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How Dante’s Vita Nova inspired an art exhibition

Inspired by the title ‘Vita Nova’, or new life, the exhibition explores connections between contemporary craft and art in Italy and India

‘Into the Metaverse’ by Raghava KK and miniature artists from Jaipur
‘Into the Metaverse’ by Raghava KK and miniature artists from Jaipur

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‘Vita Nova’, the title of  poems by Dante, explored the idea of transformative life. The exhibition at The Italian Embassy Cultural Centre takes this concept further through the works of six artists from India and Italy: Andrea Anastasio, Francesco Simeti, Marta Roberti, Puneet Kaushik, Raghava KK, and Shilo Shiv Suleman. Curated and conceived by Myna Mukherjee and Davide Quadrio, Vita Nova explores transformations, connections and departures in contemporary craft and art. 

Each of the participating artists blurs the distinctions between art and craft as they work with a range of ‘handmade’ techniques such as wood cuts, block prints, embroidery, tapestry, metal forging, blue pottery, bidri, ceramics, clay and even cardboard making. “Together they create a hothouse of new works that expose the conjunctions and disjunctions inherent in these contemporary hybridised artworks. They generate questions about the role of craft in their evolutionary shift to the ‘dematerialized’ and conceptual while retaining their historical and cultural significance,” mentions the curatorial note. In an interview with Lounge, Mukherjee looks at the role of the handcrafted in conceptual art. Edited excerpts:

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In Vita Nova, how have the six artists addressed the theme of a "new life" both in terms of materiality and message?

Each of the artists has engaged with ‘transformation’, both in terms of material and metaphor. Many of the artists have explored the concept of a hybrid new life. Raghava KK’s two-headed tiger is both a sculpture and a musical instrument. Puneet Kaushik’s work could be a canvas or a carpet, or maybe neither. Artists of Vita Nova have thought of contemporary ways of approaching centuries-old traditions. Marta Roberti uses kari embroidery to create tapestries about contemporary mythical creatures personal to her own explorations of gender. Vita Nova, to them, is about being in the present. Like Andrea Anastasio says, “After the pandemic, the relevant thing was realising how deeply we are all interconnected and how life demands a constant tuning into the ever-changing dimension that we call reality.”

The term "conceptual art futures" is interesting. How do artists reference the idea of craft in conceptual art in their works?

The works in Vita Nova highlight the interdependence of ideation and process. They explore the conversion of the immaterial to the tangible through the obsessively hand-made. The artists look at different media through process-inflected approaches, varying from the minimal to the narrative. Take, for instance, Marta Roberti’s smart feminist re-appropriation of canonical art historical works through kari embroidery. Shilo Shiv Suleiman explores identity politics and the complex material expression of personal and cultural narratives. Vita Nova is a peripheral constellation of themes and unites an exciting cross-section of contemporary artists with vested interests in the conceptual valence of objects.

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How do you envisage a conceptual art future?

I think of conceptual art futures as a return to the studio and its material interests in "crafting" the object as a vehicle for the concept. The artists' conceptual approaches to the medium and their interaction with the rich history of craft traditions results in works that are not only conceptually strong, but technically proficient as well.

There are installations to develop sensorial and experiential encounters like Shilo’s Grove or Raghava’s Tipu. The exhibition offered moments of staged consensual voyeurism, inviting the viewer to peer into a series of handmade dioramas. Raghava wanted to bring together two worlds of painting to try and meld them together. As he said, “The art of craftsmanship is dying in India and I wanted to bring it back with the use of technology in this new world through play.”


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