A confession, and a cherished conversation with Ayesha Sultana

Artist Ayesha Sultana makes a departure towards colour and painting with her recent show, Bare Bones, at gallery Experimenter in Kolkata, India.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Apr 09, 2021

I have to make a confession: a few weeks back, while mindlessly surfing around my social media feed, I stumbled upon an image. An edge-to-edge painting of lush green leaves. At first, it seemed like an ordinary, happy painting. My thumb did stop at it for a closer look at the boldness of the strokes. Or maybe I was trying hard to discover something more.

12/21, 2021 | Bare Bones by Ayesha Sultana | STIRworld
12/21, 2021 Image: Courtesy of the artist and gallery Experimenter

I asked to myself if I am missing something. I pushed harder when I realised it was an image shared by Experimenter, one of the foremost galleries that promotes and fosters experimental (no marks for guessing that) and cutting-edge art. I have to say, I could have never guessed this being a work of artist Ayesha Sultana! I was first introduced to her practice in 2016 at the gallery booth at India Art Fair in New Delhi. It was a graphite-on-paper work. The paper itself was formed into geometric pattern and graphite applied to gloss. I may not have been the only one who mistook it for a metal sheet!

Untitled (graphite on paper) | Ayesha Sultana | STIRworld
Untitled (graphite on paper) Image: Courtesy of the artist and gallery Experimenter

And ever since, I have seen Sultana’s works at several occasions, most notably as part of a group show titled Searching for stars amongst crescents, at the Ballygunge Place branch of the gallery in Kolkata, and more recently at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art exhibit titled Line, beats, and shadows in 2020. But here is the thing, all that I ever saw was minimalist form and imagery, monochromatic palette, and for most part a non-representational approach. I enjoyed knowing about Sultana’s references, but took pleasure in interpreting it with a lens of my own.

I wondered about this new series of the artist that I had admired all these years. I had questions – ‘how did she intend her viewers to see and interpret them’, ‘was there more than what meets the eye?’ Titles to her works at the show mostly refer to a time in the day.

I feel fortunate to have spoken to the ‘recluse’ Bangladesh-based artist, who threw light on her practice and her works at the recent exhibit, Bare Bones.

Edited excerpts:

Rahul Kumar (RK): I have personally admired your paper-graphite works. The very geometric forms and the glossy sheen creates an illusion of it being metal sheet. What were your reasons to use this media and how has that contributed in the experience of the work and the idea of actual tin sheets that was your reference?

Ayesha Sultana (AS): To begin with, the early maquettes were small paper constructions and configurations that sprung from an interest in perspective. The corrugated tin was an initial reference point at the time in 2011-2012, when I first began to use graphite and make other paper experiments.

Sometimes I approach these works with its formal qualities in pictorial space – line, shape, composition. Each drawing is whole by itself, although some feel more resolved than others. You build connections with older pieces even if it does not seem apparent at first. There have been many drawings and it has moved on and developed with its empirical analyses and syntheses. How does the work hold together? Is there an underlying structure to move across or break?

Ballaygunge Place branch of Experimenter | Bare Bones by Ayesha Sultana | STIRworld
Ballaygunge Place branch of Experimenter Image: Courtesy of the artist and gallery Experimenter

RK: You have worked with photography, digital alternations, painting and drawings, and also wood to make sculptures. How do you make the choice of media and technique? Could you illustrate this process by using example of your previous body of work?

AS: I tend to work in an intuitive manner. It is usually dictated by what it is that I am trying to express in that moment. Sometimes the idea determines the medium. With the recent show Bare Bones, the materials are oil on fabric and board. I was slowly delving back into a medium that felt close to my heart. I am continuing this discipline regularly but also keeping myself open to play around with other media. I like to use my hands but sometimes I have to ‘give’ them to someone else. The few sculptures I have made in wood or brass have happened with the help of assistants and other artists who have the technical expertise and facility. Often, it has been through trial and error.

Birds I (2010) was a site-specific installation and marked a significant point in my journey, which was about attempting to convey a feeling and emotion through the sensorial and intangible quality of sound. The viewer was invited to interact and make the work come alive.

Untitled | Bare Bones by Ayesha Sultana | STIRworld
Untitled Image: Courtesy of the artist and gallery Experimenter

RK: Most often your works have been less direct, allowing for multitudes of interpretations. This new body titled Bare Bones seems to be a departure from this approach. Imagery of sky and sea, and leaves and trees are somewhat limiting in the fluidity of your viewer’s readings. Would you agree?

AS: No. Any work of art, whether it is abstract or figurative, is open to multiple interpretations. To simplify the reading of it through a single idea or theme can be daunting.

Gallery view of Bare Bones | Bare Bones by Ayesha Sultana | STIRworld
Gallery view of Bare Bones Image: Courtesy of the artist and gallery Experimenter

RK: In continuation, the paintings straddle across your inner emotions and what is in sight for you, they depict the idea of bare bones and yet are images of lush trees and alive seas. Please elaborate the thought of this exploration.

AS: This body of work is responding to recent personal experience in pictorial terms. Stripping down thought and thinking of the natural elements. Energy, internal and external forces. An interplay of feelings of composure and anxiety. One has to see beyond the lush trees and riverscapes.

It is also an ode to the return to painting and colour from a monochromatic practice.

Ayesha Sultana | Bare Bones by Ayesha Sultana | STIRworld
Ayesha Sultana Image: Nabil Rahman

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