Indian artist Rekha Rodwittiya presents a new body of work at Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai, looking back on a physical and spiritual journey across the six decades of her life.
Art Radar also talks to the artist about her life and her practice.
Articulating feminine politics
As one of the pioneering artists of her generation, Rekha Rodwittiya has served as an important voice for the feminist movement in India. Through her distinct and instantly identifiable imagery, her works explore ideas of womanhood and question patriarchal systems that have plagued Indian society for millennia. Along with an impressive 60-piece series of paper works, “Rekha@60: Transient Worlds of Belonging” at Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai also features a series of hitherto unseen multimedia works. Whilst celebrating a personal milestone for Rodwittiya, the exhibition is also a testament to the nurturing and enduring relationship between the gallery and artist. Having had a solo exhibition at the gallery to celebrate her 50th birthday, this show fell into place as yet another landmark to celebrate the artist’s prolific career.
The exhibition looks back on another decade, through a new body of work that invites the viewer into the world of Rodwittiya’s unique imagery – one that stems from her responses to everyday life around her as well as her politically astute reading of world-events. Like much of Rekha’s past work, these works carry her authentic experience of life, where the personal and the political are intricately intertwined to create richly layered stories and allegorical images. While talking about her work process, the artist says:
Images from everyday life that inhabit my work are always subtexts that act as indicators to reveal the territory of more detailed enquiries. The objects I use establish my relationship with the world at large, and in particular. They are often possessions that I own, from which I extract metaphors and formulate a personalized ‘symbology’.
Born in Bangalore in 1958, Rodwittiya completed her graduation from The Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda in 1981. She received the Inlaks Scholarship for her MA in Painting from the Royal College of Art, London in 1984. In 1988 she was invited as guest artist to the Konsthogskolan, Stockholm. She was also invited to deliver series of lectures on Indian Art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Grenoble and Castello di Rivoli, Torino in 1991. The artist did a short stint at the Fullam Institute on Film and Video, and was conferred the Rockefeller Foundation Asian Cultural Council Staff Fellowship to work in the United States in 1990. In 1995, she was invited to create work for an exhibition in Geneva to commemorate 50 years of the United Nations for which she created a seminal work entitled Songs From the Blood of the Weary. This work was most recently exhibited in a solo show of the same titled at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, Mumbai.
Art Radar speaks with Rodwittiya about her life as an artist, while looking back at her journey and understanding its influence on her practice.
On completing another milestone in your physical and spiritual journey, if you were to select the most significant decade in your artistic career, which would it be and why?
I think the most impactful years for me as an artist have been those initial years of education at art school, both in Baroda and London, that provided me my “boot camp” experience of learning. Those eight years (five years in the BFA programme at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, one year in the MFA programme at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda and two years in the MA painting programme at the Royal College of Art London) of art education that almost makes up a decade, provided me a very rigorous introduction into not only the studio practice of art but equally introduced me into multi-disciplinary trajectories of enquiry. As students we were ‘umbrellaed’ by discourses related to post colonisation and issues related to identity and modernity.
I imbibed lessons from the prevailing discourses rooted within cultural studies, gleamed insights from watching world cinema in the hot and muggy college auditorium, was transported to new spaces of discovery listening to lectures of scholars like K.G. Subramanayan and Karl Khandalawala, and understood the need of resistance to typical conformity from classroom conversations with Nasreen Mohamedi. I learnt the magic of a camera lens from Jyoti Bhatt and found my ancestries in the stories of art history that came alive in the hot summer afternoons with Gulammohammed Sheikh. I found the echo of my own voice in the writings of women authors – and in being exposed to regional theatre, interacting with artisans, travelling, and working as though every day was my last on earth. I see this time as being the stem that holds the bloom of my life. Above all, these eight years provided me a space to grow to know myself better and shape my perception and articulation of my interest in gender politics and hone with greater clarity a more informed worldview.
Your intent has always been to focus on women’s empowerment in your work. How different do you find the issues facing the 21st century woman, as compared to the 1980s when you embarked on your artistic career? How have these differences reflected in your practice?
Women today are far more aware of their constitutional rights and their equal status within society. Both rural and urban women (perhaps because of the access to social media) are more emboldened to voice their grievances and seek intervention. The on-going #MeToo movement confirms the non-negotiable insistence of women to address sexual misconduct squarely and without apology or fear, and demand focus to the appalling patriarchy that continues to propagate the unfounded notion of male entitlement and their abuse of power over women. Education as an interventional tool of change is percolating to those less privileged through efforts by NGO’s and private citizens. The overriding politic of our times has also changed many old orders of co-existence within social structures – in some instances creating new freedoms and in others unfortunately shutting off dissent in draconian ways.
Today we find the Supreme Court verdict upholding the right to allow women entry into the Sabarimala temple overturned by the actions of male devotees who are disallowing women who dare to exercise their constitutional rights to do so. Traditionalists are setting the pitch for battle and elected politicians do nothing to protect these fundamental rights of these women pilgrims in the fear of vote bank politics. Therefore it is not such a clear case of linear progress that can be seen in India, when it comes to issues of equal rights. Perhaps it is this unfortunate truth that spurs women from all social and economic standings to raise their voices even more stridently in their demand to be heard and to hold their personal view of empowerment as torchlights ablaze that hopefully one day will illuminate the skies with a collective blinding force of illuminating light.
