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Artist Profile2
Tracing the fragile edges of a woman’s world
Sonia Mehra Chawla's works encapsulate and inculcate the ever-fluid essence of the organic. The ambiguous, hybrid forms often suggest the generative and the sensuous. The artist employs diverse mediums to focus on the purging of biodiversity, biomorphic patterning, often relating the urban with the organic in complex layering.

The mixed media artist has developed a style uniquely her own combining print making techniques, photographic references and painting using acrylic paints, oils and inks. Born in 1977, Kolkata, West Bengal she completed her BFA and MFA in Painting from College of Art, New Delhi in 2001 and 2004 respectively. She has worked extensively in etching and lithography - first under eminent Indian printmaker Anupam Sud and then at Atelier 2221, Print and Edition studio.

A Gold Medalist (MFA) from College of Art and University of Delhi (2004), she was one of the youngest recipients of the National Award in Painting from the Lalit Kala Akademi in 2005, apart from Ravi Jain Memorial Fellowship Award courtesy Dhoomimal Gallery, Delhi (2003); and National Finalist, Nokia Asia-Pacific Arts Award in 2000. Some of her residency/studio based programs are 'Identity and Masquerade', studio-based practice at Tate Modern, London, 'Khirkee Ki Khoj', a studio based project at Khoj Artists Organization, and a year-long residency and at Atelier 2221.

Among her recent exhibitions are ‘Urban Biomorphic’, Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, Delhi; ‘The Second Sex: India’, Woman artist exhibition, 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong kong; ‘The Way We Are’, Viart Gallery, Delhi; SH Contemporary 08’, Shanghai; ‘Emerging Directions’ by Apparao Galleries, Gorbio, France; ‘Beyond Boundaries’, The Gallery In Cork Street, Mayfair, London; ‘Live Wire’, Visual Arts Centre, Hong Kong; ‘World One Minutes’, Today Art Museum, Beijing; ‘Art Dubai’ (all in 2008); ‘Identity and Masquerade’, The Photographers Gallery, London (2006-2007);‘India-Asia: Changing Paradigms’, Cologne, Germany (2005); ‘Path/ Progression/ Digressions’, Air Gallery, London (2005);‘Moving Image’ courtesy Royal Netherlands Embassy (2004); ‘Carry on Drawing’, Serpentine Gallery, London (2004); 47th National Exhibition of Art, LKA; AIFACS Platinum Jubilee show, Delhi (2003).

The artist’s works were part of the recent significant group show ‘India Awakens: Under The Banyan Tree' at Sammlung Essl-Museum der Gegenwart' (Essl Collection) in Vienna, Austria that featured several leading contemporary artists in order to reflect the variety of their forms and themes. Her thought-provoking works recently exhibited at Beck & Eggeling was a highly personal meditation on the passage of nature’s cycle and the temporal flow of the cycle of birth and regeneration. The images, at once generative and sensuous, macabre and degenerate, opulent and awe-inspiring, carried within them the vitality of the living, and the vulnerability of decay. Incidentally, her suite of works was acquired in 2010 for the Essl Museum’s permanent collection by Prof. Karlheinz Essl. ‘Metamorphosing Female’ courtesy Beck & Eggeling was her first solo show in Germany. Her works were first exhibited at the venue in a group show, entitled ‘Indian Style: five emerging Indian contemporary artists’ in 2009.

The recent showcase by her brings out the crux of her art processes and philosophy. ‘Emergence-Transfiguration’, for instance, urges the audience to believe that while the woman in peacefully tending to her plants she is being ‘fertile’ in both senses of the word and as she nurtures and nourishes the plant so also she does the child to be. The protagonists are inward looking, their gaze focused on their own being not ‘their-being-as-that-which-is formed-only-in relation-to-the-others-gaze, notes art critic Deeksha Nath in an essay.

‘As if from a lake, I surface for air, mirrors and ripples embracing me through layers of sleep. I greet the chilly dawn, newly-born each morning, cracking through the fragile eggshell air,’ these lines from a poem by Jaishankar aptly encapsulate the ‘Metamorphosing Female’ series of paintings. Continually playing with the fleeting ideas of sensuous exuberance coupled with an underlying sense of desire and decay, she explores the cyclical layers of life, forms within forms, and strange worlds within worlds. Hybrids of plant, flower, animal, human etc populate the surface and impart a living vitalism.

Of particular interest to the artist is how a fragmentary component of a section can reveal the colossal in nature! For this, she has carefully inspected 18th and 19th century diagrammatic representations and documents of single-celled organisms in the oceans, displaying exquisite ornamental morphology, and complex reproduction/ mutability patterns. In their forms, we can witness complex symmetry and the whole mechanics of evolution is unraveled within these simple configurations. These organic structures turn into a motif of metamorphosis, mutation, growth, transfiguration and purging in her paintings.

On the other hand, her multi-screen video-sound installation is a mystical meditation on love, loss and ever going journeys, enmeshing shades of experiences through verses presented as a montage of magnificent moving images that oscillate between three different screens. Themes of repetition, loss, love and memory recur in them. In an immersive and frequently disorienting setting, viewers are prompted to undertake their own experiential journeys - both physical and psychological.

The video work incorporates excerpts from Nandita Jaishankar’s poetry collections, ‘Memory Bird’ and from ‘Writing Love’. The work engages with the element of elocution as an unusual physical and sculptural experience. It points to an unfinished cycle of mortality and rebirth with the forms of the actors, merging and dissolving into one another and finally into the very matrix of their origin. ‘Becoming light…becoming Gold’, her series of paintings, is based on the video that inadvertently reinforces the feminine position. In these, ‘the woman is at the centre of love & life cycles, growth & decay’. Her body is both a site of debate, and a terrain of celebration; imbibed with an inherent endurance and resistance power, she exudes self assertive sexuality yet harboring tenderness.

Apparently, the fragile female form is mutated from a bubbly youthful exuberance to a matured middle aged representation. Middle aged; wrinkled, unidealized, and vulnerable; her maternity binds her to the soil and to her child. She is constantly questioning conventional notions of beauty and desire. To sum up, the female form enjoys an uncompromising centrality in her work. At the centre of love and life cycles, growth and decay’, the body registers all emotions directly, and carries the marks. The female body – vulnerable and ephemeral, emerges as a site of history, memory and transformation, even as it’s engrossed in mundane chores.