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Artists respond to the pandemic through printmaking

New exhibitions such as ‘Living A Dark Night’ are bringing back the original role of printmaking, which is to register human anguish

Detail from Nandini Bagla Chirimar's ‘Within Four Walls’. Courtesy: Gallery Espace

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Printing involves mark-making through impression of a secondary surface, referred to as a plate or a block. Historically, this method was employed in hammered coinage and seals on clay tablets, and later in printing on cloth. But more recently, printing on paper became the mode for mass production of documents for easy circulation. Extending into visual arts, prints became a way to make multiples of a single work, allowing to make art more accessible. In context of Indian modern and contemporary practices, printmaking gained popularity in 1920s. With the establishment of Kala Bhavan in 1919, and an earlier organisation—the Bichitra Club—, new styles of printmaking were explored. However, over time, several factors led to printmaking being passed over by artists in favour of other mediums.

Gallery Espace in collaboration with The Kala Chaupal Trust has now launched an exhibition titled ‘Living A Dark Night’ to take a closer look at this medium. The works on display comprise black and white relief prints by numerous artists such as Ananda Moy Banerjee, Nandini Chirmar, Susanta Pal, and Sabeena Dewan, who have responded to the covid-19 pandemic and the existential crisis accompanying it. The project, curated by Paula Sengupta began as an open call to harken back to the original role of printmaking—‘to register human anguish’. Avni Bansal’s work, titled Even the Dead went Unseen, is made using the Linocut technique. It eloquently responds to the catastrophe of the pandemic. The escalated death rate during the second wave became a logistical nightmare even to cremate the dead bodies, forcing a complete loss of identity of the diseased. For Bansal, they all looked the same, just a mere lump of mass wrapped in poly bags, buried in landfills—adding a layer of irony for those who follow cremation over burial. And she has evoked this feeling in her work.

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According to Sengupta, the medium of printmaking is intrinsically a democratic and not ‘high art’. However, several reasons led to it being relegated to the third rung, much below painting and sculpture, in the Modernist era. “Printmaking is a European import to India. Its beginnings lie in industry, rather than in fine art. While printmaking had been a fine art in Europe since the medieval era, artistic printmaking did not emerge in India until the early 20th century. And artists spent decades grappling to master a medium that was hitherto applied only in an industrial process,” explains Sengupta. 

Non-existent infrastructure and lack of basic materials took focus away from the conceptual development of practices. Further, the idea of editions was not contextualised among art collectors. “Print is an original work of art that exists in an edition, and thereby each edition print is lower-priced…is simply not a concept that is understood even today. It was simply shunned by galleries and consumers as a work of art that is not ‘unique’,” she adds.

'Self Portrait' by Shivangi Ladha. Courtesy: Anant Art Gallery and the artist 
'Self Portrait' by Shivangi Ladha. Courtesy: Anant Art Gallery and the artist 

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Amal Allana, director of Art Heritage, a gallery that has extensively shown print works of modernists and contemporary artists, rejects the idea of prints being exact copies of the original. “There could be a slight variation in colour, or the amount of the ink used, or the pressure the artist exerts on the press. So, there could be either a marked or a nuanced difference from one print edition to the next” says Allana about each print edition being unique in its own right.

Contemporary artist Waswo X Waswo has a keen interest in contemporary print making, both by ways of practice and building a significant personal collection. He feels that printmakers often think that people do not understand printmaking, but that is not so true. “I think most collectors understand the processes, but fear the editions. I wish printmakers would be less obsessed with trying to get the public to understand their process, but focus on their concepts and compositions,” he says.

However, with exhibitions such as Living a Dark Night, there is a renewed interest within the art ecosystem towards accepting and celebrating this medium. According to Sengupta, artists have realised that printmaking, like all other mediums, is a means to achieve an end, and can be used for its aesthetic and conceptual possibilities. “Even editions can been made to work to conceptual advantage, rather than as a detriment,” she says. Many of the boundaries that defined the medium are now being broken. And Allana feels the digital age has only helped the cause for hand printing. “I think people today have begun to appreciate the fact and have begun to see that a ‘print’ is, in fact, an original. This understanding has increased as we have entered the digital age when exact copies are possible,” she says.

Shivangi Ladha, a 31-year-old Mumbai-based printmaker, currently on a residency in Spain, believes that artists themselves are the biggest game changers. “In the past five years the printmaking scene in India has blossomed dramatically. There are artist-led printmaking studios such as Art Buzz, IndiaPrintmaker House, and The Pulp Society ,which did not exist before. For an independent artist to have a printing setup can be expensive, hence the need for shared infrastructure of studios,” says Ladha. The studios have also become a catalyst for dialogue between artists, curators, gallerists, and collectors. It is an inclusive space that inspires critique and collaboration. The studios educate about the medium of printmaking by organising workshops, presentations, and exhibitions. This leads to the more awareness about the medium, hence more acceptance.

Sengupta feels that artists are excited by technology and will take this medium further. Take, for instance, Archana Hande, who has turned digital technology to advantage, bringing it together with traditional printmaking to make large-scale installation works and animation films. works. All is fair in magic white is a 2009-animation work where Hande used textile block-printing technique to create an immersive experience. The technique itself is age old but is now being used in digitised format for industrial production of fabric. The video animation work is a commentary on economic migration and displacement. 

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Allana states that practices of Tejswani Sonawane, who projects a moving image on a woodcut image printed on fabric to create a three-dimensional installations, and of Kavita Jaiswal, who combines her abstract prints with photographs to shoot them on video, are innovative uses of the genre. Ladha herself used printmaking in artist books, on textile, interactive installations, and printed directly on the walls. “I like my prints to be free and unrestricted,” she says.

Living A Dark Night is on till 24 March at Gallery Espace, New Delhi

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