Sahil Naik, in his sculptural works, is known for extracting patterns from histories of colonisation and Modern nation-building. For instance, as part of his third solo, Spectres, Specimens and Ships in Doubt, held at Experimenter, Ballygunge Place, till 10 January this year, he looked at four major events: the Portuguese fleet laying eyes on the flaming forests of Gulmohar in the Madagascar; a rhinoceros travelling from Goa to Europe as a gift in 1515 by Alphonso Alburquerue, governor of then-Portuguese India, for the Pope; soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin reaching outer space in 1961; and the mysterious fire that engulfed the National Museum of Natural History in 2016. In his paintings and sculptures for the show, through a range of objects in circulation across time and sites, “he challenged majoritarian, state-prescribed knowledge with the possibilities of stories and song, rumours and remakes,” states the gallery note. The works took on hues of mystical and magical as Naik created fantastical works drawing on threads from these four events.
In an interview with Lounge, Naik elaborates on how elements of history play a huge role in his work, and how these are conceptualised within his studio.
The world has shifted immensely over this past decade. We are increasingly encountering how both myth and the Internet are being actively used to change the world as we know it. These new-ancient histories are still being written by positions of powers, and continue to marginalise sections of society. Having grown up in rural Goa, stories and beliefs were a large part of our growing up years. They were not prescriptive, but generative, and grounded in nature. These stories of migration, relationship with the land, healing and the ocean sat outside the constructs of the so-called civil society or religion. I started to think about what would happen if we produce a collision between these state-prescribed histories and the stories we have inherited. I started to notice oppressive patterns between colonialism and the project of non-alignment. There were two ways to tackle this—through speculative pasts or possible futures. I chose both.
My studio in Goa has seen my practice evolve. I have days of just drawing and thinking, for the most part. English is not my first language, so writing and then translating that takes time. I also have the tendency to create and recreate out of dissatisfaction with the earlier result. That takes time. Some moments are lost in coming to terms with the aesthetics. Is the image overpowering the story–these are some of the questions I ask. And then there are months of concentrated creativity. In between all this, somewhere the form and story come along. These don’t necessarily always sit very well, and there is friction, but I enjoy that too.
There is usually a lot of frenetic energy as I like to work on multiple things at the same time. I move between materials, taking a break in between, and then returning to work. My studio is also a space I share with other artists, and we work collectively on each other’s projects and processes. So there is a lot of co-learning, unlearning and sharing. There is also room for error. A lot of thinking happens outside the studio as well, travelling to sites and living with the communities there, and absorbing stories. That is how the video essay of Karkadann of Land and the work around Curdi village in Goa happened.
While I am primarily a sculptor, all these other forms and mediums have come very organically to the works. For example, during my research visits to the colonial natural history museums, I came across a variety of dioramas. These were meticulously painted by artists whose identity/imprint survives only in the form of his/her initials at best. I tried to trace them but with no luck. It started with looking at the documentation of dioramas from the gutted National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi, and I began to connect dots between dioramas in other regional museums. I wanted to pay homage to these unknown men and women. These landscapes were also not always accurate, but exaggerated, and sometimes imagined, setting them apart from the colonial museological practices. The museum also had a small, basic section around outer space, which was fascinating to me. While I was researching the non-aligned movement, I came across the trips that Yuri Gagarin made across the Global South after his journey into space. These parades were essentially propaganda tools to peddle space dreams among young children. The works in the exhibition are an inventory and acknowledgment of these politics.
I studied painting in my graduate programme, and have returned to it these past three years. I just felt the need to return to two-dimensional surfaces. I think it also emerged with my research and work with Curdi in Goa, where I felt the extensive need to document the landscape as it was changing with time and water. The use of gouache in this exhibition is a nod to the Soviet era, especially in the space stamps that were issued. Ceramic tiles carry a little bit of Goa in them and also a little bit of architectural modernism. In Indo-Portuguese houses, the mosaic emerges as a form of beauty and embellishment. The mosaic was used also in post-Independence India to beautify and soften the bare, hard, concrete surfaces of architecture. So that’s what triggered the association.
At the studio, these works emerged simultaneously, and one was constantly drawing connections and links between them. I am very interested in speculative fiction, conspiracy theories and chance encounters. There is always a clue in the waiting or a detail that needs to be made apparent.