A portrait of two artists
IT will soon be New Year – and it has been a hard couple of years – so let us find a fire to huddle around and speak of mysteries. One enduring mystery, which no science or epic or critique will make any less mysterious is marriage. In India, people speak of arranged as distinct from love marriage. But let us ask what kind of an arrangement love is, beyond an initial attraction. There could be many answers, so here is one. It may be an intuition of mutual becoming: with this specific other I could create something.
Marital creation (or de-creation, since we can also consume one another) need not only take the form of children or property, though it may. Let us consider a different form of creation. I add another word to the mix, also a mystery (and my condolences to those for whom it is not), namely, art. Having taken up the task of teaching the arts or the humanities, as it is sometimes called, which means that I should be able to offer you readings, I cannot immediately think of a text that would join the first and the second of our mysteries, or maybe there is, and others will tell me.
We are used to discussing individual artists, or collectives, or movements. What about married artist couples? Would this be worthy of aesthetic thought? Diego and Frida yes, but a sensitive visitor to their home is soon oppressed by his references to her as niĖa (‘my child’), her sadness, his artistic muscularity, her narcissism, ‘their’ politics, Trotsky, it’s all a bit tiresome. That said, what is it to be married in art, and how might one write about such a marriage, standing somewhere between the public and the private?
I say married (with the assumption that this institution now exceeds heterosexual unions), as distinct from the ascetic idea of the artist (solitary, contemplative, penitent) and the anti-ascetic, the ‘avant-garde’ libertine, embodying the frisson of the supposed transgression, in art and life. As distinct from the ascetic and the anti-ascetic, instead I mean a couple (however imperfect, or differently gendered), children, school, lunchboxes, markets, incomes, properties, taxes, all the ‘bourgeois’ domestic ordinary ‘banality’ from which ‘sublime’ creators find themselves wanting to flee.
Where would I find such a couple? The editors of Seminar asked me to write an essay on Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher and I agreed, as a kind of end of semester, early winter extracurricular activity, as it used to be called in school. I had written an essay some years ago on Subodh Gupta (hereafter SG), titled ‘The Very Opposite of a Hunger Artist’ (2018).
In that essay I expressed a protective urge, or let us say an aggressive instinct against the kindly elite national patrons who cast SG as a charming provincial, referring to his art as ‘embodying the artifacts of the small-town in Bihar to which he belongs’, and against ‘critical’ novelists, who seemingly unaware of their own traffic with awards and international fame and access, paint savage portraits of SG’s acclaimed ‘bartans’, which they find garish and capitalist, it seems, just as they find Gurgaon objectionable from their own unexamined vantage points in south and central Delhi. But let us leave aside these neighborhood bullies, and think about art.
What evidence could one offer of aesthetic value, if not money or prestige? In my essay, one slender evidence I offer, valuable as I saw it, was to notice the surprise and delight that tumbled out of schoolchildren’s paintings (in a relatively non-elite school, in the instance I picked), in their depictions of what they saw of SG’s work in a visit to his retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi.
To put it in a scholarly vein for a moment,
in my earlier reading of SG’s work,
I suggested the kitchen, or the hearth (notice just the one ‘h’ linking and delinking it from the word ‘earth’) as the orienting space for his corpus. This may sound obvious at first (for those who know SG’s work), but consider it as a spiritual and material question: What is ‘inside’ us? What composes the human? Here is how I extended this pair of questions into a thought in that earlier essay on SG: ‘Rich or poor, if we were to be rendered homeless (for example after a breakdown of kinship, or a “natural” disaster), what would we consider a first step to returning home, even if the home is to be rebuilt elsewhere? It would be when we have a hearth.’ (2018: 47).
Differently, while I myself have not written on Bharti Kher (hereafter BK), there is by now a reasonably strong corpus of scholarly writing on the wide range of her work, including on her juxtaposition of aspects of the body and psyche in her recent show at the Freud Museum in London (Rosenthal 2016); on her use of bindis (Jhaveri 2016); on her women ‘cyborgs’ (Prabhala 2016), her play with androgyny (Brown 2016), and much more.
But here we are still thinking of these two artists separately. How would we narrate the history of a marriage, in art? Just as a painter would ask their subjects to pose, as an anthropologist I asked the two subjects of this portrait to speak over the course of an evening. As with ethnographic practice, I let my subjects speak in ‘emic’ terms, with fragments transcribed/paraphrased and arranged below.
