Dhruva Mistry has emerged from a dimly lit horizon beyond which lies a shadowy kingdom which Westernization, namely, modernization, has confined to the periphery. With him he has brought deities that are half human and half beast, voluptuous women with shaven heads, and curvaceous chairs. Mistry studied art at M.S. University in Baroda, India. In 1981 he held his first one-person show at Art Heritage, a prominent gallery of contemporary art in New Delhi. That same year he went to London to study at the Royal College of Art. That year marked the advent of New British Sculpture, which swept the British art world in the eighties.1 Thus Mistry has shaped himself as an artist while directly experiencing the West during a period in which British art was changing. In the catalogue prepared for an exhibition of his work in Glasgow in 1988, Mistry remarked, "From Britain I was to perceive Europe and the West through my travels and experiences. I set out to test myself against my notions of the world around me, at times finding myself at odds with it. It was an opportunity to see myself and India from afar. At the Royal College of Art, my time was short. To find any importance in my work and its standing within contemporary British art was clearly beyond my expectations. My life and education in India were rather intense and exhausting, yet it was where practical creation lay. At the RCA I did not see much reason to work more than necessary. This allowed me enough time to look around and to examine my own ideas and preconceptions."2
Although Mistry's reminiscences are personal in nature, they embody, I think, a universal task facing modern Asian artists. No modern artist born outside of the Western world can escape this task. Whether experiencing the West directly in the West, or indirectly in the non-Western world, the artists question their own identity and rediscover their own indigenous culture through this "Western experience." In the process, their own spontaneous mode of artistic expression is explored for the first time. The Singaporian artist Tang Da-Wu's comments on the occasion of the fifth exhibition in the present series clearly illustrates my point: "In my twenty years in England," he remarked, "I was constantly reminded, in my relationships with other people, of my 'Chineseness.' I became more aware and interested in my roots and incorporated Chinese elements in my works."3 The determination expressed by the Filipino artist Roberto Feleo, the subject of the first show in this series, offers further evidence; "The time has come for us to examine ourselves in the light of what we have become as opposed to what we ought to be." He added, "For this reason, I have chosen to retrace the indigenous traditions of art in my country." 4 How did Mistry's concerns and artistic style actually change as he reflected about himself and his own culture? A comparison of Sleeping Man (catalogue no. 1), produced in 1982 during Mistry's early period in England, and the series of human figures entitled Man with Dog (see illustration no. 11), created in 1981 immediately prior to his departure for England, reveals how he tried to respond to that question. The figures from his India period depict the naked human figure stripped of all superfluous elements. (The graphicness is readily apparent when one compares these sculptures with the human figures produced by John Davies and Antony Gormly.) Sleeping Man, however, has lost the impression of reality as an actual human being, in spite of its compelling presence and realistic rendering down to the small details. It is an existence from another world, a metaphorical human form suggesting a mythical being or a figure in a bad dream. In his subsequent oeuvre, Mistry has created symbolic works with a mythic or religious background that strongly evoke the Indian tradition. Regarding Guardian (1985; catalogue no. 2) is a case in point. As noted above, modern Asian artists generally address the question of their own individuality through their Western experience, rather than imitating Western art. We have encountered many examples of artists readily or uncritically trying to respond to that question by returning to their own tradition.' 5 Has Mistry, likewise, taken the easy road of returning to tradition? I conclude that he is no mere traditionalist. Even the series of sculptures entitled Regarding Guardian, which at first glance seems based on traditional Indian religious iconography, reflects his study of guardian deities that are half man and half beast, which are found in ancient art from various regions. (His research was conducted mainly at the British Museum.) He has digested his research in his own way and fused the elements into universal images. His approach represents a quest for subconscious archetypes that are shared by different ethnic groups or nationalities. As a result, the religious iconography and stories that can be understood only within the Indian cultural context are universalized as a form of artistic expression, creating works that are relevant today.6 The appeal of the Regarding Guardian series unquestionably has to do