by Meera MenezesApr 03, 2023
In Last Glass of Cola, Ragini Chawla emulates a gathering of a speculated occasion, presenting painting and mixed media works to create a scene. Presented at David Dale Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland, the exhibition took place as a set of shifting narratives and gestures encapsulated in the moments that the viewer is able to seemingly steal from a scene elsewhere. Last Glass of Cola implicates the viewer and introduces questions of sources of power and hierarchy within a family structure while investigating promises, dissatisfactions, distance and certain embraces.
The exhibition begins with a gesture, an offering of sorts, as Chawla describes to STIR over a video conversation. As we come to realise, however, the sardine tin can held in hand, holds an empty promise through its glistening golden surface. Several textures and materials represented through painted surfaces by the artists inhabit a space of gleaming potential, colour, and allure. We encounter the scene of arriving at a party in time for the last glass of cola, where chairs have lost their balance, mirroring their human counterparts perhaps. Two sets of images appear, one where each chair floats in empty space, suspended as their sitters have left, as often is after a function. The juxtaposed image in composition appears as a counterpart to this very scene, where cotton candy tablecloths cover rounded dinner tables, with potted flowers placed as decoration. Not a body is presented in either of the paintings, and the chairs recur almost as bodies, at first placed, then displaced.
In a conversation with STIR about preparing for her solo exhibition at David Dale Gallery, Chawla says, “In order to not get into the space of fear and uncertainty with the exhibition, I tried to lighten the mood and look at it as a fun thing. I started thinking of the show as a celebration, especially the opening of the exhibition.”
Events collide where we reach without specification of the occasion, and yet the scene remains set for one to occupy. Somewhere between intra-family dynamics and pride in traditional conservative notions around marriage, ‘celebration’ becomes an empty signifier. The scene that we enter as an audience occurs as a false invitation to a celebration that no one seems to be a part of. In stark contrast to the scenes of the purported gathering, Chawla presents paintings of her mother and grandmother in their domestic setting, scenes of sitting together in repose, cooking and washing dishes. Chawla writes in a drawing of her grandmother, “Cooking with love, for yourself, for the food, for the people you feed.”
These textual insertions enliven the scene, as a cloth within a painting carries the text, “One’s too hesitant to even move fingers / One’s eyes are following the glass / One diverts their gaze away / One extends their hand only to drop / One takes the first sip…” In this scene setting, one is aware of the politics of taking the final piece in a shared (domestic, familial, paternalistic) setting, a taut and tense space of micro-gestures and hesitation, ultimately leading to the tension dissolving upon the final decision. A father’s stake in seniority and importance through the final say or the final piece is ever-present. As in South Asian households, where gendered roles are reinforced within the family unit, one can vividly imagine the loaded implications of the simple gesture. Chawla speaks to STIR about this tense atmosphere, “... If there is one piece of cola or one piece of anything really, will your father take it? It depends on who thinks they have the power or entitlement or keeps their desire above their gendered roles.”
Speaking about her artistic process, creating and conceptualising, Chawla tells STIR, “I am someone who thinks through doing, so the medium of painting becomes a medium of thinking for me. A lot of times conversations with people affect what I am thinking and doing. If I think about phone conversations, they are mostly with my family. Family has become quite a big part of how I make the work that I am making, which is also reflected in the work.”
Purposefully, the Indian artist obfuscates, leaves canvases largely blank and presents drawn studies. The deployment of colour acts as a facade or promise of sorts, that lures the audience in. In a way, Chawla lures us in further by creating seating space, gatherings of chairs that tempt warm bodies to occupy, in space and through time. Chawla’s artistic gestures lie in creating a scene where people are meant to take their seats for the show. At the moment before curtain fall, we are able to grab a glimpse of the scene that took place, in its lustrous, brightly coloured tablecloths, divans, cushions, where upholstery becomes theatrical in its gesture. Whether foreshadowing or in hindsight, one cannot really tell, as the scene is to begin and repeat till it is emptied. While we are presented with the aftermath, the scene continues to confound; only in memory and emulation does it live once again.