I offer these fragments with only a line of preceding interpretation or orientation, or an occasional question thrown in (with my own questions prefaced with the letter B). I don’t quite know if this would make for good art history. It would certainly make do as an initial sketch for a good Netflix series, maybe of the more cerebral HBO variety, with romance and drama and art thrown in.
I ask again: what is it to be married, in art? It would be reductive to say that the answer is mutual influence, or to ‘collaborate’, since that is not entirely the case, at least literally.
SG: The first project we did together was 32 Milestone in ‘Indian Highway’.
BK: First and last (laughs out loud)
SG: No, we did many plates together.
BK: Oh no, and actually, we just did one recently for WWF, for ‘Save the Tiger’, because we love tigers (grins).
SG: Also we made many artworks to give friends together.
But this fragment of speech is too recent and random! How do we imagine the history of two being told, where should it begin and end? I offer eight fragments that compose this portrait, leaving it to others to complete it or to take it further, in whatever their medium might be.
Fragment 1: Immigrant Arrivals
B: How did you meet?
BK: We met outside Garhi studios of the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1992. I had just come to India in January 1992 (a year after finishing art school in the UK). I thought I was going to travel to Shantiniketan but it was very intimidating arriving in Delhi, going to the railway station, it was really a big shock for me. So I went to the studios of the Lalit Kala Akademi instead – I went and bumped into him.
B: Bumped into him how?
BK: Literally, he was walking out, I was walking in.
We chatted and he said, ‘You meet me here tomorrow, and I’ll take you to buy materials’.
SG: I had a fellowship in Lalit Kala Akademi, working in Garhi studio for a year. That day I was leaving Garhi studio with all my paintings, when I saw one beautiful girl enter, in red jeans and I said, ‘oh my god’.
SG: I came to Delhi in 1990. I had no place to live, but I got a place to stay in the Lalit Kala Akademi guesthouse as part of the young artist programme. They used to charge you Rs 6 per day to stay, in a dormitory. I stayed there for one year until I got the Lalit Kala fellowship, for Rs 1000 per month.
BK: He helped me buy paints (laughs) and then stretched all my canvases.
SG: Yes, just to be able to see her.
BK: I didn’t know anyone here. I was 22, he was 28. Trust me, I didn’t come to India thinking I’ll meet some Indian dude. I didn’t grow up with a strong connection to India.
People found us and continue to find us very curious. When we met, he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Hindi. People would think – what are they doing together and what do they speak about all day?
SG: Then her father flew here (from the UK). Some friend of his told him that she is seeing some boy here, an artist. He flew to meet me.
I had nothing in my house except for a fan, and one transistor
BK: ...and one orange! (laughs)
SG: Then on top of the radio I put up the orange, I thought little decoration should be there.
BK: A still life! (laughs)
SG: Her father is a very elegant man. He sat down, very soft-spoken. I thought ‘who has come!’ He asked me what you do, where you come from, do you earn anything?
He said: Do you paint? I said: yes, I paint.
He said: Sometimes you go closely, and then sometimes you go to a distance to see your painting. I said yes, I do that.
So, he said, you’ve seen my daughter very closely, now I’m taking her back to the UK. So you see her from a distance.
What a dialogue!
BK: Acha filmi dialogue hai na?
And so I went back to the UK. In any case my visa ran out and I didn’t have any money. In three weeks I borrowed money from my mum and I said I’m going back to India. I came back in May. On May 3rd. We moved in together. I was hallucinating because of the heat, and he bought a cooler.
Fragment 2: Artistic Antecedents
B: Within the horizon of art school training (in England) who were the people you looked up to at the time, the generation before you?
BK: People like Marina Abramovich, Barbara Kruger, David Salle, Schnabel, there were the Third Text people, the young Anish (Kapoor), all the YBAs (Young British Artists), who were ten years older than me. England was quite exciting at the time. I left right at the beginning of it all. I had just finished art school.
B: And SG, who were the artists you looked up to?
SG: People I looked up to was Husain, J. Swaminathan, Manjit Bawa was young, Ram Kumar, those were the senior artists. I didn’t know Prabhakar Barwe at the time. I only knew the artists who worked in Delhi. I knew the work of F.N. Souza.
