“Where the Water Takes Us”: weaving histories through time and space with Rithika Merchant in Mumbai – in conversation

The Mumbai-born artist uses her characteristic idioms of epics and myths to explore issues of migration, displacement and belonging.

This is Barcelona-based Rithika Merchant’s first solo show at TARQ in Mumbai and is on display at the gallery until 13 January 2018. Art Radar speaks to the artist to find out more about her work.

Rithika Merchant, 'Graveyard', 2016, gouache and ink on paper, 50 x 72 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Rithika Merchant, ‘Graveyard’, 2016, gouache and ink on paper, 50 x 72 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

The sea as a metaphor

In the body of work presented in “Where the Water Takes Us”, Merchant dwells significantly on the power of the sea, and her contemplations on the perils and tragic histories that the oceans of the world have witnessed are a thread that binds most of the paintings on display. At the same time, her fascination with the restorative, uplifting capacity of the earth’s water is just as evidentwith its beauty, monumentality and infiniteness manifesting magnificently in her work. The artist is no stranger to stories of the seas – living in Barcelona and having spent her childhood in Mumbai, both large coastal metropolises with their own multifarious relationship with the ocean. The colours and scenes of the Mediterranean, a sea that she sees every day, seep into her paintings in a myriad of ways in the iridescent blues of Bateau I and II (2016), in the deceptive calmness of Where the Water Takes Us (2016) and in the vivacity of Metropolis in Flux I and II (2017).

Rithika Merchant, 'Bateau I', 2016, gouache and ink on paper, 35 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Rithika Merchant, ‘Bateau I’, 2016, gouache and ink on paper, 35 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

The politics of migration, the feeling of displacement and a yearning for belonging are all key motifs in Merchant’s search for answers. Her life in Barcelona has brought her up-close and personal with the plight of refugees escaping conflict-torn parts of the Mediterranean, North Africa and Syria, and more often than not traversing perilous waters in their journeys towards a better life. In a city which in 2016 unveiled a large digital “shame counter” right next to one of its most popular beaches, to track the number of migrant deaths during such passages – Merchant explores these senseless tragedies and recounts the recurring role of the ocean in their narratives. She looks the Mediterranean in its face – confrontationally, accusatorially and with a touch of melancholia in paintings like Dark Lands (2016), Exodus (2016) and Graveyard (2016).

Rithika Merchant, “Where the Water Takes Us”, 1 December 2017 -13 January 2018, Installation view at TARQ, Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Rithika Merchant, “Where the Water Takes Us”, 1 December 2017 – 13 January 2018, installation view at TARQ. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Merging myth and reality

Merchant’s innate interest in myths and symbolism across geographies comes to the foreground in the appearance of other-worldly, part-human, part-animalistic figures in works such as The Things They Carried (2016), Fortunate Isles (2016) and Where the Water Takes Us (2016). She draws the viewer in to participate in an imaginative exploration of the identity of these hybrid creatures – bearing featureless faces with mere dots for eyes, with bodies covered with spikes of crystalline deposits as though they have risen from the depths of the sea.

As a result, we begin to understand her visual vocabulary and we join Merchant in her quest for answers, in a world that is as unrecognisable today as is her mythical, surreal landscape in Shrine for the Forsaken (2017). In the artist’s own words,

Each piece can be seen as a totem that invites the viewer to stitch together their own narrative, drawing on collective memories and signifiers to generate meanings, I further explore how objects can be markers of identity and how these may be reworked in contemporary contexts as meanings and interpretations change.

Rithika Merchant, 'Fortunate Isles', 2016, gouache and ink on paper, 100 x 65 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Rithika Merchant, ‘Fortunate Isles’, 2016, gouache and ink on paper, 100 x 65 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

A conflation of influences

In addition to the politics of the region that she currently resides in, inspirations from the art and architecture of the city of Barcelona are also evident in her paintings as a tribute perhaps to Catalonia’s famous son Antoni Gaudí, who like Merchant was hugely influenced by his passions in life – architecture, nature, myth and religion. In her artistic statement, she says:

Nature plays a pivotal role in my work and is emphasized by the use of organic shapes and non-saturated colours. My paintings are made using a combination of watercolour and collage elements, drawing on 17th century botanical drawings and folk art, to create a body of work that is visually linked to our collective pasts.

