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Q- Could you take us back in time when you had your first stint with the world of art?
I was good at drawing, and that led to sketching as a time filler in long vacation breaks. Soon, I was asked by my family to make handmade Diwali and Christmas cards. Also, for eight years, I spent every weekend going to Bharat Natyam classes, because my mother thought I was too much of a tomboy and wanted to ‘girlie’ me up a bit. Only in hindsight can I now see how the two pursuits of technique and symbolism may have given rise to a burgeoning creative translation.
Q- You had an interesting upbringing....how did that impact your worldview as a person and as an artist?
I was born in Uganda, brought up in Kenya until the age of 14, and then moved to London and lived with distant relatives for a decade, after which I ‘ran’ from an imminent conveyor belt future to an adventure packed twenty years in South East Asia. It is this ‘being on the periphery’ of identity; not quite belonging anywhere, that makes the whole world into a sort of listening project. Even now, I unconsciously escape situations when they become too comfortable and I sense a deadening of ‘spirit’ or live enquiry.
As a result, most of my expression comes from zooming into the ‘in-between’ spaces of inner and outer worlds, the gaps between host and diasporic cultures, street culture etc.
Q- Your quirky yet thought-provoking artworks are inspired by the common man....tell us more about it...
Well, recent world events show that what the elitist establishments seem to have overlooked is ‘identity politics’. Our humanity and therefore our answers to most problems are right under our noses, yet we ignore that or take it for granted. Our capitalistic world has become so obsessed with short term gain, winning elections and number crunching that we have ignored communities in rural areas, or assumed things about them. Too much emphasis is given to metropolitan culture, which consists of celebrities, fashion, slick lifestyles etc. I have always seen through this, and instead tuned into the lives of ordinary, seemingly ‘invisible’ people; fishermen, taxi drivers, hairdressers, housewives, shopkeepers etc. This is what popular culture and populism lies. And that is why what I do is often called ‘POP Art!
Q- You travel a lot. What were a few of fascinating places that you experienced together and where would you say you were influenced or felt inspired as an artist?
Some of my most powerful memories are in countries where the ancient / old and the contemporary are inextricably interwoven, for example Egypt, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Cuba, Oman, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, India, Uganda, South Africa. These, when contrasted with more western centric realms situated in Europe , the U.S or even Singapore give insights into where we are at as a 21st century globalized society.
It is not so much a singular destination that I find fascinating, but the comparing and contrasting of cultures, especially in the context of understanding their histories and influences. Life in a globalized world is not static, and our stories are always in a state of flux, shaped by wars, famines, religion etc. These influences express themselves in architecture, cuisine, art, literature, fashion, films, literature etc, which in turn transmute into modalities of education and conditioning for all of us. My job is to deconstruct this all and look at each part separately.
Q- Also, your work, if I am not wrong is a juxtaposition of external (space) and the internal (atma) to reflect upon a higher self - the world. How do you approach your artistic expression to bring out a series or artwork? What goes on inside your artistic mind before the series...are you hands on and go with a flow or are you a pre-planned and sticking to the plan sort of a person?
All of us negotiate our inner and outer worlds. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, almost everything or everyone we interact with leaves an impression on us, which will manifest in some way. My expression comes from a combination of heart-mind space. Through my travels, I emotionally engage with people by staying with them, talking to them, feeling what is going on in their lives. With my mind, the translation of political policies, our education systems, a close scrutiny of our popular culture and the conditioning embedded in it allows me to make connections between an individual’s behavior and the possible protagonists behind it. For example, I have deliberately been working in ‘live community’ European and Indian rural-urban divide projects in the last few years. I wanted to understand better the ‘invisible majority’ that has been overshadowed by the city rhetoric. Not listening to their voices has resulted in rightist global populism, which needs to be better understood for the way ahead.
Q- Also, colours...What’s your relationship with colours?
Colours are frozen energy. They are symbolic and powerful conveyors of emotional information. In a world dominated by left brain rationale, I look for any opportunity to trigger right brain awakenings. I feel that colour is greatly under estimated, and therefore under-utilized. It has unfortunately become largely synonymous with decorative references, and I do whatever I can to reverse this. A lot of my compositions can appear ‘pretty’ at a glance. However, upon close inspection, one will see the darkness and complexity of the narrative. This is akin to the sugar coated bitter pill that modern life has become. All around us we see symptoms of environmental pollution, corruption, inequality and depression. All of this is conveniently overshadowed by garish advertising telling us to buy things we do not need. It is this mind space that I attempt to hijack with a very deliberate color palette.
Q- Do you have a favourite medium to work on? What kind of materials do you use?
India (or Asia) is a combination of tradition and modernity, and I have to show this in my art and the mediums I choose. I like to mix things up, therefore each artistic story or collection comes with different reference points, or ‘hooks’ to enable the viewer an easy access to what I am trying to get across. My priority as an artist is to communicate efficiently, so my mediums are chosen accordingly. For example, I take thousands of photographs from my travels. These are deliberately worked upon and overlaid with cuttings from newspapers, paint, flat objects that I pick up. It is the debris of street culture that I get my visual clues from, and these are transmuted through reworkings from scanning, photo shopping etc. A story told on canvas with a paintbrush will have a different socio-cultural meaning compared to the same story printed on acrylic or glass. One speaks of craft and tradition, and the other of mass production through technology. Sometimes a very traditional rendition overlaid with contemporary visual language is printed on a utilitarian application like a chair or table. The reference signals that this sends out hopefully encourages us to think outside of the box.
Q- As an artist, who do you get influenced by and why? (Could you name them and describe them/their artwork)
My influences are both intellectual and emotional; low art and high art. By low art I mean all the ‘everyday stuff’, from truck art to graffiti to advertising hoardings. By High Art I mean the type that we see in museums or galleries. My work is an amalgamation of the shades of grey in between. I am impacted mostly by world events, especially various writers and thinkers who translate these events. The relationship between conditioning and original thought, and how our personal or national identities develop are what my main area of focus is. So really, everything around me guides me; from junk mail to newspaper headlines to body language to someone’s living room. Our sensitivities gives us a sort of porosity to enter other realms.
Q - Lastly, could you tell us about any special projects that you are working on now?
For the last four years, I have embarked on a ‘travelling studio’ mode. This means that I have predominantly been on the road, and have exchanged my wardrobe and home for a portable suitcase. This comes after two decades of living in Singapore, managing and working a rather large studio and commune of a dozen people. I have exchanged the familiar with the unfamiliar, and its been educational, uncomfortable, sometimes painful and yet most rewarding. Last year, I spent a few months in a small Himachal village co-curating an arts residency. The same was done recently in Odisha. Before that, I was living in an ex mining village in Wales, where I have bought an ex Methodist chapel and intend to convert it into my future studio. The year before that, I worked on a village project in Austria. The idea behind all these projects is to learn about rural communities, and how they are being impacted by globalization. There is a tremendous amount of power embedded in these societies, but our politicians are too busy with plans for smart cities and the like, and I am concerned that they are missing the point. Having lived in Europe, I see what the constant hollowing out of rural areas and villages has done to the national story, and I don’t want this to be repeated in India. Look at Japan, and what rampant economic growth has done to its socio-cultural side. People are getting more and more isolated, and the population is in great decline. The majority of people in India still live in villages, and it is my firm belief that these communities do not need to be rescued. Instead, they need to be left alone, and for their relevance to be perpetuated to the rest of the country. As an artist, I am interested in building bridges between these communities and the urban.