BK: At this time (early 1990s), there was no internet, no magazines in India.
SG: They had old Art Forum’s in the Lalit Kala Akademi. That was the most international thing to see.
BK: And the British Council library, we used to go there.
We also had my brother-in-law. He was an art teacher. Between 1992 and 1997 he would collect every article in the paper about art in the The Guardian, The FT etc and send a sheaf to us with whoever was coming to India.
BK: And when we went to London to visit my family, Subodh would go to every single opening. From Surrey he would travel an hour and a half on the tube. No phone cameras or video at the time. I wouldn’t go because Omi was a little baby. He’d come back and explain and describe the entire thing to me, what the work was, what material, how it was hung.
Then he would ask me what do you think it was about? And we would discuss all of it.
Fragment 3: A Shared Workspace
BK: We moved into our own flat, a two-bedroom apartment in Mayur Vihar. I had one room, he had one room and we started working. Our workspace was at home. We worked into the night for many, many years. Neither of us are morning people. So we would work from 10pm to 5am, and then wake up at 1pm. Making a lot paintings and drawings.
BK: Then in 1993 we did a huge commission painting plates, ceramics and cups. I’ve still got some here. They are beautiful. We did this project with a Dutch store and FIA Amsterdam and Eegje Schoo.
SG: 1000 rupees or so for each ceramic, we got.
BK: We earnt three lakhs for the whole project.
SG: It was so much money for us. Saviour of our lives.
BK: It set us up
SG: And Omi just born. six months old?
BK: Yes, 5-6 months. We used to take him to the factory everyday.
SG: We bought a fiat car for 5000 rupees, where the window doesn’t work so you would have to…
BK: Oh, please stop it! He loves this… (laughs)…this story is going to take five hours.
Fragment 4: Contemporaries
SG: It was not only foreign art but also here that we were looking. Like N.N. Rimzon, a most interesting artist. He had a show in Alkazizi’s gallery, what is it called?
BK: Art Heritage
SG: When N.N. Rimzon had a show at Art Heritage, I don’t think Indian art or Indian contemporary artists had ever seen anything like that.
BK: Apart from Vivan. And Dhruva Mistry.
SG: That’s fine. I am telling the impact in my eyes. I felt like one of the most amazing strong artists. I learnt art through that kind of challenge.
Same time, Lalit Kala Akademi has a seven sculptures show, with Vivan, Pushpamala, N.N. Rimzon, I am forgetting the date, but that was one of the most important shows for me. Where Pushpamala made a sculpture. She made a terracotta pig. Very interestingly.
I would say that nation-wise in 1990 the art that was happening in our country is not happening now. Somehow.
BK: It was really exciting. Even for me. I also remember seeing the
Rimzon show and feeling what happened was a huge shift.
Fragment 5: Pretty Paintings
SG: In those years I was painting a lot. We used to work very hard. My painting was mostly imagery, what I see in day-to-day life. I would paint dhobi-vala, women sitting in the bus stop, young kids carrying the kettle. On a canvas, with a brush, with acrylic.
BK: Subodh is a really good painter. He has that watercolour hand.
SG: And now I have come back to painting. I paint so much these days I can’t tell you (laughs) But Bharti is a very good painter too. I can paint, but I didn’t know what to make.
B: How were those years financially? What was sustenance?
BK: Hand to mouth.
SG: I was selling paintings. I used to work with Gallery Espace.
But one day Bharti said that is not a good painting. Is this what you want to be doing all your life? It was what I was making from college to 1992-93, I wanted to change my work. But how to change my work? I didn’t know how to improve myself. My gallery got upset.
I made three or four years in my eyes of very bad work.
BK: No! You were experimenting. Those huge canvases, the band party series. They were brilliant!
SG: It was very challenging
BK: … the man walking with the neon light. . That was good.
SG: Those were pretty paintings. But it didn’t have depth. Bharti came from abroad, she knew about art, she studied in a good college. She would describe about art and what was happening there.
BK: In 1997 I was pregnant with Omi.