This multiplicity of stimuli – from the free-form, voluptuous style of Gaudí and the meticulousness of botanical prints, to the decorative detailing of folk art that comes through in Ghost Town (2017) and in a trio of circular works, Home, Shelter and (Be)longing (2016). While the former is reminiscent of the textural and highly animated style of Gaudí, Merchant has incorporated embroidery hoops in the latter three, elevating their tapestry-like appearance, despite being rendered on paper.

Rithika Merchant, 'Ghost Town', 2017, gouache and ink on paper, 65 x 50 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Rithika Merchant, ‘Ghost Town’, 2017, gouache and ink on paper, 65 x 50 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

The varied influences in her practice are testimony to her own life experiences and education. Having spent her childhood in Mumbai where she was born in 1986, Rithika Merchant received her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts from Parsons – The New School of Design, New York. She has exhibited her work extensively in a number of solo exhibitions in India, Spain,Germany and the United States. Her most recent include “Ancestral Homes” at GaleriaBien Cuadrado, Barcelona (2017); “Intersections” at Galeria Combustion Espontanea, Madrid (2016); “Luna Tabulatorum” at Stephen Romano Gallery, New York (2015); and “Encyclopedia of the Strange” at Tiny Griffon Gallery, Nuremberg (2014).

Rithika Merchant, 'Howl', 2015, in “Luna Tabulatorum”, gouache and ink on paper, 60 x 50 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Stephen Romano Gallery, New York.

Rithika Merchant, ‘Howl’, 2015, in “Luna Tabulatorum”, gouache and ink on paper, 60 x 50 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Stephen Romano Gallery, New York.

She has participated in various group exhibitions including This Burning Land Belongs To You” at the Swiss Cottage Gallery, London (presented by TARQ for Camden Kala, UK/India Year of Culture 2017); Language of the Birds: Occult and Art” at 80WSE Gallery, New York (2016); a two-person show, “Reliquaries: The Remembered Self” at TARQ, Mumbai (2015) and the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai (2009 and 2011). Her work has also been included in group shows at The New Gallery, Calgary (2017); Summerhall, Edinburgh (2015); and The Morbid Anatomy Museum, New York (2015). Merchant recently collaborated with Chloé, a French fashion house, to create a series of illustrations for the brand’s Spring-Summer 2018 collection.

Art Radar spoke to the artist about her practice and the creative process behind “Where the Water Takes Us” on show at TARQ Gallery in Mumbai.

Rithika Merchant, 'Where the Water Takes Us', 2016, gouache and ink on paper, 76 x 210 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Rithika Merchant, ‘Where the Water Takes Us’, 2016, gouache and ink on paper, 76 x 210 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

There are strong influences of magic, mythology and epics in your practice. How much do you owe this to your cultural background? How did this interest evolve and make inroads into your work?

The combination of having grown up in India, studied in the United States, then after travelling extensively having finally settled in Europe, is the reason for my interest in the links between cultures. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to explore different cultures and witness them. Both Europe and India have such a mixture of different traditions, it has helped me see parallel histories everywhere. The history of myths and traditions shows links between cultures that often isn’t highlighted in classical history.

I have always been very interested in narratives, myths and received histories that are available to us. I am also interested in how these different fragments are “woven” together to form a complete image. Most cultures use imagery to tell stories and represent ideas. I try to use these ancient means of storytelling in a more contemporary context.

Rithika Merchant, 'Shrine for the Forsaken', 2017, gouache and ink on paper, 65 x 50 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Rithika Merchant, ‘Shrine for the Forsaken’, 2017, gouache and ink on paper, 65 x 50 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Having the strengths of being a cross-border artist, your work is in a constant flux of cultural influences and crossovers. Is this conflict and strife that you might be facing always an advantage – or can it often become challenging?

Personally, I don’t really see it as a challenge or an advantage. Much of my work is a response to what is going on in the world around us, and I think I would be responding to these things regardless of where I was living.

The mass displacement of people, forced migration, and the dislocation and exile of many groups of people all over the world are very troubling to me. Living in Barcelona I have felt very helpless watching the European refugee crisis unfold right on my doorstep. My current show “Where The Water Takes Us” deals with the profound effect this has had on me.

