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Artist Profile3
Analyzing Sheela Gowda’s art and practice
Known for her large-scale sculptural installations, which take off from everyday materials and also for works that combine abstract forms with pointed references to society, Sheela Gowda refers to socio-political and cultural realities of India. Simultaneously sensual and unsettling, her oeuvre conjures some of the darkest areas of human experience, where poetically invested materials evoke what she terms ‘the insidious nature of violence - overt and also inside us in our psychic makeup.’

Her ongoing inquiry as an artist into the intricacies and contradictions of Indian society - traditions of labor, inequity and constant oppression - leads to a richness of meaning deftly woven into a fabric of strength and peculiar reclaimed identity that acts as the binding thread of her practice. Her versatile works oscillate between sculpture, installation and drawing, to symbolize relationships and the suffering these may cause when they fail. Moreover, she evokes the natural world through the vast repository of materials she employs.

One among the seven international artists nominated for the prestigious Artes Mundi award this year, she will compete with Miriam Bäckström (Sweden), Tania Bruguera (Cuba), Phil Collins (England), Teresa Margolles (Mexico), Darius Mikšys (Lithuania), and Apolonija Šušteršič (Slovenia) for the top honor. Highlighting her unconventional methods, the jury panel mentions: “Her usage of unconventional materials is a highly evocative element of her art wherein the tactile qualities of hair, thread, traditional dyes, pattern, weaving etc bring our attention to a meaning, which transposes these elements into social objects and practices located within a production and distribution network, framed in relation to India’s socio-political legacy.”

Initially trained as a painter, the Bangalore based practitioner has progressively developed her sculptural and installation based oeuvre to explore how a wide array of materials – both traditional and found - can make specific references to her country’s social and cultural sub-milieu. She studied at London's Royal College of Art in the mid-1980s, and changed the course of her work in the 1990s in response to cultural upheavals, uneven economic development and the Mumbai communal riots, in particular. Her sculptures and installations directly engaged with the social settings around her.

Among her select solo exhibitions are ‘Postulates of Contiguity’, Office For Contemporary Art (OCA) Norway (2010); ‘Touching Base’, Museum Gouda (2008); apart from shows at Bose Pacia, New York (2006); GALLERY SKE, Bangalore (2004); Gallery Chemould, Mumbai (1993); and Gallery 7, Mumbai (1989), among others. She has also participated in several significant group exhibitions like ‘Indian Highway’, Herning Museum of Contemporary Art (2010); ‘Textiles: Art and Social Fabric’, MuKHA, Antwerp (2009); Sharjah Biennial and Venice Arsenale (2009). ‘India Moderna’, IVAM Museum, Valencia, Spain ((2008-09); ‘Indian Highway’, Serpentine Gallery, London ((2008-09); ‘Santhal Family’, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp (2008); ‘Fire Walkers’, Stefan Stux Gallery, New York (2008); ‘Horn Please’, Bern; Documenta 12 Kassel ((2007); and the Lyon Biennale ((2007).

More often than not, she initiates a project by choosing a material, testing out its conceptual and physical attributes. The idea is to check how the material can be transformed; what it can actually do and can make what structures possible. The resultant work is often in form of pared down abstracts, to untie it from known social and economic context, albeit still comprised of a residue of its source, which is made perceptible to the viewer. For example, In ‘And tell him of my pain’, the artist produced a long cord from several glue-coated threads passed through a needle eye, and pasted with red vermilion (kum kum). This became a coiling red line that snaked around the viewing space, to invoke the internal organs of human body, a creeper’s flexibility, a Pollock drip painting and artisan labor.

Her ‘Collateral, a sculpture of ash, made through rolling, arranging and burning of incense on mesh frames to create intricate patterns, had fragmented appearance that suggested a broken landscape ravaged by war. On the other hand, ‘Darkroom’ emerged as a standout moment in the Indian art survey courtesy Serpentine, as she transformed oil drums salvaged from laborers into a low dark hut that resembled their makeshift homes. After stepping inside, the apparently infinite space with tiny pinpricks, transformed its ceiling into a starry sky.

Her most recent solo, entitled ‘Therein and Besides’ at Iniva, marked her debut in the UK. For the sizzling showcase, she again explored a new set of materials like tar drums and blue plastic tarpaulins to unfold a narrative on miseries of the working class. Her ‘of all people’, made up of countless wooden chips, roughly carved into votive objects by craftsmen, formed part of peculiarly painted composition of larger frames and doors, also revealing the marks of weathering and insects’ infestation. Moving through this eerie environment, one was invited to recalibrate the ensuing experience from different heights and perspectives.

Elaborating on her style, The Guardian art write mentioned: “As well as using incense, she turned old bits of house timber into battered versions of abstract sculpture and fashioned ropes of human hair into looping drawings. Cow dung, thread and spice were all been transfigured in her intriguing installations, subtly bringing to light the lives of those on the economic margins. Though a city girl, her interest in the rural traditions of India can be traced back to her father, who was a well-respected of Indian folk music and artifact archivist.”

To sum it up, Sheela Gowda's visual idiom tries to grasp the complexity of the contemporary issues, including violence and suppression, as she works toward layers of meaning even while striving to trim the form to the extent possible, so as the reference or the source is discreetly suggested; not stated literally.