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The chaos of life in Vinita Karim's landscapes

Vinita Karim's new body of work uses natural minerals as pigment and finds in rivers a metaphor for the fluid nature of life

Where do I begin, embroidery on Dhaka muslin, stitched on linen

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Dhaka-based Vinita Karim paints imaginary landscapes that straddle her lived experiences, dotted in her memory. In her ongoing solo presentation, she is showcasing a new body of work where she has used natural minerals as pigment. “It contains my memories of the Sunderbans as well as the Andaman Islands. The images mimic a birds-eye view of rivers and land masses meshed together in harmony”, says Karim. She would gaze down from an airplane with fascination of the strips of lands and fields in shades of green and ochre, creating mesmerising patterns. Karim paints with bursts of colours on the canvas, without any prior sketches. Gradually, details are intuitively added and images begin to appear, she explains, “…it could be a ship or a sail or a city, I paint instinctively”. Often the use unusual colours and patterns echo the chaos that she says is a part of life. 

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Her fascination for Varanasi emerged from an artist camp in the city. “A cultural art camp included artists, classical musicians and dancers from Nepal, Bangladesh, and India were part of it. Boat trips on the Ganges provided for a unique visual of the holy city. “It is said to be the oldest living city on earth, where both life and death are celebrated. Since then, I have painted Varanasi to capture the essence of the place without being too realistic. It is more of my personal interpretation and I attempt to evoke my emotions through my art”. 

For Karim, rivers are a metaphor for the fluid nature of life itself. She says that all great civilizations sprung up on the banks of a river. Responding to the presence of waterbodies in most of her work, Karim says, “I feel at peace when I am near a water body. I am blessed to live next to a lake, and admire the water turning from grey to blue, silver to gold as the sun rises and sets. This play of light and colours is enchanting”. Being a colourist at heart, she uses them freely. Her paintings are dense and layered. Describing her process, she explains, “My work is composed of several layers. On top of the initial layer of colours, I apply layers of textures, with fabric, with blocks, with lines drawn by credit cards which have expired! In recent years, I have added swathes of embroideries in my work”. 

The minute patterns that appear through the various layers adds an element of discovery for the viewer. Evoking a sense of density and chaos, the saturated yet celebratory colours are interrupted with broken lines and scratches. Calling these ‘imperfections’, Karim says that her art contains disparate elements which are connected together in a composition. The many different elements offer an interesting challenge; for her as the artist to create a cohesive whole, and for the viewer in experiencing the presentation. 

Karim credits the opportunity of collaborating with local artisans to the curator of Dhaka Art Summit. “In the second edition of the summit, the curator asked me include an inherent local quality to be embedded in my art. Dhaka muslin came to mind for its rich history and decided using it in my work”, she says. Embroidered threads juxtaposed with paint created new dimension, and ten years on, this intervention has developed into a unique collaborative synergy. 

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Karim introduced sculptural works in the current exhibit. She incorporates found objects as her ‘canvas’ to paint on. “They are already ‘made’ and they carry a certain history. These objects are connected to a particular geography too, making them ambassadors of a certain time and place”, she adds. Once she is drawn to an object, she begins to imagine how it could be appropriated. In this exhibition, Karim uses two objects, one of them is a pair of 80-year-old sarangis from Gujarat, that Karim found at an antique store in Chandni Chowk, Delhi. “I thought about the unknown man who would have played it in his village. I imagined how perhaps children would have danced to its tunes. I noticed the beautiful carved patterns, thinking of the hands that created it”, she says. 

Titled ‘Silent Melody’, Karim sparingly worked on the wooden pieces as an ode to the musicians. Another object she used is a tall slim metal vase. Karim confesses to dislike ephemerality in her work. “I guess I have internalized the idea of longevity after living in Egypt for six years and being exposed to Egyptian history with sarcophagus with over 3,000-years-old mummies”, she adds. Karim says she thought of a vessel which would capture the song of the fisherman who went to the river every day to hear the sound of the waves and to feel the strength of the mighty river which provided him with his livelihood. She painted flowing rivers and boats and titled it ‘River Song’.

The Woven Image, presented by Gallery Nvya, is on view at the Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi between 11am to 7pm, till October 19, 2022.

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