The artist celebrates aspects of womanhood in keeping with her artistic intent of focusing on female empowerment in her practice.
The show is on display until 19 August 2018 at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai.
Pictorially articulating feminist politics
“Songs from the Blood of the Weary” was created by eminent Indian artist Rekha Rodwittiya as part of a monumental exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. The United Nations Secretary General at the time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali invited Adelina von Fürstenberg to curate this exhibition, which was entitled “Dialogues of Peace” and was shown at the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva from 3 July to 24 October of that year. Sixty artists from around the world presented works dedicated to promoting tolerance, solidarity and peace among global citizens. The pieces were presented in the majestic public spaces of the United Nations building, including its grandiose courtyard, as well as in adjacent Ariana Park, touching thousands of officials, dignitaries and diplomats daily.
Rodwittiya’s work was brought down to India once the exhibition ended and displayed at the Nehru Centre auditorium where Jehangir Nicholson came upon it and decided that he wanted it to be part of his collection, which now resides at the CSMVS under the latter’s guardianship. The present exhibition brings together the same 12 paintings of the original show, in the form of a painted room that represents one of the earliest international installations by an Indian artist. Twelve additional works from the collection of Sakshi Gallery form part of this exhibition. They were all created around the time of the painted room, providing us with an understanding of the artist’s journey and the issues that are central to her work. Commenting on the subject matter of the paintings on display in “Songs from the Blood of the Weary”, Rodwittiya says:
The central thematics to all of these works is the world of the woman. From the work of 1985 titled ‘The Traveller tells His-story’ which alludes to the bias of history favouring men, to the painting of 1993 titled ‘Burnt Earth Yields Strange Fruits’ that refers to honour killings, female infanticide and dowry deaths – the feminist politics that frames my existence through every factor of choice within my everyday life, percolates to phrase the articulation within my pictorial narratives.
Evoking the theatricality of a woman’s world
Rodwittiya was born in Bengaluru in India in 1958 and completed her graduation from The Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda in 1981. She then received the Inlaks scholarship and completed her MA in Painting from the Royal College of Art, London in 1984. She has exhibited extensively in India and overseas and has also facilitated several workshops and given lectures on Indian Art at institutions such as the Ecole des Beaux Arts (Grenoble) and Castello di Rivoli (Torino). Rodwittiya’s work has been on display in exhibitions at Cymroza Art Gallery (Mumbai), Art Heritage (New Delhi), Sakshi Gallery (Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai), Seagull Foundation for Arts (Kolkata), the Gallery 678 (New York), Ludovica Barberri Gallery (Venice), Grey Art Gallery (New York), Henie-Onstad Art Centre (Oslo), and she has also participated in international biennales and triennales such as the 2nd Biennale (Havana) and the VI International Triennale (New Delhi). Her works are in various private and public collections in India, UK, USA, Brazil, Italy, West Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Rodwittiya’s work has always been woven around the representation of the female figure in the latter’s various roles and performing her daily work surrounded by the objects and references that are often used to define her. In the artist’s own words, in the statement that accompanies “Songs from the Blood of the Weary”, she says:
The large corporality of the female figures dominate the picture plan […] robust and fecund, like icons of the earth. Evocative of large sets, the theatre of occurrences play out in these works, and the dialogues of these women are with themselves as much as they are with the world that they confront, and the patriarchy that they resist. In many of these images, the arms and hands of these women become indicators to the happenings that unfold […] like mudras within the tradition of classical dance in India, they too become representative of meanings […] brought up in the placenta of many cultural influences […] I thread references at will from the many legends and myths that I consider to be a family tree of personal belonging.
Art Radar spoke to the artist about her artistic ideologies, the ideation behind “Songs from the Blood of the Weary” and how it connects with her practice.
The theme behind all the works in “Songs from the Blood of the Weary” is the world of the woman. How far has the female artist’s world come from the 1970s when Linda Nochlin famously asked “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Do you feel that women’s voices are heard, their work seen and written about nearly 50 years later?
Patriarchy has always attempted to find ways to shut down the voice of women, and today in India we see the re-emergence of right-wing conservative ideas targeting liberal thinking with a vengeance that manifests in actions like the brutal killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh. Equal rights for women are unfortunately not a legislated reality in everyday India with punishable consequences if found not implemented. However Indian women have always had amazing strength and courage in the face of adversity. They stand up to protest and intervene to challenge the state when atrocities against women are being side-lined.
Women artists in India have always been visible. They may not be loud and in your face, but the strength of conviction that their work carries obliges that focus and attention is delivered to them. However in relation to art history, very little has been done to successfully document the women artists from regional territories who have been actively working. I also notice very little writing on art today that accurately contextualises oral histories of living female artists available to archive. As an artist, I began to write on art many years ago merely because I found that there were such few writers in my generation competent enough to articulate issues that were my concern.
You say that you have been brought up amidst myriad cultural influences from which you draw references into your practice. Could you share with Art Radar readers what these might be and how they appear in this particular exhibition?
India is a potpourri of mixed influences which surrounds one with its impact, every day of your life, if you have been encouraged to be open with your senses of curiosities and observations. My father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force and so my early childhood was spent on military bases. As the participation with all Indian cultural traditions is insisted upon in the military, I was, as a result, privy to witnessing diverse cultural practices from different communities through their food habits, festivals, rituals, clothing, language and other nuanced factors that represent cultural identities as we understand them.
As my parent’s marriage was inter-cultural I grew up with English as my language of communication. My father was Parsi and had been educated in a missionary boarding school from the age of four. My mother was from Andhra and Tamil origin and her great-grandfather was the Diwan of Mysore. My maternal grand-aunt, Philomena Thumboochetty, was a renowned violinist who played western classical music after she had studied at the Paris conservatoire. Though an atheist from the age of thirteen, we had religious diversities within the extended family through Catholicism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Islamism, Syrian Christian orthodoxy and Hinduism all coming into the larger melting pot of the family history.