Rithika Merchant, “Where the Water Takes Us”, 1 December 2017 -13 January 2018. Installation view at TARQ. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Rithika Merchant, “Where the Water Takes Us”, 1 December 2017 – 13 January 2018, installation view at TARQ. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Your work is exceedingly meticulous and detailed, and must require painstaking research. What is your creative process like, from ideation to fruition?

I’ve always seen stories and ideas visually and have felt compelled to bring these visions to life. I spend a lot of my time reading and researching ideas I have, or subjects that I am interested in. I will often read something and have a very vivid image in my mind. Sometimes it’s just a flash, and manifesting these ideas comes naturally. I have my own lexicon of symbols and creatures that I use in my work and so I use these as tools to help me as I visualise these ideas.

Once I have a clear idea or image in my head I usually just start to draw directly onto my paper – I rarely sketch beforehand – then I add ink and paint. Sometimes I may do a colourwash or tint on the paper before I begin. If I am working on a folded piece, then I will fold the paper or make some cuts before I start drawing. I also have a notebook in which I make lots of written notes and diagrams but I almost never make sketches or studies of things. I sketch more with words than images.

For my folded pieces, I usually fold the paper before I begin drawing and then after I finish the painting I fold it back up along the same creases to store it. Often, I am able to fold it into some sort of smaller geometric shape, and the painting then turns into an object. In this way, the paper itself is part of the narrative.

I create primarily in my studio in Barcelona, Spain. My studio is a part of my home and I love being able to wake up and walk down the corridor to another room and start creating.

Rithika Merchant, “Where the Water Takes Us”, 1 December 2017 -13 January 2018. Installation view at TARQ. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Rithika Merchant, “Where the Water Takes Us”, 1 December 2017 – 13 January 2018, installation view at TARQ. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

What is the genesis of Where the Water Takes Us” – both the title as well as the subject matter of many of your pieces. Does water or the ocean have a special significance?

Water and migration go hand in hand for me, largely due to where I live. Being confronted with the “Shame Counter” daily is a reminder of the scale and horrors of this crisis. This digital counter was installed by the mayor of Barcelona and displays the number of known victims who drowned in the Mediterranean in real time. This body of work comes from my own feelings generated by seeing the contrast between my life in this city and what this counter represents.

Rithika Merchant, 'Worlds Within Words', 2011, altered books, wooden “Rosier des Vents” shelf by François Mahu, 200 x 200 cm. Part of the Kala Ghoda Festival, Mumbai, India. Image courtesy the artist.

Rithika Merchant, ‘Worlds Within Words’, 2011, altered books, wooden “Rosier des Vents” shelf by François Mahu, 200 x 200 cm. Part of the Kala Ghoda Festival, Mumbai, India. Image courtesy the artist.

Is there an underlying message in your use of new elements in your mixed media pieces such as the embroidery hoops in some of your works?

My collages began from a need to express certain ideas in a graphic non-narrative way. These works come from a much more personal and intuitive way of seeing. Less about research and more about taking a feeling or concept and representing it visually.

In a similar vein to the works in embroidery hoops, the collages continue my experiments with adding mixed media elements into my work. Needlework, collaging, quilting, weaving, etc. have long been considered ‘women’s work’. However, I think there is something powerful in taking whatever scraps you can find and putting them together to create something meaningful. These media subvert historic ideas of how women create.

Rithika Merchant, 'Metropolis in Flux II', 2017, gouache and ink on paper, 24.5 x 24.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

Rithika Merchant, ‘Metropolis in Flux II’, 2017, gouache and ink on paper, 24.5 x 24.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and TARQ.

What does 2018 have in store for you and what should Art Radar readers look out for?

I would love to keep creating and telling visual stories, and I hope to continue to exhibit my work as well as bring it to a broader audience. In terms of upcoming exhibitions, my work will be presented by TARQ at the India Art Fair in February and I will also be part of a group show in London in March.

Amita Kini-Singh

2012

Where the Water Takes Us” by Rithika Merchant is on view from 1 December 2017 through till 13 January 2018, at TARQ, F35/36 Dhanraj Mahal, C.S.M. Marg, Apollo Bunder, Colaba, Mumbai 400001

Related Topics: Indian artists, migration, painting, installation, interviews, gallery shows, events in Mumbai

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