‘In the Black Fantastic’ at Hayward Gallery is UK’s first show on the work of Black artists
by Rahul Kumar, Samta NadeemSep 13, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Georgina MaddoxPublished on : Jul 31, 2019
It was a warm summer afternoon, when I began discussing the possibilities of curating an exhibition for Threshold Art Gallery with Tunty Chauhan, the gallery director, and Achia Anzi, an Israeli artist living and working in India, represented by Threshold. They asked me if I were to choose a topic, what would it be and I found myself talking about the idea of skin. It excited both the artist and the gallerist because skin has the ability to be interpreted in a myriad ways. I felt Anzi responded well because of his diverse cultural background sharpened by a mystical bent of mind, which echoed with Chauhan. Over the years, Threshold has been drawn to subjects that are anchored in the everyday life but have metaphysical interpretation.
On a more personal level, I have always been aware of the politics of skin because of my mixed ancestry, with an Anglo-Indian mother and Indo-Burmese father. Growing up in a racially diverse household was enriching and complex. Hence, the topic resonated with me.
I found that the topic resonated with the other artists I spoke to as well. I have been following Mithu Sen’s work for many years. Her previous exhibitions like Black Candy and I hate Pink were so powerful and politically loaded, while maintaining its humorous overtone. I felt her work would fit in perfectly with the theme and she responded well. Similarly, Shibu Arakkal and Shivani Aggarwal have been working directly with the idea of skin, as were Baptist Coelho and Prajkata Potnis, who have been working with the metaphor of skin to address the political and the personal.
Megha Joshi and Shormii Chowdhury were names suggested by Chauhan and I responded well to their work as they were both strong feminist artists working with natural mediums like paper, and found objects from nature. While Rahul Kumar’s medium clay went very easily with the interpretation of skin, it was, however, the first time he was working in paper. The idea of an exhibition like this is to challenge the artists and the curator to interpret the theme exploring the personal, the political, the erotic and the mystical.
To bolster my enquiry, I included texts from Neha Mishra’s paper published at the University of Washington, titled India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances and In Our Own Skins: A Political History of the Coloured People, by Richard van der Ross, to cull out the proposal letter for the artists. I also referenced Jeanette Winterson’s novel Written on the Body to add that aspect of the personal and the erotic. In the final format of the show, I referenced Mishra’s title and have an extract of Winterson’s novel as wall-text at the gallery. As a writer, text undeniably plays an important role in my acts of curation.
I was delighted to find that each artist had interpreted the theme in innumerable ways. In fact, Anzi’s work Sur-face engages to move beyond skin. “Our thinking about skin and texture is trapped in a binary opposition,” says Anzi. He creates two architectural interventions on the pillars of the gallery. One, where tree roots appear to have sprouted out of the pillar raising the question - is the surface subordinated by deeper strata, and hence, apprehended as a supplement? Is the peel separate from the seed? In Sur-face II, he sands away the pillar’s surface, inviting the viewer to reflect on the relation between texture and architecture and to provoke a new and horizontal (rather than vertical) relation between our perceived notions of interior and exterior.
Mithu Sen’s bronze sculpture of two severed hair-braids titled Conjoined Life Separately, references the deep psychoanalytic readings that tie into our subconscious thoughts about sexuality that further draws the viewer into the artist’s psyche. The braids of hair tell a poignant tale, for once they were part of the same body but now they are severed. Sen’s work evokes questions on the fragility and ephemeral nature of life.
In Baptist Coelho’s Attempts to Contain, a set of 10 photographic works, orifices, and skin are safely shut and fingers and limbs urgently clasp each other; Coelho suggests that the idea of the photo-series is to “…explore how the body responds to the physical and psychological need to protect itself by forming a mesh of interlocking body parts”. It reflects upon the pressure of a soldier’s duty and the innate instinct to protect and adapt to different situations. This award-winning work was sourced from Project 88.
Megha Joshi’s work The Skin Remembers is a set of 30 works made from latex, cloth, foam and ply. We abstracted a set of 18 works. “I have taken a list of reasons from 30 family and friends, for the scars they have due to invasive surgery. Whether for cosmetic or life-saving reasons, their skin was penetrated, and each scar tells us much more than medical history,” says Joshi of the evocative work. She has also created Droop, a collection of gourds to symbolise the ageing female body and its fertility. As skin loses its firmness and elasticity, there is a distortion of early form.
Shormii Chowdhury’s work titled The Second Skin is a sculptural manifestation of intimate dialogues and confrontations with the ‘self’. It is an assemblage of numerous identities and is layered by complex interlinked personal histories. The cabinet is a space, an enclosure that houses garments, which become a proxy for the person. The sculpture of the younger woman on the top shelf is eager to outgrow her childhood garments, while the older woman on the bottom shelf is nostalgic toward those bygone days, with only the memories and reflection of the past to keep her company.
Rahul Kumar’s work titled Original Shadow #123 (triptych) comprises of three triptych sets. Clay-tablets use abstract patterns that reminisces the visuals of spatial panoramic views of earth or a magnified image of the body. “The telescopic view of the earth and microscopic image of the body seems to be a confluence,” says Kumar. The three manifestations of skin that Kumar has created are the clay tablet with the veins of the body-city, the embossed impression of the tablet on Japanese rice paper - a metaphor for skin - and finally an abstracted inked impression of that same pattern, standing in for bones. The series is titled Original Shadow, with an attempt to question the idea of what is original.
Shivani Aggarwal’s work, The Stitched Skin, addresses the idea of shame and decency encoded onto a woman’s skin. “I often hide my skin, beneath the layers of clothes, parched, hidden, tired, holding numerous things… The cloth or garment almost becomes my second skin, which I could adorn, show off, expose and be proud of,” writes Aggarwal in an excerpt of the text accompanying her imagery that is part photography, part painting and part decoupage.
Shibu Arakkal’s photographs are a set of two series titled Constructing Life and Lines in the Sand. The technique used for the Constructing Life series is composite layering. It consists of a set of portraits of the proletariat. “Lines in the sand, lines on the skin, demarcate what we believe belongs to us. Throughout history, walls have become palimpsests of separation and segregation – a layering of the present over half-remembered lives of the past,” says Arakkal.
Prajakta Potnis is also represented by Project 88, but with a little negotiation between galleries, she created a specially commissioned work for Threshold. Potnis has worked upon the image of her father’s birthmark, popularly known as the Mongolian birthmark. She has painted on a digital image, personalising the birthmark, making it her own. In essence, her father’s skin is something she has grown up with and hence, it remains personal, though to many the birthmark is seen as a flaw.
The exhibition is on till August 20 at Threshold Art Gallery, New Delhi.
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