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A new show that explores ideas of the untold and discarded

In his new solo, Rahul Kumar uses clay in innovative ways to test the boundaries of form

'Assemblage 1', stoneware clay, ceramic pigments, 2023; courtesy: Exhibit 320/the artist
'Assemblage 1', stoneware clay, ceramic pigments, 2023; courtesy: Exhibit 320/the artist

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One of the most striking visuals at Exhibit 320—a contemporary art gallery in New Delhi—is a procession of squiggles and alphabets. Punctuated by parentheses and commas here and there, this array invites the viewers to make sense of the gibberish in their own way. In another part of the gallery, black and white stoneware is stacked together, almost like findings from an archaeological site. These works are part of ceramic artist Rahul Kumar’s new solo, ‘The Untold Resides Somewhere: Assembling Fragments’, which is on view till 28 April. 

“Rahul plays out new configurations of space and form, taking our focus in and out of stacks, piles and grids, and to heaps of letters un-read, partially burnt or shredded, closed and concealed. Clay here is treated like a piece of paper, with edges often left unfinished; sometimes pierced or wounded,” writes Roobina Karode of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in her essay about the show. I, for one, find the title of the show rather intriguing. Kumar, who is also a Lounge contributor, has explored the idea of the untold and the discarded in this new series of works. What does it mean to preserve the broken—shards that legitimately belong to the trash can or torn pages of a letter never posted? 

“Can a part represent the whole? What happens when the expression is incomprehensible—either because the text is gibberish or hidden behind a veil? This also has reference to my parallel role of a writer/journalist, where the written word has to have specific meaning, devoid of any ambiguity. And so, this urge of using ‘script’ and yet not express was liberating,” elaborates Kumar. He describes his practice as experimental, in which things grow organically. Often a form appears, accidents happen, and then he sits back to make sense of them. 

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In the past, materiality and colour were integral to his practice. There was a phase when one would see multiple ceramic spheres in vivid colours and textures. It felt as if he was playing with clay, textures and sheen to test their possibilities. However, now, their application seems more controlled and evolved, with clay and colour becoming mere tools to articulate a concept. “Like most, I too was trained as a studio potter. To make a perfect bowl or a pitcher that poured well was most important to me. This experience was incredibly significant to understand the complexity of the medium—preparing the clay and glazes,” he explains. 

However, once he was able to make the perfect pots, Kumar found the experience limiting. He felt that anyone with the skill could do the same. So, he began to alter the perfect forms. It was his earliest way to leave his mark. “The master's degree from the US, which I earned as a Fulbright Scholar, equipped me to tell stories through my work. The last major work in which I used the vessel form was in 2015 and was called ‘Circle Uncircled’,” recalls Kumar. 

That was created through a grant from India Foundation for the Arts and was showcased at the India Art Fair as a special curated project in 2015, later acquired by the KNMA. “That installation demanded colour and a reflective surface. However, the current work needed earthy tones, rawness of clay, and focus on the form. As such, they are sparingly glazed, that too in white and black, but for most parts clay is left naked. My practice still has clay at the core of it, but I am really using it as a painter uses paint. I have used clay on paper, something that is very unusual. I employ other media like welded iron (not in this show) and cast paper when needed. I hope I am still ‘playful’, but meaning-making has become more important,” he adds.

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