In her twenty-five year long practice, international ceramic artist Madhvi Subrahmanian has undertaken varied explorations within her chosen medium. A reconfiguration of ideas, materials and production processes are seen in Madhvi's work as a result of the mobility across nations and states. Using the dominant context of migration and employing the ceramists biographical references, this essay recapitulates some key aspects of Madhvi's work with reference to Indian and global ceramics and contextualizes her contributions in a "global cultural economy". The essay also discusses the inevitable process of indigenization or localization, which accompanies the predominant process of cross-cultural exchange and hybridization.
The formative years of Madhvi's career are situated in the eighties when the "back to earth ethos" had firmly taken root in India. Influenced by this backdrop Madhvi set off for Pondicherry in South India to train under the ceramic practitioners Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith at the Golden Bridge Pottery. This marked the foundation of her technical training and ideological orientation in the field of ceramics. The technical process of wood-ired stoneware and an output of utilitarian objects became chief guideposts for the ceramist.
The first paradigm shift in the nature of Madhvi's work as she pushed the functional form into a new aesthetic and cultural realm occurred when she relocated to the United States of America in 1989. Here Madhvi furthered her formal training; she earned a Masters in Fine Arts from Meadows School of the Arts at SMU Dallas Texas and briefly studied at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. A Charles Wallace fellowship to the United Kingdom, further developed her career. These dialogues in multi-cultural settings naturally led Madhvi to reinforce her Indian identity, albeit sub-consciously. Let us turn to examine some features in Madhvi's works which constitute this Indic context.
In the area of form, Madhvi continued to make open bowls and architecturally inspired containers; they signified a maternal spirit and a sense of "belonging" for her as they hold, protect and nurture. In terms of technique, Madhvi eschewed the potter's wheel and moved into the "low tech" world of hand building and smoke-firing using minimum tools. She moved from high-fired stoneware to low-fired earthenware, her techniques aligned with the indigenous Anasazi and Pueblo potters of New Mexico and the village potters of India. For texture, Madhvi employed perforations on the surface of the bowls; this reference was borrowed from the Anasazi potter who employed holes in pots, which serviced the traditional burial practice signifying the release of the soul. Paradoxically, Madhvi used the American-indigenous Anasazi
potter's reference to bring to fruition her own search for a personal/Indian vocabulary. In addition, a specifically Indic identity was evoked through a vibrant palette of reds and orange, which was drawn from Madhvi's memory and yearning for India - the Indian landscape, textiles, food, etc.
These examples in Madhvi's intuitive practice mark a distinct overlap of cross-cultural references and Indian elements in ideation and production that situate the ceramic output in a global context as opposed to a local/Indic context.
In the second theme of the essay, we see how the agency rests with Madhvi as the producer-artist and as an arbiter of the repatriation of heterogeneous components of culture accompanied by a process of indigenization. Madhvi's works when repatriated to the Indic context, do not homogenize with it; instead, they enrich and alter the prevalent practice of Indian ceramics by adding new meaning, techniques and forms. These new specimens straddle multiple contexts and genres thereby belonging to the global cultural economy as opposed to being categorized in any one of a dichotomous framework.
We can turn to the explorations made by Madhvi in various genres of art. As we have seen with her containers, she brings in a conceptual enquiry into the ceramic medium and its usage for "expression" as opposed to "function". In addition, Madhvi's landmark series of floating belly pods enters the genre of installation art. With these works, Madhvi pushes the conventional scope of the material. As observed by Sian Jay, "Madhvi Subrahmanian takes her ceramic art practice and manages to make a material as tough as clay appear almost ethereal, as soft and delicate as lace" (Jay, 2009:9). Her belly pods-once concave containers-are now built with vein-like coils with large holes-making them light and airy. Conceptually they express movement and change as experienced by the artist. The "floating pieces" are suspended from the ceiling; as opposed to being placed on a pedestal situating the works in a new and unique position as opposed to the tabletop functionality of ceramic objects. Besides her personal explorations in installation art, Madhvi was part of a collaborative project that brought Indian ceramics into the genre of public art; interactive 7ft large sculptural "prayer wheels" were displayed on the pavement of the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai in 2003.
The above examples demonstrate how Madhvi examines the virtues from other art genres, makes conceptual enquiries, pushes traditional boundaries and repatriates new heterogeneous characteristics in her work. This is what Appadurai refers to as the "repatriation of difference". This concept is further highlighted in the context of the current exhibition.
