Anonymity of loss
Artist Nilima Sheikh's ongoing exhibition in Mumbai is one that is rooted in themes of displacement, memory and loss
Migration, simply put, is relocation to a distant place. People relocate to another city for better opportunities, or to a foreign land in search of a better life. It could be voluntary. It could be forced. But it is displacement nevertheless. Artist Nilima Sheikh is showcasing Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind at the Chemould Prescott Road gallery, an installation consisting of 16 painted scrolls, each almost 7ft long and 3ft wide. Eight panels displayed inside of an octagonal structure, create a partial enclosure, and eight on the outside facade. “My concerns are primarily about losing home. When you move on, you take some material belongings and leave behind others. You take some memories along too. In that sense then, who is not a refugee?" asks Sheikh. Lounge interviewed her just before the exhibit opened for viewing (16 November), freshly returned from documenta 14 at Kassel, Germany. Edited excerpts:
You link what you witnessed in the Gujarat riots to the strife in Kashmir. How has your work evolved with that experience?
The violence and cruelty in Gujarat was not necessarily the only catalyst for my work. Displacement has been my concern for a long time. But when you see things actually happening around you, you realize the fragility of “the sense of belonging" to a place. At the same time, one appreciates and feels fortunate about one’s own support system and feeling protected. You are, therefore, not the victim, but an onlooker. Reacting to just my experience would be too limiting. Kashmir and Punjab, as places and cultures, keep coming back in my work. As a child, I visited Kashmir several times. We would travel on foot to the interiors. The landscape has given me the basis of my visual understanding. It is painful to see that land the way it is today.
Walk us through your experience of illustrating children’s books and painting theatre sets.
Raising my kids gave me an understanding of intimacy. You instinctively encounter the small things like birds and flowers with children. This easily translated into book illustrations. It also led to my fondness and investigation of Indian miniature paintings. Those are traditionally practised by men, and I enjoyed the play of feminine understanding in that idiom. Painting for the sets of theatre gave me two very valuable experiences. First, the concept of collaborative working. An art practice like mine is a very singular activity. But working with scriptwriters, actors, and directors gave me the richness of creating in a collaborative way. Second, the comfort of working on a large scale. Even if I wanted to, I could not have made large-scale work in my then tiny studio. Also, it was immensely gratifying and challenging to work with a moving body. It reinforced my conviction that forms of art do not take away. It is the modernist approach of “purity of form". But the more we blend, the richer it becomes.
A lot of your imagery is derived from folklore of the subcontinent. What is the significance of these in the contemporary context?
I feel these stories are not historic. The songs are sung even today. Sohni was murdered by her sister in-law and Heer’s own mother/family poisoned her. But honour killing is happening even today. What we need to dwell upon is the question—“whose honour?" The girl or the family, the village or the community, or the entire human race? The relevance is very much alive and that is the scary part of it. One would wishfully think that we have progressed to a changed society, but none of this is the past. It is very much a living history…and that is striking. Of course, there is crisis in the outer world and that does make one think and reason. But as a person I need a period of internalization, so I end up focusing on my surroundings. My concerns are migration but layered with this concept of honour and patriarchy. I am not anxious about originality. I use, reuse and interpret what has been done, in our folk narrations, by other artists, or even revisit my own work done in the past. You may find it interesting to know that I often do not even accurately quote poems and text that are used in my paintings. It’s all contextualized.
Doesn’t text in your work limit the viewing experience?
I enjoy works of art that yields on multiple viewings, one that is not entirely revealed instantly. I would like my viewers to see the work up close, and then from a distance, read some text, and see the imagery. I provide them with several options. I often place text on a separate panel. Also, the text is not prescriptive for me. It’s found after completion of the work. So, in a way it’s only an additive and extension. You find your own route and one does not lose much with leaving the understanding of words in my work.
What was it like exhibiting at documenta 14?
Honestly, a delight at the age of 71! These platforms are normally for younger, more cutting-edge artists. This time, the curatorial theme made it more inclusive of what is not necessarily mainstream in the international context. There was a great sense of community, with lots of sharing and bonding. It was special to see my work in the context of art from all over the world.
Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind is on view till 9 December, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. The works will be on display at Delhi’s Gallery Espace from 17 March-14 April.