017. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

The juxtaposition of these drawings against the five-channel video work also offers insight into the wide-ranging practice of the artist. Since the early 2000s, Shah’s practice has incorporated video, installation, performance and photography that slips between the boundaries of each of these media to invoke the fluid conceptions of race, gender and subjectivities which the artist espouses. The artist distinctly incorporates queer and feminist theory and activism into her artistic practice, eschewing binary idealisation in favour of the pluralities of gender and sexualities.

Tejal Shah, 'Between the Waves' (video still, ), 2012, 5-channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Tejal Shah, ‘Between the Waves’ (video still, ), 2012, 5-channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Gender and sexuality

Previous work, including the 2006 video installation What Are You?, addresses the geopolitical specificity of gender identity and sexuality in Mumbai. Replicating the real-life working conditions of the hijra sex-worker community on which Shah’s video is based, the installation included shabby mattresses and cabins for viewers to sit in. The subjects confront the viewer directly, the camera zooming into their countenances to fill the screen, suggesting the close relationship between Shah and these communities.

Tejal Shah, video still, Between the Waves, 2012, 5- channel video installation, HD, courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich

Tejal Shah, ‘Between the Waves’ (video still), 2012, 5-channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Tejal Shah, video still, Between the Waves, 2012, 5- channel video installation, HD, courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich

Tejal Shah, ‘Between the Waves’ (video still), 2012, 5-channel video installation, HD. Image courtesy Project 88, Mumbai & Barbara Gross Galerie, Munich.

Yet Shah’s empathy does not limit itself to human subjects that are treated inhumanely by society; their practice and political scope is expansive and inclusive. As suggested by the ecological thread that connects the five video installations of Between the Waves, Shah conceives of environmental, gender and sexual justice to be inextricable form one another, and essential to the understanding of a queer political modality. Through video specifically, a medium that allows the artist to traverse regular time to a queer chronology, one that is fractured, discordant and ultimately forms new ways of understanding subjectivities and environments, the artist expands the scope of possibilities for relating to one’s subjectivities and to the earth.

Tejal Shah, installation view, UNBECOMING, Kunsthaus Hamburg 2017, Courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich, photo: Hayo Heye

Tejal Shah, ‘Unbecoming’, 25 October – 3 December 2017, installation view at Kunsthaus Hamburg. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Programming at Kunsthaus Hamburg expands upon Shah’s interest in Buddhism and their interest in film through collaborations with the Hamburg University of Fine Arts (HFBK). In a lecture presentation at HBFK on 25 October 2017, Shah presented on the research interests in the Middle Way Philosophy School, specifically addressing how the incorporation of a living spiritual practice into an aesthetic practice requires an understanding and an aspiration towards consonance and harmony.

Tejal Shah, 'Unbecoming', 25 October – 3 December 2017, installation view at Kunsthaus Hamburg. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Tejal Shah, ‘Unbecoming’, 25 October – 3 December 2017, installation view at Kunsthaus Hamburg. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Tejal Shah, 'Unbecoming', 25 October – 3 December 2017, installation view at Kunsthaus Hamburg. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Tejal Shah, ‘Unbecoming’, 25 October – 3 December 2017, installation view at Kunsthaus Hamburg. Photo: Hayo Heye. Image courtesy the artist, Project 88, Mumbai, and Barbara Gross Gallery, Munich.

Concurrent with the exhibition is a film series of works selected by Shah of the Indian filmmaker and singer Shabnam Virmani. Known for her documentary films that address the legacy of the mystic saint Kabir, Virmani’s artistic practice, blending music, film and spirituality, shares many common elements with Tejal Shah’s explorations of alterity. The artists’ shared geographic history of India and their multivalent artistic practices provide a political urgency to their work: whether ecological, spiritual and the shared intersections of these valences, Shah and Virmani evoke the radical need for alternative futures in our time. The extent of this engagement, as Shah’s exhibition suggests, exceeds far beyond the artworks – and beyond aesthetics – to social and political realities.

Tausif Noor

1957

“Unbecoming” by Tejal Shah is on view from 25 October to 3 December 2017 at Kunsthaus Hamburg, Klosterwall 15, 20095 Hamburg.

Related Topics: Indian artists, museum shows, political, social, sexuality, environment, installation, video, photography, drawing, events in Germany

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