Known to be an innovative artist, who is keen on experimenting with her artistic devices and strategies, Pushpamala N incorporates popular culture symbols into her creations. She adopts popular personas and ironic roles to raise and examine issues related to gender, place and history. The ironic aspect is particularly sharp in her photo-based installations and projections.
The artist launched her career with sculpting, exhibiting interest in narrative figuration. Gradually, she moved to photo and video performance art, casting her own body as different characters and personae. Blending autobiographical notes with surreal aesthetics and dramatics, her works superimpose polyvalent layers of femininity, humor, and guise. Even while transgressing the limitations of mimetic figural representation she has faithfully stuck to the narration of the female form. Her work tends to engage with theories of postcolonial identity coupled with feminist historical gaze.
Pushpamala N, born in 1956 in Bangalore, studied at Bangalore University, and then grasped nuances of Sculpture at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M. S. University, Baroda, where she completed her Bachelors and later her Masters degree. She is the recipient of the National Award (1984); the gold medal at the Sixth New Delhi Triennale (1986); the Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship for residency (1992-93); and the Senior Fellowship, Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development (1995-97).
The artist’s work has been widely exhibited internationally. Among her selective participations are `New Indian Art`, Manchester Art Gallery, UK (2002); `Ways of Resisting`, Sahmat, New Delhi (2002); `Century City` Tate Modern, London, UK (2001); `Moving Ideas` Hoopoe Curatorial, Montreal and Vancouver, Canada (2001); Open Circle International Workshop, Mumbai (2000).
Pushpamala N conceived ‘Paris Autumn’ (2006), an experimental film, during a residency in Paris. Putting her work in a broader context, The New York Times art critic, Holland Cotter, had noted on eve of NY solo debut: “Photography and filmmaking made its way in India immediately after their invention in Europe. This is one reason South Asia has a long history of sophisticated and quality work in both media. Pushpamala N. takes account of that history and makes it her own.”
The four photographic series had links to cinematic conventions of South Asia. ‘Phantom Lady or Kismet’ was a cryptic takeoff on Indian pop films about the exploits of Nadia, an eternal super heroine. The series had a rich, film-noir atmosphere coupled with a surreal, Bollywood-style narrative structure, which could be reshuffled for different showings. She was both chief actor with a charismatic presence and director. Her ‘Phantom Lady or Kismet, a photo romance’ was first presented at Gallery Chemould in 1998.
A photoromance series (2001) at Gallery Chemould followed with another wry and thematic presentation. For ‘Bombay Photo Studio’ (2002-03), she created Triptych, alternately dressing as a Hindu, Muslim and Christian woman. Later, she collaborated with Claire Arni, a British photographer for her series ‘Native Women of South India’ (2005-06) where the duo recaptured existing colonialist, ethnographic and popular images of women, contesting stereotypes as well as the prevalent politics of representing the female body.
Realized through an India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) grant, the concept was explained thus: "Pushpamala N and Clare Arni who has spent most of her life in South India - one black, one white - played the protagonists in a project exploring the history of photography as a tool of ethnographic documentation. Playing with the notions of subject and object, the photographer and the photographed, real and fake, white and black, the baroque excess of the images subverted and overturned each other."
A real, albeit an unconventional film formed the centerpiece of her recent Bose-Pacia solo, entitled ‘Paris Autumn’. It was a kind of ‘cinéma vérité ghost story’. It wasn't a moving picture in the traditional sense; rather a rapid-fire succession of black & white still photos that were arranged in a sequential narrative. As always, the artist played the leading role. She shared the film with other characters, the spirit of the 16th century figure Gabrielle d'Estrées, Henry IV’s beloved mistress, who died, under mysterious circumstances.
Everything in the film was uncertain. The plot wandered, not necessarily a pure fantasy. There were funky touches. And there were stabs of violence with the interspersing of Web images of Parisian ethnic uprisings. The overall pace was suspenseful and dark, but a happy ending - a cast party in progress - put the film-as-fiction question into a proper perspective. Or did it?
This was very much in keeping with her art practice that never quite resolve the mysteries posed as the probably do not want to. Applauding her work, art critic Holland Cotter noted: “If the results are a little disheveled, they also mark another promising step in an extremely interesting career.”