SG: At that time, I was doing a residency in Sanskriti Kendra with three Indian artists and three Australian artists where I made my first installation. I have always been a painter, but first time I tried with sculpture. And wherever I applied with that artwork I got selected. 1997 I applied for Bose Pacia gallery. They had an award. That they will select one Indian artist and give them show and bring them to USA. Homi Bhabha and others were the jury. And I won that award. That’s why Omi was very lucky for us. Once he was born everything changed.
BK: And I wrote the application. (laughs)
SG (laughs): She wrote everything actually. I can’t remember anything you haven’t written.
BK: But you know what…should I tell you the truth? The application means nothing. It is just language. And I am telling you that now because I applied for so many things myself. I didn’t get anything at that time. So it isn’t just about language (laughs), it is about the work.
Subodh was making…the first 29 Mornings. It was really radical and different. So it didn’t matter what you said. It was really just the work.
SG: So much was happening in our life, in just an instant. We were having a baby. Bose Pacia.
BK: And also Khoj was set up in 1997. And we were two of the founding members…
Fragment 6: BK ‘starts’ working
BK: In those years (1990s), I was just watching…
SG: She was working but slowly.
B: In those quiet years, what were you doing?
BK: It wasn’t that I was quiet. I just didn’t have a language. I was still trying to work out what it is that I had to say. I was painting a lot.
BK: In that first year after I came back, in 1993 he took me to see this place called AIFACS gallery, you know near Rafi Marg?
BK: He walked into the accounts room and said, ‘Could I
please book this gallery’. And they said ‘of course’.
He paid the advance of 3500 rupees, which felt like a lot of money then.
And he came out and said: ‘Congrat-ulations, you’ve got your first show!’ But I said I haven’t got any work to show. So he says, ‘well you better get working then’. So I came back to the house and I started working. And I made a show. He said: ‘the only way you’ll make a show is if you have a booking. And I’ve paid for it now and you better do it.’
We loaded everything onto the back of a tempo. He used to do all that. And we carried it into the gallery and we hung everything ourselves. We had the opening and five people, me, Subodh, my mum, my masi, and her son came to the opening. I sold two works. I still know both collectors. And I’ve still got the book from the show. The first comment in it is from my mum: ‘I am so proud of you. What a lovely exhibition’.
BK: When I came to India, I completely lost my sense of self. I didn’t have a handle of my cerebral side. What am I looking at? What do I make? By 1995-96 I started making small installations. Asian Babe. In 1997 when Omi was born, I started working. Because I became very organized after that, because you have much less time…
BK: Oh, but before that, Alkazi gave me my first solo show, a painting show. So it wasn’t like I wasn’t working.
SG: Yes, where you made the white painting, white on white.
BK: ‘The Nemesis of Nations’ I called it. (smiles)
SG: Oh my god!
That time no one gave us shows. Alkazi came to visit our studio, which was our home, where we lived and worked. He came to see Bharti’s work. I gave him chai and Britannia biscuit. He said you made a very good tea, thank you. He was a thorough gentleman.
BK: He asked me to write about my work. I still have that piece somewhere. It’s so embarrassing I am not showing you that. He thought he was giving me a group show. When I found out I was furious. I called him everyday. I couldn’t get hold of him. But I’m very persistent. Finally, one day I got him on the phone, and I said, ‘God, you are a hard person to get hold of! Mr. Alkazi, I have made so much work for my solo show and you’ve given me a group show. I’ve got a whole studio of work ready.’ And he said ‘Well, you’ll have a solo show then. And a group show!’ (laughs)
And that was my first show in Delhi.
B: Other than AIFACS
SG: When did you make your first sculpture?
BK: The Asian Babe sculpture – with the head of a readymade doll. That was the first time I used something by assembling it, sticking, many components together to make a work. I still do that. In India I slowly switched mediums and became a sculptor.
When I went to school in the UK, sculpture was a domain of the boys. The workshops were quite macho in places like Newcastle. It was a bit intimidating and I am still intimidated by very big workshops and machines.
With sculpture we started looking outwards rather than inwards. Painting is a more solitary pursuit. It made me go out on the street. We would go to Old Delhi together, where we used to go for art supplies. He would go to the steel market. I would go to the bindi market.
SG: Every week we would go to Old Delhi, to look for objects and find material.
B: Where in Old Delhi?
BK: I would go to Kinari Bazaar.