My own work talks of the woman as a constant protagonist within all crucial spaces of discourse – in the past, in the present and in the future. The female figure as a central image is therefore not accidental, nor arrived at by chance in my work. It is consciously placed as an endorsement of female victory – almost as a totemic trophy of the self for the self – to reinforce the embodiment of the female spirit as a vital axis to life itself. The female figure, often in isolation, represents the perpetuity of their life giving force that bears witness to the passage of time unfolding. As an artist I understand and associate my connection with the world through the lens of humanism.
In my representation of the woman I iconize the female figure by diagrammatising her body – thereby removing the palpable corporality so that it does not become a commodity for lustful consumption. By iconizing the female figure rather than offering a naturalistic representation, it allows me the space of separation – like that used within our sculptural traditions. I pare the female body down to its essential and invest it with an impregnable space where it exists within its own aura of self containment. The unflinching gaze and the frontal posture of these female protagonists demand that the viewer is obliged to participate and engage with its presence – yet the figure remains untouched by outward censure. Stark and arresting in demeanour, these figures with their unrelenting gaze stand like protective guardians of the universe.
Your own personal history has been dotted with a myriad of influences – both from the religious diversity in your family to your life as a ‘military child’. How does this wonderful potpourri reflect in your work?
The exposure to diverse cultural practices via life on an air-force base offered valuable insights into the dynamics of co-existence of plural identities that included marginalised representations as well. With compatibility between communities and religious groups stressed upon as implicit within the military, I was privy to witnessing different religions and their rituals at close quarters. In these interludes that offered me proximity to the displays of religious devotion, I was left disenchanted with its disconnect to the real world, as I found blind faith cumbersome. Therefore at the age of 13, despite being relatively young, I chose to disengage myself from the interaction with religion, because I found faith conflicted with the premises of scientific rational knowledge; and my family left me free to do so. This entry into embracing atheism was supported completely by my parents, who instructed the school to release me immediately from the study of theology that was part of the curriculum in the Convent syllabi for students with Catholic antecedents.
My upbringing was non-conformist to say the least and without the preference or prejudice of any regional affinities or religious faith, and in this openness of living – unfettered by restrictive boundaries of community affiliation and religious dictate – I was left free to observe and learn from all cultural histories to feed my curiosities as I found need to. I grew up with discourses at meal times where discussions would prevail in our home as a daily ritual and our participation as children into these conversations was always invited. This introduction of being invited from a young age to hold opinions on varied subjects brought the world of history, politics, current affairs, human rights, literature, cinema, social conduct, economics, etc. as areas to examine and explore. I was left therefore to negotiate for myself what I desired would be the perceptions that would shape my intellect and protect my personal freedom and liberty. I was encouraged at a very young age to test my independence and not fear failure in the belief that I would come to know myself therefore without excuse or apology, irrespective of my gender.
You have mentioned that you draw inspiration for your distinct imagery from everyday life in order to establish your relationship with the world at large. As “Rekha@60” also displays hitherto unseen works, how does your artistic intent translate into practice?
As an artist, it isn’t the theoretical pedagogic that I wish to engage with in my art. My content is culled 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 we best witness the ideals of any ideology. From the many stories about the courage of ordinary women, both rural and urban that have championed women’s rights in the subcontinent, I have found my strength.
What are the metrics that you use to extract metaphors from your observations of life, in order to formulate the kind of personalised symbolism that is unique to your practice? How has that evolved over the past decades?
My work is informed by the personal politics that govern my life. The narratives in my works are never direct stories but are territories that hold parables through which meanings are inferred. I employ the use of metaphors, allegory, myth and legends to formulate its content.
Your works are always an intricately woven tapestry, where the personal and the political are the warp and the weft. Have the recent developments of women raising their voices against violence and discrimination on the world stage helped you in the communication of your own message or has it become more challenging to be heard?
My work is also influenced by the spirit from the stories that I hear, often spilling out from the television screen in my studio, where the courage of landmine survivors or a dying AIDS patient from a remote village in Africa comes into my life to remind me of what I need to be anchored by. I invite to my attention the awareness of stark realities because it strips away the pretense of denial, and I am always drawn to the stories of survival that have been born from conflict, as it holds for me the potency of belief with greater authenticity. The spirit of the woman is indomitable. Women continue to commit their energies to nurture life through their amazing capacity to define self-dignity and offer lessons of forgiveness and remain therefore the possessor of Shakti and find their empowerment unaided.
Given the political climate and the contemporary art world of today, if you were to ask female artists from the Sub-continent to heed three pieces of advice, what would they be?
I would perhaps suggest three points: travel within South Asia and create forums of interaction; engage with writing the contemporary history of our times through documenting oral histories of women; and become active within agencies of cultural policy making.
As you embark on the next decade of your artistic life, what can Art Radar readers look forward to from your studio in 2019?
I always carry a multitude of images inside of my head. I have thousands of images that jostle within my mind waiting to be articulated. I plan to work on a new series of large watercolours. The images that I create or re-phrase become a personalised visual lexicon invested with specific symbology, which over time maps the preoccupations and arguments that constitute the ideological premise of my identity. My work at all times becomes alternative playgrounds of notional strategies, where displacement is addressed and negotiated, and new belonging sought.
“Rekha@60: Transient Worlds of Belonging” is on view from 1 November to 15 December 2018 at Sakshi Gallery, 6/19, 2nd Floor, Grants Building, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, Mumbai – 400005.