Earlier this year, the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon presented an exhibition of new work by India-born artist Praneet Soi.
Art Radar looks at the exhibition and the works on view in Lisbon within the context of the artist’s internationally renowned practice.
Praneet Soi was born in Kolkata in 1971. He left Bengal for the west coast of the country in 1990, where he studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Maharajah Sayajirao University in Baroda. Liberalised Indian economic policies of the 1990s had ushered in an era of globalisation, and upon completing his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in fine arts, Soi worked as a visualiser within the advertising industry in New Delhi. In 1999, he left for California where he attended the University of California at San Diego on a scholarship and received his second Master’s degree in the visual arts.
His works reside in important collections in Europe and India. These include the permanent collections of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven; the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi; The Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin; and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 2014, Soi was commissioned to create a permanent work for the HCL headquarters in Chennai. In 2011, he was one of four artists representing India at the Indian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale. In May 2017, Soi was in residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art while researching the Mughal collections of the Chester Beatty Museum, for an exhibition held at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Derry, Northern Ireland.
In 2002, Soi moved to the Netherlands to attend the Rijksakademie van beeldende Kunsten, a two-year international residency programme for artists, and has since divided his time between Amsterdam and Kolkata. This oscillatory movement between countries and cultures impacts his practice. Over time, Soi identifies patterns that emerge from an investigation of his extended social and economic landscape. In California, for example, it was the miniaturising nature of the vast, undulating, suburban vista that caught his eye.
Moving to Amsterdam, media reportage of unrest in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the events following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City led to Soi creating a series of miniature paintings on terrorism and, expanding from there, paintings of the human body. Further investigation into these sources then led Soi to create an archive that traces his relationship with the media, as well as the emergence of site-specific wall paintings using these references.
In an ongoing project since 2008, Soi has been documenting the small-scale factories and one-room workshops in Kumartuli, North Kolkata. Kumartuli is historically home to a clan of potters that have worked with religious iconography and sculpture-making, but the town has over time given way to micro-workshops and warehouses. Inherent politics of labour and economic transition inspired by these conditions have manifested in a series of works entitled Notes on Labour, in which Soi delves into a pluralistic representation of this complex, historic and yet relevant site through a series of slideshows, miniature paintings and video.
Work on the exhibition in Lisbon began in 2017, with Soi’s invitation to outline a new project for the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum based on his ongoing exploration of Kashmir. Soi has been a regular visitor to Srinagar and engaged with artisans there in part to gain an understanding of this troubled border region.
Soi first visited the city of Srinagar in Kashmir in 2010. He has extensively documented its historic Sufi shrines (although the Dastagir Pir has since burnt down and is currently being rebuilt) and also met with local craftsmen. He returned to Srinagar in the spring of 2014 and embedded himself within an artisan’s studio, working with traditional patterns and motifs in the making of experimental compositions. Insurgency-scarred, ethnically divided and a politically sensitive site for the rival nations of India and Pakistan, Kashmir has faced the brunt of the cultural and social deprivation that comes from being one of the most militarised regions in the world.
The artist used the time spent in Kashmir to explore the disappearing traces of Sufi culture and the related migration, over the course of history, of ancient patterns and forms from Iran into the Indian sub-continent. The migratory nature of the works emerging from Kashmir could perhaps be linked to his own family’s exile from the area that became Pakistan when the country was partitioned in 1947. His grandfather moved to Delhi before finally settling in Kolkata in 1950. Kashmir is India’s northernmost state and since 1947 (the year the subcontinent rid itself of British rule) the site of a separatist movement.
Such translation and migration of visual cultural forms has, in turn, influenced Soi’s new work in Portugal, the starting point for which was a single enigmatic blue ceramic tile found on the mausoleum of Miran Zain, the mother of the 8th Sultan of Kashmir Zain-Ul-Abedin (1420-1470). Situated on the banks of the river Jhelum in Srinagar, the mausoleum dates back to 1430. Its architecture points to the links between Kashmir and central Asia. The tile itself, glazed in blue, had sculpted upon it a shape in low relief unlike anything the artist had seen before.
This tile was then replicated at the famous Bordallo Pinheiro Ceramic Factory in Caldas, a town in western Portugal. The period of fabrication, starting from the modelling of the tiles to their eventual placement in the kiln, provided Soi with an official reason to observe the workers and the industrial processes employed at the factory. Documenting this in a video work allowed the dynamics of the factory to seep into the narrative of the tile’s recreation.
These same replicated tiles lined the surface of the curving dioramic wall situated within the gallery space, sitting alongside and added texture to the projection of the video, which was screened upon the back of a pillar placed deep within the room. The semi-circular front of the pillar was encrusted with tiles coloured and patterned close to the formation visible upon the mausoleum in Srinagar. The cut-out red mountain-like shape that was created within the exhibition space further recalled the Zabarwan mountain range lying to the north east of Srinagar.
Soi’s repeated visits to Lisbon enabled a growing familiarity with the city and allowed him to internalise aspects of its history and culture as well as to ruminate upon certain objects within the collection storage of the Founder’s Museum at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Several of the historical objects in the collection proved fruitful for the artist: the play of light upon the Kum Kapi rugs is one of these examples. A set of uncatalogued Sassanid coins is yet another. For his Lisbon exhibition, Soi produced a new video work in which he comments upon the objects in a diaristic way, juxtaposed with his footage from the tile factory.
Also included within this narrative was a collaged animation documenting the Timurid jade jar from the collection. This object once belonged to Jehangir (1569-1627), a Mughal king who ruled over Kashmir. Locating its presence within the Museum’s collection helped Soi to catalyse and unfold the complexities of this project. The aural environment within the space consisted of a layering of sound from a composition created by the Lisbon-based composer and architect David Maranh, who spent time recording the sounds within the ceramics factory at the beginning of this collaboration.
The title “Third Factory” references the book by the Russian Formalist Víktor Shklovski (1893-1984). Within the book, the author recognises three periods of his life that were important to his formative growth as a writer. Soi takes his time in Srinagar, Caldas and Lisbon as a point of departure, utilising the space and transformation inherent in the projection of video upon the gallery architecture to put forward another agenda – that of the multiplication of points of entry and departure within subject matter.
“Praneet Soi: Third Factory” was on view from 22 June to 1 October 2018 at Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Founder´s Collection Museum – Galleries and Lower Gallery, Av. de Berna, 45A, 1067-001 Lisbon, Portugal.