I started my career in 1984 at the age of 26. I understood early on the importance for art practices and theoretical enquiries to find their interconnection within discourses. However as a young artist I began to observe how many art schools were beginning to debunk the rigours of their aesthetics and art history programs, thereby creating a situation of even greater paucity for producing art critics and art historians of caliber. I am on most occasions a die-hard optimist, preferring to look at all things in a manner that focuses on the best within every given situation. But even I had difficulty in holding on to my optimism in regards the quality and standard of writing on art that was generated by my peers during my early years as a painter.
I recall the urgent need I had to locate a writer who could articulate the territory of my concerns in the eighties on my return from London, and finding myself hitting a blank wall. Unlike my predecessors who had created discourses that formulated collective concerns around pictorial language and cultural identities, and who charted these new histories through their writings in publications brought out often by their own endeavors, my generation on the other hand perhaps became the money-boom babies; and so the road map of the individual became more accentuated, more far removed from the ideas of contributing consciously to and within a collective frame work of cultural historicizing.
My personal premise of engagement with gender politics did not fit too comfortably into the prevailing Marxist concerns of my friends in those early days of my career, despite other areas of compatibility that held our artistic friendships together - and I often felt hemmed in and in search of another space of discourse that would allow me to feel my sense of ideological belonging. It was around this time that I first read Alice Walker. I found in the simple ease of her writing a compelling self-articulation that suggested that I too could rely on being the interlocutor with myself.
Reading critical and theoretical writing has taught me so much as a student and as an artist, yet for me the intervention of writing emerged from another need. I was also acutely aware that the scholarship required to be an accomplished writer demanded a time investment of reading and research that I as a practicing artist did not have. Coming from a background of multiple ethnicities within my family from which the cauldron of stories ran aplenty - the oral histories of these ancestries saw me holding its peculiarities often like awkward trophies. As a student at the faculty of fine arts I found no real empathy for personal histories of feminist intent within the prevailing concerns of that era, which brought my attention to the bias with which histories are compiled. I was exposed to the works of Ganga Devi the madhubani artist whose paintings are diaristic in the personal narratives that she visually recounts, and I was also privy to the living traditions of women’s folk practices through the photo documentation of my teacher Jyoti Bhatt, making me acutely aware of how necessary it is that these histories of women need to be celebrated and recorded as valuable legacies.
In the early 80’s I began to write to tell my own story, and the beginning of this engagement starts as the last chapter of my M.A thesis at the Royal College of art. My writings on my self have been about my journey as an artist and the different areas of my life that speak of my feminist rootedness and which illuminates the concerns that formulate my art. Till date I continue to write about my work from the territory of the ideas it encompasses. In the early years my attempt was for my writing to create an understanding of the imagery I was using to ensure the right interpretations were made of the metaphors of violence and sexual explicitness I was employing as methods of confrontation to focus on the issues of power and patriarchy I was addressing. In more recent years my strategy of writing employs devices that shift the focus away from the explanatory and instead search for abstracted ways that allude to my territory of ideas. Sometimes the writing may be a story or a letter or a conversation with myself - always with the desire that it offers a simple comprehensible communication that may open up for more dialogue, to an audience and with myself.
Does the artist as writer have something special to offer? I believe so. I believe that there is something different (not qualitatively) but that the rigors of study that artists undergo do patina them with an innate understanding for material and visual aesthetics, perhaps because it is a lived experience played out constantly, if not everyday, therefore giving them more of an insightfulness. The artist when taking on the avatar of the writer of personal recounting and pedagogic enquiry, positions their arguments from analytical methodologies of perception that come from the familiar. These writing sometimes serve to bridge the gaps that are left unaddressed by more specialized critical writings that may hold agendas within which such territories cannot always be accommodated.
I encourage artists to write - to shed their fear of committing themselves to the permanence of the written word. I believe that for an artist writing about ones own work and other issues related to art also serves to sharpen the critical space by which an art practitioner needs to stay alert and concurrent with their time. It prompts for artists to also remain more engaged with their contemporaries and to search for connectives and understand discourse of polemic nature.
