‘I am’, as they say, are two most powerful words because what you write after them, shapes and defines your reality. The eponymous all women group show that opened relevantly on International Women’s Day.
It brought forth a bouquet of different thoughts and practices. Even the viewers were asked to define themselves in small piece of papers followed by the words ‘I am...” and pin them up on a gallery wall. A collaboration between Ayan Mukherjee director of the newly opened A.M ( Art Multidisciplines) Studio, Kolkata and artist/curator Ushmita Sahu it was a three pronged event- a group show of women artists, a performance on the opening day and a public art project that was facilitated by artist Moutushi Chakraborty along with students of Amity School of Fine Art Kolkata. This was a meaningful engagement with the local community, an interactive dialogue where the local residents, especially children participated and painted on the walls of the studio neighbourhood. Housed in a middle- class residential area in Kolkata, West Bengal, India, with predominantly refugee colony moorings, this small space packed in a lot of energy and promised to be an interface for various art related activities.
The exhibition showcased small format artworks of 25 women of different generations. The miniature format was well suited - matching of art to space. The intergenerational approach laid bare a vast array of experiences, expressions and perspectives on the diverse, complex phenomenon of female psyche. The spectrum was really large since it included works of senior matriarchs such as Anjali Ela Menon, Anita Roy Chowdhury, Veena Bhargava or Arunima Choudhury , as well as current students of Kala Bhavan like Janhavi Khemka and Arni Sarkar. The show was also a balanced mix of local and national level artists. Thus we get a kind of hands-on her-story as to what is means to be a woman or an artist or both in contemporary times, across generations and spaces.
It is interesting to see the creative manifestation of experimental impulse with both material and forms. While Anita Roy Chowdhury, who is known for her abstraction and strong, fluid lines, whose artistic persona has been nurtured through the Abstract expressions of late ‘50s & ‘60s, continued in the familiar vein of bold strokes of oil paint on canvas, Veena Bhargava or Seema Kohli made use of classic pen and ink on paper. The others (mostly of younger generation) have experimented with new materials. Mention worthy are Janhavi Khemka’s glass engraving with light, Piyali Sadhukhan’s mind boggling mix of media - fabric , paper, thread, ink, acrylic sheet, Ushmita Sahu’s subtle use of graphite, ink, gateway paper and acrylic on paper. Some have expressed themselves in well established new age medium like the digital prints (Sabrine Osborne, Ruma Choudhury etc ), while few have gone for idiosyncratic experimentation with mud (Jayeti Bhattacharya, Concrete Leakage ) or coffee stains ( Promiti Hossain, An inarticulate desire ).
Though the works are varied and distinct from one another, overlapping issues of concern can be read in them. The urban ennui and the post modern existential crisis are palpable in works of Arpita Pradhan and Piyali Sadhukhan. Arpita refers to the depression – the deeper disease that has started rotting the core of existence through her understated style and Piyali contextualises the complexity of thought process. Conflicts and contradictions leading to suspended thinking best described by an iconic phrase from a Kabir Suman song ‘magaje curfew’ ( curfew in the brain). But certainly everything is not about conflicts or struggles. There is serenity of stare and quiet contemplation in head studies done by Anjali Ela Menon and Veena Bhargava. Arunima Choudhury’s Girl with Rose or Ritu Kamath’s Woman of the tomato dreams reinstates feminine association with cornucopia in a contemporary way- the softness and rotundity of flower and fruits, moments of respite and idle, wandering thoughts.
Fabric, textile and threads have been one of the favourite media with women artists over the time. Aditi Raman, Mahula Ghosh and Shraboni Roy use the above but producing entirely different and disparate effects. One can almost hear the scream and feel the pressure of footprint in Aditi’s work, Shraboni’s protest against invisible forces are visible too but the fragmentation of Self in Mahula Ghosh’s work is silent and imperceptible. Feeling blue is expressed through colour blue. The stitches instead of sewing together highlight the divisions.
Some metaphors are strong and immediate. Like the bunch of keys in Priti Vadakkath’s Sacristan -4. A woman holds a key position in a household or society. She has the key to create or destroy, to unlock happiness or to lock unhappiness. But Moutushi’s work, drawing from archival imageries and memories, has the longings, suppression and untold stories that can be read by informed historical and feminist readings. Amritah Sen’s protest is tacit but clear. There are going to be moments when a woman will be intimidated – through indirect threat or direct attacks - but she must have the courage to chart her own route and complete the journey, despite the odds.
Reconstructing the Body and its image has been an important agenda. Dimple B Shah and Promiti Hossain creations address that. Dimple etches the echoes of the body in imagined landscape and Promiti tries to articulate the desires. The woman is yet to find her language Does she have a voice of her own ? This is also echoed in Ruma Choudhury’s statement – “I am in search of a personal identity’
“I am” had its share of Performance art – both in video (Mithu Sen) and real life performance of Arni Sarkar which was a sharp critique of the Indian obsession with fair skin. ‘Beautifying’ herself with a dark powder smeared on her face with meticulous care, looking indulgently in the mirror as she upheld ads seeking fair brides, she destabilised and questioned the notion of ‘fair is beautiful’.
Although some artists are unsure or uncertain about being viewed through the lens of gender, but it is important to map the contours of a feminine mind and creations from their viewpoints. All women group shows fell out of favour for sometime but seem to be flourishing again. ‘I Am’ is a right step in that direction. This show will undermine any assumptions or stereotypes one might hold about gender and struggle, self and self expressions of women artists in India.