SG: Hauz Khasi. Sadar Bazaar, I started going more there since it is a utensils market.
BK: It gave you ideas. You make one object, then another. Or you notice readymade objects on the side of the road. Like I found Rudolf and Bambi (Kher 2002), do you remember?
BK: I would see them, these two deer, everyday as we were driving down MG Road.
B: So in your own trajectory, alongside sculpture, when would you mark that something happened. Like when you can say that ‘oh I had an idea!’ For some people, even in academic writing, one has maybe two or three ideas in the course of a life in thought, if that.
BK: Well, I guess I did with the bindis, na? It is a completely new language. No one has ever done that.
B: Is it like a brand?
BK: No, it is a language. Like a code
B: What struck you, how did it emerge? Where did you buy it, your first bindi for an artwork?
BK: In the Mayur Vihar Sabzi Mandi. I would always buy women’s stuff. Those lovely pattis that girls tie their hair with. Chamki wool for those funny vests that men wear. One day I walked by, and I saw a packet of bindis. They were spermatozoa shaped, in purple and red and blue. I thought ‘wow, this is amazing!’ Is no one else seeing the pathos in this, and the irony, and the fantastic?
BK: If I hadn’t met Subodh, I don’t think I would have had the guts to make work. I would be so unsure: ‘I made this work but it’s really bad, so you don’t want to look at it’. And he’d say ‘that’s not how you show your work to other people!’ Subodh always believed in my work.
SG: Well, you write diaries, you read books. You are a great thinker and artist. But she did not have a confidence in the beginning.
SG: The way she discussed with me, the way she talk to me, the way she tell me the story of everything, I said you know everything! Why are you stopping? I don’t understand.
I always wondered if I knew that much, ‘cloud mei ched kar deta’. (laughs)
BK: (laughs loudly): kya ho jaata tu? God, maybe it is a good thing. Bahut hai!
Fragment 7: Voicings
BK: It’s funny. It feels like that it was a long time from 1992 to 1997. Then with projects in 1996, 1997, it all started happening very quickly and by 2000 you had shown in Paris (laughs)! It went like that…zoom!
BK: We seek each other’s opinion all the time. When you know each other’s work for so long.
SG: Some evenings, I would think about idea not about my work, but about Bharti’s work, what she will make?
BK: Really? You never gave me those ideas. You just kept them to yourself. (laughs)
SG (slightly miffed): I have spoken many times. You know that very well.
BK: …just teasing!
SG: But Bharti is very direct, she will just say yeh acha nahi hai, yeh acha hai.
Fragment 8: Care Labours and the Domestic.
B: One of the hardest things in a marriage, as much as creation, is routine, domestic, care labour, no? Who did that?
BK: It is so hard. And for those early years we didn’t have any money, any household help.
But Subodh cooks, na.
SG: You know when I met her…can I say that?
BK: Oh no, but yes, it’s a good story actually! (smiles)
SG: When I met her, I asked her do you know how to cook? She says no. She could not wash clothes. So I used to wash her clothes, even her underwear. And cook food.
But I totally understand. That time we didn’t have a cooler. Or gas cylinder. And fridge was empty.
BK: What do you mean fridge? You didn’t have a fridge!
I had no clue what to do with any of this, a two-stove burner, even
I was like where is the washing machine? You know how people do ‘shick shick’ in India while hand washing clothes, Rin soap would totally eat up my hands. I mean it’s so strong, it could clean car oil.
B: But care labour is not only depleting, no?
BK: It isn’t. In fact, both times I had children my work and artistic practice shifted, my body changed, my DNA changed. When you have a child, parts of your DNA changes. With Omi I moved from painting into sculpture. With Lola I moved to looking at the body. Communication about the idea of the body, all of my work has been about that since then.
When I was pregnant with Lola I started making this work called
The Hybrids. Those were the photo-graphs of women as animal/humans. I showed it in 1994, in Peter’s gallery and people were pretty furious that I seemed to be disrespecting women. And I
was like how? I am creating these magnificent possibilities of the hybrid self. And they are just locked in the domestic space, like so many women in India […] and then finally (dramatic pause) I earned some money and I got myself household help, to help with care labours. He is a big man to take care of is Gupta-ji. But he is also the greatest chef I know and he cooks for us all.