New Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery’s (VAG) latest online show, Fresh, is driven by two complementary ideas. “We thought it was especially important during these challenging times to support the work of emerging artists,” says Roshini Vadehra, director of VAG, on email. “The gallery is also giving a percentage of sales to covid-19 relief work.”
The two artists featured, Jasmine Nilani Joseph and Treibor Mawlong, live up to the title of the show, with their stark, black-and-white but strikingly original work. Thirty-year-old Joseph, a Sri Lankan national who was a refugee from the country’s devastating civil war, explores the idea of home in her delicate ink-on-paper drawings, titled Mobile Studio, many of which feature fences.
“I am drawn to these structures because of my experience of living in refugee camps,” Joseph says on the phone from Jaffna, where she is currently based. Her drawings are meticulous, like fine blueprints sketched by an architect, where fragments of buildings, broken walls, wrought iron gates and other fortifications come together to create a haunting synergy. Nothing is stable in this world. The walls are engulfed by the earth, trees are uprooted and left floating on the soil, and the homes look emptied, desolate, unhomely.
The precision of Joseph’s style is reminiscent of the Old Masters, an influence the artist confirms by admitting her love for Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings. At art college, she was dissatisfied with her draughtsmanship, Joseph says. “I felt I needed to bring more soul to it.” And so, in the evenings, she began to frequent the library, where she pored over books on Da Vinci. “I loved his scientific and anatomical drawings,” Joseph says. “I watched several films on his life, too.”
Joseph especially was drawn to Da Vinci’s keen attention to detail—to the fact that he spent hours even studying corpses to figure out the intricate design of the human body. In her own practice, she imbibes a similar sense of immersion in the forms she depicts. “I have used a white dove’s feather, and make-up and mascara brushes to create the effect I am looking for,” Joseph says. “I enjoy the meditative slowness of the process of drawing.”
Just before the outbreak of the pandemic, Joseph was at the prestigious Pepper House residency in Kochi, India. On her return to Sri Lanka, she found herself confined to her home, cut off from her studio, and lacking the privacy she is used to. “I am the kind of person who is always moving from place to place,” she says.
The months of enforced isolation made Joseph reflect on her practice, and especially on her sense of space. And so, she decided to document all the places she has ever lived in and left behind in the last 10 years. “The idea pushed me into experimenting with moving images,” she says, explaining the animated drawings that change, appear and disappear, like waves of memories that wash up on the shores of the consciousness, before they recede. “I call this work Mobile Studio because the studio, for me, is like a vehicle. It’s always moving,” Joseph says.
Mawlong, 33, is temperamentally quite the opposite of Joseph—he prefers to stay still in one place. His intricate woodcuts, titled Somewhere, Elsewhere, Here, are inspired by the scenes of daily life in Mawbri, Meghalaya, where he lives. The themes of his work may be rooted to the regional and local nuances, but his style carries an unmistakable stamp of international sophistication. The thickly textured surfaces bring to mind the richness and depth of German Expressionism, especially of the woodcuts by Käthe Kollwitz.
Having studied at Kala Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, in Santiniketan, Mawlong has evidently absorbed the rich technical expertise of the illustrious tradition of printmaking that is part of the Bengal School, with artists like Nandalal Bose at its helm. “I keep a diary of images like a writer keeps a journal,” he says on the phone. “I sketch the lives of working class people around me, trying to capture the drama within the frame.” Some of his paintings have words inscribed on them, like panels from a graphic novel, signalling his affinity with narrative.
Living in a remote area, with poor transport links and a dwindling economy, Mawlong observes a great deal of hardship from close quarters. But he also notes tremendous fortitude. Some of his figures, like that of a guard sitting alone, may appear ordinary, until you notice the ghostly shadows hovering around him.
Then there are scenes of hopelessness, such as in The Return, in which a woman and a child huddle together outside a house emptied of all its belongings, the skeletal frame of the building left behind. Patience shows a man seated on the bank of a river, in inclement weather and pouring rain, his face downcast.
“I have been to residencies, lived and worked in big cities, but have never felt the sense of connection I do here,” says Mawlong, referring to his hometown. “My work is about connecting to the people around me.” The evidence of this deep, almost spiritual, bond is palpable in each of the scenarios he captures.
Perhaps it’s not ideal for an emerging and promising young artist to be cut off from the urban centres of art in the country, but Mawlong remains sanguine. “Galleries inquire about my work from time to time,” he says. If he makes a sale, the money goes some way to help out the community. For the moment, at least, his belief in his ability to sustain his career, without having to leave behind his beloved land, doesn’t sound misplaced.
“Fresh has had wonderful responses from collectors, who are happy to see new work by young artists at very reasonable prices—in this case, all works of the artists are under ₹50,000,” Vadehra says.
Fresh is on till 15 January 2021.