Friendships in the art world can produce fecund discourses that when collated into archival material make for testaments of historical relevance often far more accurate than the enquiries made by historians who investigate time via the prism of their own agendas and requirements. I have felt the inadequacy of accurate research when reading the written material available on The Radical Painters & Sculptors association after they disbanded; in particular the writings about sculptor K.P. Krishnakumaran. His work and his ideas have been sometimes written about more to fit the need of the author and to conform to the topic of essays it has been designated to. What was seminal and which has yet to be spoken of was the motivation (right or wrong) of what propelled his dream of a utopia that questioned the prevailing art establishment of that time, and why he was seeking the module of a commune within which schematized ideation was what was permitted by the self appointed leadership of this movement. If letters to his friends and in-depth interviews had been sought with more thoroughness then perhaps a better overview to his life and art would exist as archived material. In stark contrast I recall reading a catalogue text many years ago written by Nilima Sheikh on her friend Arpita Singh’s work that offered an exquisite intimacy of understanding that perhaps only an insider could avail of. I remember introspecting about this writing and recognizing how close friendships feed such histories, and how important such texts become over time, and the value of an artist engaging in such pursuits.
When I had my solo exhibition titled Once upon a time, in the place of a catalogue I wrote a book of autobiographical essays titled ….and they lived happily ever after, in which I had selected black and white photographs from my life and family. I deliberately chose not to go through a publisher, as my desire was to have it unedited thereby preserving the authenticity of my voice and all the flaws that may exist within the craft of my writing. The essays hold narratives that are like keyholes that allow selected facts of whom I am to be revealed. It is a space where the private and the public overlap. As a woman I am insistent on being in charge of my representation, often irked and tired of the fallacies that prevail within traditional societies to stereotype women who cannot be comfortably labeled. The commitment to the written word endorses through it, in my opinion, the politics that governs ones art and life. If well done, it allows greater scope of histories to be more real and more palpable.
Every generation has its own pulse that decides and pronounces how it contains its representations. Imaginative inventiveness is often the key to finding ways to reinvent for oneself as an artist, and within this, one seeks equally to find new approaches within writing which can also reflect these shifts in paradigms. Shared experiences in today’s generation are often via a text message/whatsapp culture. Twitter accounts, face book pages, websites and blogs are also available democratized spaces that could be far better utilized by artists and art writers as venues for sustained and sensible exchange of ideas that could later be transposed as texts in catalogues or seminar spaces. What we write about and where we write holds endless possibilities. What becomes perhaps the pertinent question is whether we hold the desire to believe we need to be proactive and deliver not just via invitation alone, but by our own choice to imprint and contribute to our cultural history because we see it relevant to do so.
Connectivity today comes from the powerful tool of technology that opens up the world of access in an instance. Its potential and reach should be utilized to its fullest to expose classroom education to multiple areas of influences in art schools so that we create a climate that is challenging and charged with ideation. Writing also requires a political awareness if one is to have a definitive position or point of view within any discourse. All critical writings of a contemporary nature have to be plugged into existing realities, and contextualized so that the prevailing argument presents a perspective that is not just mere information alone, but which must reflect the writers awareness of a world view. The practice of writing undertaken must engage with genuine interests. Too often the burden of pedagogic posturing makes for terrible writing. I urge people who desire to write on art to open up their world of reading to include social sciences and liberal arts so that their study of art history has a foundational base. Today educational institutions are having their autonomy overtaken by state dictates on what becomes permissible as free speech. It is therefore imperative that each of us comprehends what our politics is so that we understand the responsibility we have to resist these pressures to conform. But does the writing of young art students hold much political awareness today? I am sometimes in serious doubt of that.
Writing must always reflect the conviction of belief it has been invested with. I have found that writing offers to me a space of invaluable contemplation and reflection vastly different from what I receive from my love of painting. It has led me to the world of some of the most eloquent writers like Maya Angelou, Kamala Das and Toni Morrison. I write as a discipline where in the search to express an instinct I am met with the challenge of finding how to transpose meanings within other worlds outside of my normal comfort zone. I would suggest to those who desire to write on art to write in a language that one is most fluent in. The comfort of ones mother tongue (if that is the language of proficiency) is that it provides a greater freedom for expression and allows one to connect to ones ancestries in ways that are deeply personal, and where colloquial vernaculars infuse their influences into contemporary writing. At the end of the day however the ultimate acid test of good writing is that it must hold credibility and provoke responses that open up more enquiries. The attempt to find our articulation through writing is so that we learn to know ourselves with more clarity by engaging with a wider world of influences. I write because it brings a certain type of honesty to my life that I revel in. How impactful the contribution of my writing maybe, I leave for time to tell.
(seminar paper for CWE -2015)
Hosted by TAKE on art & Latitude 28