The exhibition displays works, which were produced between Madhvi's own studio in Singapore
and the Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry where she was a resident artist last year. The most apparent feature of these exhibits is that it contains works from both extremes of the ceramic material-earthenware and stoneware- and within a common conceptual framework display a great diversity of surface, texture and scale.
A strong presence of Indic cultural reference points such as icons of the village guardian deity Aiyanar, and the snake God Nagadevata lend themselves to Madhvi's subconscious process of marking her forms with an Indian identity. This is especially striking in the seed pods series, which bear a strong reference to raw and earthy votive sculptures in their nearly six feet tall frame. Most distinguishingly, however, is the presence of signs adopted from the Indian "roadscape" on her present suite of organic forms. Madhvi borrows chessboard patterns painted on trees across the roads of Tamil Nadu and merges them with her organic form as seen in the wall pod or anthill series. Universally used road signs allude to a primaeval language forMadhvi,whichconnects the world together and links her own migratory experiences. Thus, each seriesservesasamarkerofhowheterogeneous characteristics are negotiated by the artist and repatriated in the global cultural economy of ceramics.
In conclusion, Madhvi's intuitive work process brings out her subconscious search for a personal-Indian identity in this multi-cultural global world. The ceramist's personal context of migration, through four countries over three continents, aggravates a desire to reconnect with her cultural roots. Thus, while a process of indigenization may be active in Madhvi's output subconsciously, there are many cross-cultural flows that are negotiated and repatriated by the ceramist which signify new and multiple meanings often enmeshed in a single sculptural form. These aspects undoubtedly locate Madhvi's works significantly in the global cultural economy of art.
Doctoral Candidate, South Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore & Member of Board, International Committee for Exhibitions & Exchange (ICEE) - ICOM (International Council of Museums), a standing professional committee of the UNESCO
Arjun Appadurai's seminal essay Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy (Appadurai in During (ed.), 2007. pp. 216-226) uses the idea of a "global cultural economy" to debunk the myth of homogenization of local cultures as part of the larger project of globalization. He advances the idea of "scapes" which flow through the globe carrying capital, images, people, technology, etc (During (ed.),2007: 216).. For the purposes of this essay, we will understand these "scapes" as concepts, ideas, production processes, techniques and cultural reference points which travel across the globe from one culture to another.
O.W. Wolters situates his model of adoption of Indic socio-cultural practices in the South East Asian context and discusses the idea of localization in the context of South East Asian cultures (1999). Wolters refers to "cultural unity" not as a homogeneous monolithic whole; but as a diverse sub-regional set of pre-histories, ideologies and practices that give rise to a heterogeneous process of Indianization/localization. Both authors give agency to the individual and his own socio-cultural context in the adoption, modification and repatriation of Indian and cross-cultural flows in the South East Asian and global contexts respectively.
This ethos was shaped by the post-independence engagement with the revival of India's handicrafts, textiles, folk, and tribal art forms, which began in the 1950s.
In the case of Madhvi, indigenization means the sub-conscious search for an Indian identity in a cosmopolitan global playfield
As noted by cultural theorist, Nancy Adajania: "In the present series of works (2001), the functional impulse, which was her mainstay earlier, has been overtaken by sculptural possibilities" (Adajania, 2001).
Aiyanar is a guardian village deity worshipped very popularly in Tamil Nadu in South India. According to the Hindu pantheon Nagadevata is the snake god who resides in the netherworld. In parts of South India, termite mounds are revered as informal shrines of Nagadevata.
These patterns serve as markers of direction for drivers.
Appadurai, Arjun in Simon During (Ed.). Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy in The Cultural Studies Reader, (3rd Edition), pp. 216-226. Routledge, 2007.
Chattopadhyaya, Kamaladevi. Handicrafts of India. New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 2nd rev. ed., 1985.
Clark, Garth. Shards: Garth Clark On Ceramic Art. D.A.P./Ceramic Arts Foundation, 2003.
Wolters, O.W. History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. New York, Singapore: Southeast Asia Program Publications and The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1999.
All India Handicrafts Board. Handicrafts of India. New Delhi: Ministry of Industry, Govt of India, 1965.
Adajania, Nancy. Flesh Made Clay. Essay for Exhibition "Madhvi Subrahmanian: New Works", Cymroza Art Gallery, Mumbai, 2001.
Jay, Sian, E. Woman on Woman: Lace. Essay for Exhibition "Woman on Woman Lace", FOST Gallery, Singapore, 2008
Public Art: Contemporary Ceramics in Collaboration. Supported by India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore, 2003.