The 12 paintings that form the painted room are part of one your earliest installations and were part of an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. What was the genesis of this exhibition and how does this particular work tie in with the other 12 paintings that are part of the CSMVS show?
I was invited to participate in the exhibition “Dialogues of Peace” as one of the fifty artists selected from around the world by Adelina Von Furstenberg, an influential curator in Europe, to create a site-specific artwork for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. Each artist was given a cabin-like wooden structure which was designed by the architect Bruce Dunning and which was placed in different locations in the gardens of the United Nations. I spent two months in Geneva, along with other invited artists (Ilya Kabakov, Alfredo Jaar, Tadashi Kawamata, Nam June Paik, Chen Zhen & Robert Rauschenberg to name a few) working on site to conceive and execute my art work Songs from the Blood of the Weary on the inner walls of the wooden cabin.
I wanted my artwork to become a womb-like landscape of memory that called to attention the sacrifices made in the hope of a better tomorrow. Where in the aftermath of violence, life labors to mend the horrors of such destruction, till unfortunately the cycle of violence repeats itself as history shows. The painted room (as I refer to it) holds the recollection of shared histories that bind us together which speak of displacement, of violation and the resulting anguish and sorrow of betrayal. I made the selection of the additional twelve works because it corresponds with the language that I have used in the painted room done in 1995. The central pivot to all of these works is the world of the woman.
You mention the wealth of experience gained during your stint in New York in the 1990s that influenced you both as a woman and as an artist, including the activism of the Gorilla Girls who famously commented on how less than 3% of artists at the MET are women. How do the percentages work in an Indian context today? Do you think that we are better or worse off than the West in this respect?
The problem is with the system of acquisition in institutions like the NGMA in India that is unfortunately riddled with bias and corruption. Historicizing through informed scholarship is not something that we are prone to do. However Museums like the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art or the Delhi art Gallery’s (DAG) private collection has attempted to keep this factor as the base line that directs what they purchase. I think it will take a while longer before we see museum collections reflect an understanding of the value of women artists and their contribution as being something of significance. What occurs is the desire for people to want what is the trend….and often women artists stand outside of such boxes of conventionality.
Who in your mind were path-breaking feminist artists in the last few decades in India that you were both guided by as mentors and those whom you worked alongside with?
Artists like Nilima Sheikh, Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh, Sheela Gowda, Pushpamala N., Shantamani Muddaiah, Shilpa Gupta (to name just a few women artists) are engaged with explorations and investigative enquiries that come from areas where feminist concerns would also be of significance. For me however it is not necessarily artists who influence me. I can trace early influences that came from the quiet nights where I lay drifting off to sleep as a child, whilst my mother would softly be conversing with her sisters and my grandmother on visits back to her ancestral home during the summer vacations. And I would hear them recounting stories and anecdotes of their lives, each lived with independence and with the courage of conviction to stand up for what they believed in – and these became the lullabies that gifted me the strains from where to find my feminist belonging. I garnered great belief that my gender was of significance to both myself and to the world I belonged to.
Women authors like Kamala Das, Alice Walker and Maya Angelou have brought to my world the stories of the struggle women face, but equally the joy of belief and the celebration of the female spirit. My content is derived from the everyday life of the woman – to be perceived and witnessed and acknowledged. I know this to be the space to hold my attention and where the plumb line of my existence must find its equilibrium within the coliseum of collective female histories. It is through the lives of the ordinary that I believe lies the credulous of finding how the fundamental ideals of any ideology can hold truth.
Your work has always benefitted from a strong fundament of exceptional draughtsmanship skills. You mention in your artist statement that it was hours of life study training that has helped you to find your own method of articulation. Could you elaborate on your creative and artistic process for Art Radar readers?
In evaluating my development as an artist, I have always upheld that in particular what was seminal for me was the process of learning during the time I was a student. It was those initial rudimentary stages of disciplined insistence to work through a comprehensive methodology of the basics and fundamentals that provided me the vital platform for me to craft my language in later years. However irksome these conventional procedures may sometimes appear they aid in creating a foundation of skills that trains ones abilities more fluently in the areas of observations and translations. In my years as a student I was exposed to a powerful combination of imbibing aspects of the traditional, and also taught to decipher the challenges of an evolving modernity – which set the stage for me to engage in examining where and how to locate my personal history within the larger framework of a cultural context.
In your formative years in India and the United Kingdom, you have studied fine art as well as photography, film and video. How has knowledge and experience of the latter influenced your practice as a painter?
I trained as a photographer under the tutelage of Professor Jyoti Bhatt, who taught me the delight of finding the world that mattered to me through a camera lens. In many ways it was exactly what I do as a painter as is all about knowing that exact moment when the image is precisely what you know to be significant. As I did only black and white photography, it taught me the discipline to understand how forms connect and how everything ordinary can become a subject. The camera also taught me to look beyond the obvious and to understand emotive areas of human existence through gesture and posture. Photography also instilled in me a responsibility to know better the politics of the personal and the public.
We understand that 2018 is an important year as you reach a special milestone in your life and turn 60. What can Art Radar readers look forward to seeing from your studio in this year?
I am currently working on a collective project curated by Tracey Emin that will be shown at Frieze London 2018. A solo show is slated for the end of the year at Sakshi. I generally keep what I’m doing for a solo show under wraps because I find it lessens the intrusion of discourse and my ideational space can wander unfettered.
“Songs from the Blood of the Weary” by Rekha Rodwittiya is on view from 19 April to 19 August 2018 at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, 2nd Floor, East Wing, CSMVS, Mumbai 400023 .
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