Art News & Views

Towards Cutting Edge Art: Definitive Attempts


by Pushpamala N

1990’s proved to be coming of age for many artists in India, especially for the women artists. The neo-liberal economy and the growing right wing fundamentalism made many artists move away from the traditional forms of expression. Pushpamala N was amongst the forefront runners who did a different kind of art which was ‘cutting edge’ in many ways. Pushpamala N, in her short essay contextualizes her practice against the backdrop of cutting edge art practice in India

It’s difficult to write about one’s own work as ‘cutting edge’, but perhaps one can write about certain key works that one believes question the status quo in art and society and have brought in a different way of looking at things.

In 1990’s, Mumbai was a hotbed and centre of experimentations and discourses in art. Women artists were particularly working with new forms and media and doing strongly political work. I remember a leading male artist friend complaining –why women artists/ why installation art/ why political art? It was seen as a threatening force particularly questioning the dominance of oil painting in the nascent art market of the time. The Mohile Parikh Centre, for example, had a series of major seminars pitting installation art against painting, global versus Indian, etc. The funny thing was that oil painting, the supreme expression of Western culture, was seen as an indigenous medium, while all expressions in other forms or media were seen as decadent western influences. The demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya and the subsequent riots in Mumbai, with the rising fundamentalism, neo-liberalist economic policies and a strong feminist consciousness made it difficult for some of us to continue working in an organic way with traditional art school media.

In my early sculptures, mainly in terracotta, I was interested in creating an indigenous language based on an essential idea of “Indianness”, using poor materials and folk art references. A new language had to be used to express the sharp disjunctures and fragmentations in the tumultuous realities around us. In a series of installations called the Excavations made in the early 1990s responding to the post- Ayodhya events, I started moving away from figurative sculpture to a more conceptual approach where I made objects using thrown away papers and cheap found material, inspired by Walter Benjamin’s The Arcade Project in which he studies the modern city as an archaeological site.

Soon after, I left sculpture altogether and started working with conceptual photography and video.  I see the history of photography and film as documenting the history of modernity in India. My first photo-romance Phantom Lady or Kismet in which I play the main roles, is a film noir adventure set in actual locations in Mumbai where a masked Zorro like character based on the Hindi stunt film star Fearless Nadia goes in search of her lost twin sister. This was early conceptual photography work in India and my work was laughed at for a long time as non- serious because I used performance, humour and fiction. The large four-year project Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs looked at photography as an ethnographic tool and deconstructed popular images of women, creating an “inventory” of hundreds of images.

The 11 minute video, Rashtriya Kheer and Desi Salad was created by using text found in my mother’s and mother-in-law’s recipe books to look at the modern family and the nation, while The Paris Autumn, a 35 minute film made out of still photographs shot in Paris, is about the violent history and present of the iconic city of European civilization. In Bangalore last year I did my first live performance Motherland with Kannada poet Mamta Sagar, which was a half- hour theatrical monologue interrogating the image of Bharatmata and the lost history of the first Kannada woman writer, Nanjangud Tirumalamba. My central presence in these works bodily inhabits and comments on these images and histories, and transforms them.

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