In a multiplicity of media, techniques and means of artistic expression, Seema Kohli and Sharmi Chowdhury enact the complexities of human relationships through significantly different practices.
The artists’ exhibitions are at two of Gallery Veda’s locations in Chennai, with Delhi-based Kohli exhibiting at the Park Hyatt Hotel and Kolkata artist Chowdhury’s works being on display at the gallery premises.
A polytheism of beliefs
At various locations across the Park Hyatt Hotel in Chennai, artist Seema Kohli’s solo exhibition “In Silence the Secrets Speak” showcases her multiple art practices, which include painting, metal and fibreglass sculpture, video and performance art. The use of different materials and techniques in a single sculpture or installation imbues her work with different layers of meaning that help the artist interpret the varied happenings of her life. Her work has always been a visual journey that explores her different beliefs, values and personal experiences in a quest for self-discovery. The artist creates her own context from observations that have stemmed out of historical and communal systems in her immediate environment. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the artists says:
I am a mirror. When I paint, you see not what I have made but what you want to see. I, Seema Kohli, painter and teller of stories, am both myth and reality. Pick the one you want, but remember, the mirror distorts, and so the myth might be reality, and reality myth.
As a result, Kohli often utlises mythology as her subject to create visuals that bring issues of faith, belief and gender into a dialogue with each other – often using the female figure in her artworks almost as though she herself had become an integral part of the final product. The multiplicity of techniques matches and furthers the polytheism of beliefs that is present in her art – representative of the various beliefs that a person, particularly a woman, can hold within herself.
This mythological inspiration and use of female imagery is evident in her fibreglass sculptures Devi, Yogini, Kalki and Kamdhenu, in bronzes like Maheswari and in her “Golden Womb” series that originated from a mantra of the Yajur Veda. On display at the Park Hyatt is Golden Womb I from the latter series, depicting the spirit of Hiranyagarbha, an icon of fertility that is the source of all creation according to Hindu philosophy.
The artist often uses repetitive images within a single work and at times over a series of artworks as another interpretative tool for her to comment on value systems and beliefs in society. In “In Silence the Secrets Speak”, this recurring iconography includes a number of tongues of different shapes and sizes that appear across her sculptural installations Khel, Devi and Yogini. The use of the tongue is an interesting metaphor, given the range of meanings it communicates – from dialects and dialogue to language and beliefs. The female body also appears in exuberant and celebratory postures in many of Kohlis’ works, such as in her etchings Navagunjra and Chausat Yogini, in her serigraphies Yoga Maya, Soham and Narshimi, and in her tea-stain paintings Turiya and Storm in my Tea-cup.
Kohli (b. 1960) has created her own niche in the world of contemporary Indian art over the last 35 years. She has had her work displayed in nearly 30 solo shows in various cities in India and overseas including Venice, Brussels, Melbourne, New York, Dubai, Singapore, Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. She has participated in Biennales (Venice, Shanghai, Kochi) and in art fairs in Hong Kong, Basel, Beijing, Madrid and Delhi. Her monumental works of public art can be seen in the murals at the Delhi International Airport, Mumbai International and Domestic Airports, The Defense Ministry, Tata Residency, Manipal University, ONGC, Tata Center of Excellence and other prestigious institutions in India.
The artist has conducted interactive sessions and experiential performances at a number of art events, including the Venice Biennale (2015), the TedEx Chennai (2013), the WIN Conference in Rome (2012) and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore (2010, 2012). Kolhi is also the recipient of several awards in her field, including the Gold at the Florence Biennale (2009), the YFLO Women Achiever’s Award and the LKA Lifetime Achievement Award for Women (2008). Her works are a part of various private and public museums such as the Rubin Museum of Art (New York), the Museum of Sacred Arts (Brussels) and the Kochi Museum of Arts.
A visual dialogue between fact and fiction
On display at “When Images Speak Back” at Gallery Veda in Nungambakkam, Chennai are the paintings and mixed media installations of Kolkata-born artist Sharmi Chowdhury. The artist studied fine arts at Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan and the Faculty of Fine Arts in Vadodara, where she now resides. The influence of her Bengali heritage and education at Shantiniketan is evident in her practice, as she has always striven to search for new modes of expression in her works whether painting on paper, silk or in her mixed media sculptural installations. Chowdhury (b. 1974) has participated in several group exhibitions and has attended art camps and residencies in India, Spain, Germany and Mexico. She has had solo exhibitions at Art Alive Gallery, New Delhi in 2008 and Sarjan Art Gallery, Vadodara in 2005.
In the catalogue accompanying the show Chowdhury says:
My artistic practice is an attempt to understand the idea of migration, dislocation and the existence of oneself. Visual art for me is primarily about communication, just like language – but unlike language (where the rules and codes of meanings are culture and tradition-specific) visual communication is always universal. What matters to me is the environment where my work expresses itself, for very often it is the same environment that gives it its meaning and beauty. The nature of my work is fluid and communicative or so I believe.
The artist’s interest in the frailties and complexities of human relationships is evident in her paintings and sculptures as she uses her art to delayer people’s attitudes in her search for the truth – both as an artist and as a human being. While it is not evident whether the artist herself is appearing in her work, many of her paintings depict an ethereal, feminine figure dressed in white with a somber, soul-searching expression on her countenance as though she is also searching for answers. These figures can be seen in paintings like Waiting, Girl with Birds and Girl Holding the Book. The earthy, natural colours that Chowdhury uses, the silk and paper surfaces of her paintings, as well as the scroll-like layout of her work in Journey Beyond the Travels are reminiscent of Japanese and Chinese brush paintings, characteristics that possibly owe allegiance to her art education at Shantiniketan. Many of Chowdhury’s mixed media works on display in “When Images Speak Back” also depict the same childlike girl dressed in white with the character repeating as a motif in Darkness Waiting for a Spark of the Light, Girl in White Space and Dialogue Exchange.
The artist says about the exhibits in “When Images Speak Back”:
My works reside in-between autobiography and fictional reportage. As a result facts meet fiction; animals, birds, landscapes and the girls-in–white converse among themselves; the inner self and the outer world exchange their places and create a visual world of their own [...]. I have a huge spectrum of influences and references in my visual language, which I try to blend together through the course of my life and through the restlessness that is typical of our times.
“When Images Speak Back” is on display from 18 December 2017 to 28 February 2018 at Gallery Veda, Rutland Gate, Nungambakkam, Chennai 600006; “In Silence the Secrets Speak” is on continuous display at Gallery Veda at the Park Hyatt, Velachery, Chennai 600032.
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