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A new show explores the versatility of paper

Ten contemporary artists try to push the boundaries of paper as a medium in a new show at Emami Art

Detail from Adip Dutta's work from ‘The Politics of Paper’. Courtesy: Emami Art

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Paper has been used as a medium of creation for centuries now. However, over the years, creative practitioners have employed it in unique ways—as a material, concept, a process and in other forms of intellectual engagement. Now a new show, The Politics of Paper, at Emami Art, Kolkata looks at these different approaches through the works of ten contemporary artists such as Adip Dutta, Anju Dodiya, Atul Dodiya, Jagannath Panda, Jayashree Chakravarty, Mithu Sen, N S Harsha, and more.

Curated by Ushmita Sahu, the show takes into account paper’s intrinsic relationship with our history, culture and politics and seeks to establish a visual context of the expanding boundaries of language and approach. “Paper had consolidated its position as a significant contemporary medium with the purchase it had gained during the 1970s when drawing came into its own as a critical language of art,” mentions the curatorial note, “In a world more and more geared towards the digital, where ‘going paperless’ is becoming a clarion call, paper has by no means lost its value and mark making still retains its intrinsic nature as a vital gestural behaviour.”

Artists across the world continue to be actively engaged in using the material to their own end, making their own paper, using reclaimed paper, or even in sculptures or installations. Worldwide now, there are biennales and specific art fairs dedicated solely to explorations on paper.

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In Indian art, the use of paper has followed a distinct trajectory of its own. According to Sahu, when it was introduced in India in the 12th century, it replaced the earlier palm leaf tradition, this bringing about fundamental changes to the material histories of cultural production and imagining. In the show, artists try to broaden existing frameworks by redefining what they have received from the past.

The Politics of Paper was conceived as a response to a series of events in the last couple of years. The pandemic, in particular, inspired Sahu to embark on a deeper introspection of the material. “During the lockdown in 2020, the artist community, like most others, was homebound, in many cases inhabiting small spaces. Perhaps for the first time, for such a prolonged timespan, there was little or no access to material for expression,” she says. 

Conversations with friends, students, and young artists revealed that they were using paper in this period as a means of expression as it was easily accessible. “Paper is so fragile and yet so long-lasting. This dichotomy made me associate the medium conceptually with the precariousness of the situation back then along with the strength that runs through the fibre of our society. The pandemic also underlined the fact that while in contemporary society we cannot do without digital interventions, the act of human touch remains extremely important,” she adds.

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The artists invited to be part of the show have each had a long-term engagement with the medium. According to Sahu, by trying to connect diverse approaches, the exhibition then becomes a pedagogical site—a network of flexible, indirect, heterogeneous collaborations with multiple entries and exit ways. The Politics of Paper has primarily new works made for the show with two exceptions—N S Harsha’s installation Reclaiming The Inner Space and Atul Dodiya’s Kala Ghoda poem works from 2017. One can also see Jayashree Chakravarty’s back-lit large-scale works made from paper, clay, flowers, roots, tea washes, and a host of other materials. These hauntingly beautiful works raise questions of death and resurrection.

“Adip Dutta’s delicate and meticulous drawings of a city devoid of human presence, objects bound in tarpaulin, empty hawker stands underline deserted empty spaces of a sleeping city, bringing to mind the desolation of a city that simmers under the surface of teeming humanity,” elaborates Sahu. Anju Dodiya’s works are deeply mystical, showing a female figure engulfed in a sheet of paper, while holding a pencil. As the artist says: “Paper is that terrible white that remains the joy and terror of my creative life. It envelopes, invites, chokes, frees, and allows flight.”

Prasanta Sahu’s installation, Harvesting–the untold story, is subversively political with the artist having made hundreds of casts of locally farmed vegetables using tissue paper. He has also interviewed ten farmers, who grow these crops, and has written their names on each of the vegetable casts. “On one hand, it is an ode to the nameless servers of society, but using a delicate material also underlines the fragility of the whole system,” says Sahu, “All works within the show are thought-provoking while the diversity of approach is ultimately an ode to the versatility of paper.”

The exhibition can be viewed at Emami Art till 29 March

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