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Indian Ceramics Triennale: Artists reimagine working with clay

At the Indian Ceramics Triennale in Delhi, artists bring together ceramics with other disciplines

Works by Hayley Coulthard and Rona Rubuntja of Hermannsburg Potters. All images: courtesy Indian Ceramics Triennale
Works by Hayley Coulthard and Rona Rubuntja of Hermannsburg Potters. All images: courtesy Indian Ceramics Triennale

Can Delhi’s smog be used to create objet d’art? Apparently, it can. Dutch designers Iris de Kievith and Annemarie Piscaer from the design studio Lab AIR have found a novel way to harvest fine dust and use it to glaze their ceramics—and you can see it at the second Indian Ceramics Triennale (ICT) in New Delhi.

In 2018, Piscaer and de Kieveth started Smogware, an international and participative project, to raise awareness about air pollution. By incorporating Delhi’s dust into everyday tableware, Lab AIR together with Cascoland, an Amsterdam-based international network of designers, visual artists and performers hope to visually demonstrate the impact of air quality to local audiences. Their project, along with a conversation on pollution, is part of the ongoing ICT, titled Common Ground.

The inaugural edition of the triennale, Breaking Ground, was held in 2018 in Jaipur. The pandemic threw a spanner in the works and the second edition had to be deferred. It is now being staged at Delhi’s newest cultural centre, Arthshila, till 31 March. Over the duration of two months, the triennale will feature 34 projects by over 60 Indian and international artists from 12 countries. “In the five years between the two editions, we have seen the medium grow and become recognised for the tremendous possibilities it affords us as artists,” says Anjani Khanna, one of the artist-curators.

Conceptualised in 2016, the ICT is led by a volunteer-based organisation. Apart from Khanna, it is helmed by ceramicists Madhvi Subrahmanian, Neha Kudchadkar, Reyaz Badaruddin, Sharbani Das Gupta, and Vineet Kacker. In this edition, the team has been expanded to include curator Kanika Anand and artist Sangeeta Kapila. Its objective is to showcase the sheer diversity of ceramic practices in India and bring them into conversation with international practitioners.

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Asish Chowdhury, an artist from Kolkata
Asish Chowdhury, an artist from Kolkata

In their note, the curators elaborate on the title of the show: “Common Ground proposes to explore the ground—metaphorically and literally—on which we meet. The ground we walk on is uneven. We are separated by privilege, politics, motivation, experience and access to knowledge, yet we remain bound by a common humanity; a common heritage and a co-dependant future.”

To choose the artists for this edition, an open call went out in January 2023. The curatorial committee went through 362 applications from 52 countries.

Explaining their choice of artists, Subrahmanian says, “We were interested in opening up the conversations between material and maker, and the artist and viewer. So, experiential and experimental works outside the commercial space, which challenged the status quo, were very exciting.”

Kacker concurs and adds, “At one point pushing boundaries in ceramics used to be mostly a technical thing—how large can you make it; how technically proficient are you with glazes. For the triennale, the definition of pushing boundaries could be—can you use the materiality to transcend the materiality? Can you reimagine ways of working with clay?”

The answer appears to be a resounding “yes” with a varied set of practices on display. Thanks to its versatility, there is a tremendous cross-pollination of ceramics and clay with several other materials and mediums. This can be observed in the works of Indian artists Parag Tandel, Dhruvi Acharya, Awdhesh Tamrakar, and designers such as Ankon Mitra.

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Work-in-progress by Kushala Vora
Work-in-progress by Kushala Vora

Participating in this edition of the trienniale is the South Korean multi-disciplinary artist and sculptor Yee Soo-kyun. Best known for her Translated Vase series, she utilises the broken fragments of priceless Korean ceramics to form new sculptures.

Russian ceramicist Yulia Repina, on the other hand, collaborates with a team of techies to merge porcelain sculptures with virtual reality. In her immersive installation, Self Portrait Fears, she confronts her multiple fears, expressing these via intentional cracks in the porcelain and bleeding red pigment, while the virtual space transforms her angst dynamically.

From the Western Arrarnta community in Australia are the Hermannsburg Potters, a collective of senior women artists whose work is anchored in their cultural beliefs and traditions. Using brightly coloured, hand-coiled and hand-painted terracotta pots, fashioned from local clay, they tell stories of their daily life, the local wildlife and their surroundings. For the ICT, Hayley Coulthard and Rona Rubuntja’s project, Nhanha Arna-Urrknga Nurnaka Pmara-rinya rinya (This Clay Belongs To Our Country), is an enriching exploration of their traditional lands.

Storytelling also comes to the fore in the works by Canadian ceramic artist Heidi McKenzie, who explores history and identity in Girmitya Her Stories. Informed by her mixed-race heritage, she unearths the untold stories of indentureship from 1838 to 1917. In her ceramic installation with an audio-visual component, she captures the narratives of 10 Indo-Caribbean Canadian women, holding portraits of their female ancestors. It weaves together contemporary and archival images, fired on to porcelain tiles, creating a compelling narrative of their journey from India to the Caribbean and finally to Canada.

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When asked what to look out for in the triennale, Kacker says, “Some of my favourite projects look at areas between the material and the ephemeral, between being and non-being, such as the work of Efrat Eyal (from Israel) and Kate Roberts (US).” Eyal’s installation, Attendance Check, represents absence within existence. An in-site wall installation, it consists of a partially missing grid of handmade ceramic pieces and fragments of objects.

Roberts, on the other hand, explores ephemerality in her works. “I draw, construct, and weave using materials to depict fleeting, fragile moments and to examine the temporary physicality of an object or idea,” she says.

For Subrahmanian, several participatory works are also noteworthy as they fuel conversation between the artist and the audience. Apart from Smogware, she points to Indian artist Astha Butail, who is showing an interactive work “that opens up the conversation on loss of tradition through the concept of porosity.”

The interdisciplinarity of the festival became apparent during the opening evening, which saw a performative work, Play With Me, by ceramics artist Roy Maayan and performance artist Erez Maayan from Israel. The brothers played catch with ceramics balls. Every 100 throws were marked with a broken ball underscoring the playfulness and fragility of the siblings’ relationship.

Also earmarked for the opening was Sequenced Ceramics by Copper Sounds. An artist duo from the UK, Copper Sounds use traditional and contemporary processes to explore the physical and visual nature of sound. For them sound is a malleable material and they design and make sonic objects, which they play live. Sequenced Ceramics is an immersive ceramic sound installation inspired by traditional bells, singing bowls and sculptural clay instruments such as the ghatam.

The triennale also features participatory performances, curator-led exhibition walks, films and talks on topics as varied as the digital transmission of knowledge, Australian ceramics, and contemporary Korean ceramics. There are several collateral ceramic exhibitions that accompany the main event.

The triennial is an ode to the sheer versatility of ceramics and goes a long way in challenging perceptions of the medium. It offers a unique opportunity to experience how practitioners are breaking conventional moulds and treading new terrain.

Common Ground is being held till 31 March at Arthshila, Delhi

Meera Menezes is a Delhi-based art writer.

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