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Making the invisible, visible

At Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Bharti Kher and Prajakta Potnis' art challenges social constructs of gender and caste

‘Six Women’ (2013-15) by Bharti Kher. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli/Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
‘Six Women’ (2013-15) by Bharti Kher. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli/Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

For the past month or so, a 16m wall at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in Germany has been serving as a canvas for artist Prajakta Potnis. Using threadwork, she has transformed it into a membrane of sorts that separates the physical from the metaphysical. At the same exhibition, Facing India, another established artist, Bharti Kher, has built a room of glass bricks made from 10 tonnes of melted bangles, where the silence engulfing the viewer is so absolute that it almost shouts out as the muted voice of countless women. The work is called The Deaf Room.

Facing India is showcasing the work of six Indian female artists together: Potnis, Kher, Vibha Galhotra, Tejal Shah, Reena Saini Kallat and Mithu Sen. It looks at how such artists are using their voice to comment on society.

While Galhotra’s works revolve around the question of what it means to work as a visual artist in the Anthropocene, Kallat explores borders—physical and psychological—through Woven Chronicle, a map of the world composed of electrical cables, which traces global migration routes. Sen, on the other hand, looks at dissolving every possible border through the hybrid figures that form part of Museum Of Unbelongings, in which she has chosen the prefix “un" to negate stereotypes and taboos between sexes and castes. Shah, too, questions socially construed gender roles through works such as I Am, a portrait gallery of Indian women, whose understanding of themselves doesn’t correspond with orthodox notions of female identity.

But at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, both Kher and Potnis have transformed seemingly innocuous objects into works of art. Material which is so integral to our “everyday"—bangles, pressure cooker whistles, thread-and-needle—has been re-contextualized to make the “invisible" in our lives visible, and express all that remains unsaid.

‘The Deaf Room’ (2002) by Bharti Kher. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli/Courtesy the artist and Parasol unit
‘The Deaf Room’ (2002) by Bharti Kher. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli/Courtesy the artist and Parasol unit

In The Deaf Room, for instance, Kher draws on the memory of an image of a burnt house, where a broken bangle could be seen as the sole witness to the violence of the Gujarat riots. “The Deaf Room is about a different type of stillness," says Kher. “You go inside to be greeted with the opacity of the amber-hued glass. It is a metaphorical space where no sound is left any more of the women who used to inhabit the place."

Meanwhile, Potnis starts her investigation with kitchen boundaries. Using refrigerators, pressure cooker valves and miniature escalators, she then excavates the conflict between tradition and technology, which is consumed on a daily basis. “It’s interesting to see the multiple layers of meaning emerge from a domestic space of a kitchen," she says.

“It is where issues of caste, gender and class are also grappled with on a daily basis. For instance, even today in Mumbai, one comes across superstitious and conservative norms. In certain homes, women are not allowed into the kitchen when they are menstruating," says Potnis. She questions these dualities through the Capsule series. Some of these photo works are shot within the shelves of refrigerators, which serve as a cold environment to play out dialogue, ranging from gender inequality to state surveillance.

At a time when the societal structure of India is changing rapidly, one which is grappling with the past and the present, using objects from our everyday surroundings becomes a powerful way of interpreting these transformations. It’s almost as if both Kher and Potnis are looking at the skin memories of these materials and observing the effects of everything that grows invisibly in our society. In Six Women, for instance, Kher looks at the tactility of plaster and the way it permeates the skin. The plaster casts, featuring six sex workers from Sonagachi, goes beyond just the material and reflects the essence of these women, their memories, through the pores. It represents the vulnerability of the ageing female body.

A digital print work from the series ‘Capsule’ by Prajakta Potnis. Photo courtesy: The artist

Potnis, too, looks at walls as skin through her installation, Sewing. She has used a thread and needle to create the illusion of cracks and patterns on a wall at the museum. The idea stems from her fascination with walls in middle-class homes in India—with their role as organic separators of people and ideologies. “Around 2012, I had this impracticable need to stitch or sew a wall. With a simple thread, was it possible to penetrate or cross over its hard surface? Can this be an act of resistance?" Potnis asked herself before embarking on the project. “Through materials such as the thread and needle, I was also alluding to the idea of healing something that is broken," she says.

Art critic John Berger once said in his seminal book, Ways Of Seeing, that men act and women appear. “Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves." However, in this rare exhibition, one gets to see the female gaze of her surroundings—a feminine perspective on the state, society, and individual.

Facing India is on till 7 October.

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