by Sakhi SobtiAug 21, 2023
One of my earliest confrontations with a work of art was when one day, as a child, I stumbled across a painting on the floor outside the door of a Maharashtrian household in the building in which I grew up in Kurla, Mumbai. I was too young to remember the specifics. I have the faintest memory of confusion. I was running down the A block staircase perhaps while playing hide and seek, and I was arrested by the sudden sight of lit diyas. It must have been Diwali. On the floor, where one normally placed a mat to wipe off the dust from one’s shoes, lay a spectacular rangoli (a mural made of coloured powders).
Except, at the time, I was too young to know what it was. We grew up Goan Catholic and so hadn’t inherited this tradition. This was my first exposure to what was perhaps once a daily ritual that in cities got reduced to being made on special occasions. I was mesmerised by the depth of intersecting colour fields held by white patterned outlines. It seemed flat and three-dimensional at the same time. It was mysterious and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I might have thought it was simply a really beautiful welcome mat. I didn’t know any better. I tried to touch it with my feet, and was immediately horrified to see that the impression of the sole of my sandal had destroyed the surface texture. I didn’t know then that the colours were not fixed, that the painting was composed of pigments. I was sure I had irrevocably destroyed something, and because I hadn’t yet acquired the wisdom to allow myself to be held accountable, fled from the scene of my crime, leaving behind only that trace of my inquisitive callousness.
This memory returned to me recently, during my reflections on the nuances of the word ‘decorative’, which I have mostly only ever heard used pejoratively. I have met artists who have felt the need to defend their practice from the word, who go to elaborate lengths to convince me that their work is anything but that. ‘Otherwise, it would be craft,’ they seem to suggest. There is an underlying assumption that some form of transcendence must occur, some form of personal intervention that converts the properties of craft, elevating it to art. This kind of hierarchical language populates art historical and critical discourses, and remains in use by well-intentioned critics who are able to extol the merit of work under investigation by severing its link from existing craft traditions, or saying it has a unique ‘individual’ manner that sets it apart from the run-on-the-mill.
I encountered this snobbish attitude a week ago, in the writing of Roberta Smith in her lengthy ode to Rosie Lee Tompkins’ doubtlessly marvellous quilts. The review’s strap makes it clear that the African American artist’s legacy is to be hinged on her ‘transcending craft, challenging painting and reshaping the canon’. It was difficult for me to make it through the writing, because, despite being well meaning, Smith’s critical language feels shrouded in the same epistemic violence that has historically subjugated Femmage, art forms practised by women and tribal people.
Part of the problem, I have begun to theorise, is that most critics are untrained and therefore unaware of the complexities of craft traditions. Artists who formally train in art schools learn every other skill involved with either painting, sculpture, and conceptual art or installation, but most institutions do not encourage practices related to female legacies, like stitching, mending, tailoring, basket-making, patterning, etc. There is a sequence of forces that seek to invisibilise these mediums, constantly defining the parameters within which they are allowed to come seriously under the purview of art criticism, which is unfortunate, because there is so much to learn from what it means for practitioners of these traditions to inhabit the consciousness that these forms of labours demand. While going through the artist Jyoti Bhatt’s digitised archive on the Asia Art Archive website during research for a review I was writing on the indigenous artist, Bhuri Bai, I found myself grateful for the artistic investment he made in documenting diverse manifestations of Femmage traditions across India’s rural and tribal landscape. Besides his immense photographic archive, I was arrested by his own rangoli studies that concentrate on understanding the intricacies of the geometric patterning at the heart of rangoli.
Two weeks ago, as someone self-initiated in crochet, I joined a ‘crochet along’ that someone in a Goan Crochet group of which I am a member, began. We would all be making the same table runner. Once in four days the lead member would post instructions for 10 rows, along with a photograph of her having completed those rows. We could each make it in our own time. I spent at least four hours trying to wrap my head around the complexity of the geometric pattern which was roughly inspired by a Portuguese artisan’s design. I had grown accustomed to following diagrams instead of following written instructions, and so, was at a loss.
We were working in the filet crochet format, which uses boxes as the primary unit, each one comprising two single chains on the bottom and top, with the sides made of double crochet. Filet crochet derives its being through an arrangement of positive and negative space. The void consists of empty boxes, while the positive space has between two to three double crochet stitches. Part of my apprehension and difficulty with following filet crochet arises from the geometric precision it entails. At the end of each round, you need to add three foundation chains as part of the ‘turning’. The meticulousness is demanding. You must follow the count.
Because each stitch is always ‘complete’ regular crochet, unlike with knitting, the art form feels like its own language with several dialectical iterations. It’s not difficult to learn, and it is exhilarating how easily one can start to make things. Most importantly, it’s revealing how, in the process of making any crochet object, the body experiences time differently. It is not dissimilar to practising other forms of decorative arts. To an observer, the gestures seem repetitive. But repetition is what composes the pattern. And attention is crucial because it compels you to understand the nuances within the design. Your body has to relate to the art you are making, and so it consumes your energies differently. You find yourself able to access a subjectivity that you may never be able to sufficiently articulate. You move inward. Your thoughts surface, bubbling without spilling over. It is meditative and therapeutic. You can sit with a thought, or an idea, and let it materialise.
As I went through many of these complex emotions, I found myself resonating with something I had read some weeks before on my Instragram feed. It was a post by the artist Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz, who had been sharing her progress at the loom. The photograph was of an in-progress work, a small prayer rug she was weaving for her son. “The process itself is turning out to be more of a spiritual exercise than I had anticipated,” she shared. “So much for the hubris of my complicated design ideas! Those are on hold for now. Instead, I am winging it, taking cues from the process itself”. Mumtaz sheepishly asks accomplished weavers to avert their eyes from what she feels are the obvious ‘technical flaws’, like ‘bumpy hand spun weft; unruly selvedges, every kind of tension problem, irregular, exposed and broken warps’ which she feels are evidence of things she did imperfectly with consequences. “As I struggle on, it is becoming more and more clear that learning to accept the flaws that accrue is as important as learning to move beyond them”.
For a long time, I have been trying to build a thesis that forcibly situates the equivalence of ‘decorative’ art on par with contemporary art. The motivation is not simply intellectual, it is to acknowledge that the discrimination has consequences at the level of livelihood, and to foreground that there is an epistemic violence in the historical construction of who gets to be considered an artist, and thus gain access to whatever that category may embody in terms of privileges. The labour of housewives, the historical practitioners and containers of legacies of decorative traditions, continues to be devalued, and I would contend that the continuing use of pejorative language around art that is decorative or ornamental is rooted more in bias than rigorous intellectual thinking. Recently I have been wondering what if instead of expending energy trying to locate the merit of the decorative within the contemporary, one actually simply ‘dropped out’ of the contemporary market and discourse and focussed on situating oneself in the non-institutional set-ups that have ‘held’ these decorative arts, making them sustainable by providing critique, assistance, and encouragement? Doing so has made me inherently suspicious of the ‘transcendental’ school of art criticism that is always seeking conceptual grounding as the basis of the material existence of the art work (or its lack thereof), without simultaneous introspection into the ecosystems that frame the decisions surrounding the material form a work assumes. Likewise, I am beginning to question the cult of individuality that is presumed to lie at the core of an art work’s constitution, often at the expense of non-capitalistic systems such as indigenous place thought, where the self is intricately and invariably bound to relational ecologies. In the interest of evolving a more daringly inclusive, less hetero-white-patriarchal art world, it is perhaps urgent that we re-examine our prevailing prejudices against the ‘decorative’ in art and think more intelligently and honestly about what informs our biases and the artistic subjectivities they inadvertently suppress.