with traditional culture and religion, such as the mythic aura engendered by the guardian deities and the cosmic sense expressed therein. The powerful overall impression is the product of Indian aesthetics, manifested in the appealing texture and the overall sensuality and rough, unpolished quality. This aesthetic approach springs from the popular aesthetics, what is contemporary and commonplace, more than the rich sensuality characteristic of ancient art. The direct roots of Mistry's aesthetics lie in the gaudiness of popular art, from the mass produced religious paintings that adorn contemporary Indian homes to the gaily coloured deities at festivals and the excessive ornamentation that characterizes Hindu temples today. The special qualities that distinguish Mistry's work - a combination of refined mysteriousness, vulgar popular taste, and traditional sensuality - are amply manifested in his later output as well. These attributes are fully evident in his Maya Medallion series (see catalogue nos. 3, 4, 14, and 15), of course, as well as in his sculptures entitled The Object (catalogue nos. 7 and 17), which more closely approach abstract images than any of Mistry's other works. Such sensuous mysterious chairs, such elegant yet unrefined chairs, would surely be inconceivable outside of his work except in Indian mythology. These qualities of Mistry's are manifested above all in works commissioned for public space. Sitting Bull (1984; see illustration no. 5), at the International Garden Festival, Liverpool, and Reclining Woman (1988; see illustration no. 6), at the Glasgow Garden Festival, strike the onlooker with their powerful presence because Mistry is both heir to ancient Indian art and the child of popular culture. The modern valuesystemwhich places Europe at the apex of the pyramid has collapsed, and things that were shoved outside of that framework have begun to counterattack. This movement has been conspicuous in the art world since the late 1970s. Even the position of Mistry, who might appear isolated from the context of British art, can be situated within it in the 1980s and 1990s. His works have played a role in the revival of figurative images since the end of the 1970s. The rich narrative quality of his works and metaphorical mode of expression, which taps myth, literature, and religion, have a broad contemporary ring. His method of synthesizing allusions to previous art works also is relevant today amid doubts about the notion of originality. The influence on his work of popular art represents one aspect of the discovery of low art, such as kitsch, as opposed to high art. Moreover, his concern with marginal forms of expression, regional differences, and local vernacular realms fits the times. In short, in modernism's twilight years, things that had been cast into oblivion by modernism have undergone a re-examination. It is possible to locate and evaluate Mistry's work within this overall trend, in other words, in the context of Western art. As in the case of Orientalism in the past, however, assessments of this sort invariably go hand in hand with a taste for the unusual, a perspective that assumes the centrality of Western art values and ignores autonomous value systems.7 Mistry does not delight in discovering novelty or originality in what, for him, is a different world lying on the periphery, remote from the center represented by the West. Having emerged from the fringe and discovered himself, he is trying to relate that experience by means of a universal language. As the mid-1990s approach, the world is no longer predicated upon a value system that places the West at the pinnacle. There is gradually emerging a common awareness that the world is made up of diverse ethnic groups with diverse values, rather than nation states, a political form that emerged after the French Revolution. There is a growing awareness of the importance of ethnicity, the sum of unique cultural characteristics that distinguish individual ethnic groups. At the same time, this trend has brought about a resurgence of nationalism, and, in the aftermath of the Cold War, has spawned considerable ethnic conflict. Members of all nations - not just artists from the non-Western world - must examine their own ethnicity and, at the same time, recognize and respect the existence of other ethnic groups. Mistry's effort to achieve a universal language as a mode of artistic expression while deeply probing his own ethnicity represents an extremely timely global subject.
Translated by Janet Goff
Notes1. Lynne Cooke, "Between Image and Object: The 'New British Sculpture,' " in Terry A. Neff, ed., A Quiet Revolution in British Sculpture since 1965 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987): pp. 34-53.
2. Dhruva Mistry, "Cross-Sections," Sculptures & Drawings by Dhruva Mistry, 1982-88 exhibition catalogue (Glasgow: Collins Gallery, 1988): p. 10.
3. Tang Da-Wu, "Message," Asian Artist Today - Fukuoka Annual V, Tang Da-Wu exhibition catalogue (Fukuoka: Fukuoka Art Museum, 1991); p.
4. Roberto Feleo, "Message," Asian Artist Today - Fukuoka Annual I, Roberto Feleo exhibition catalogue (Fukuoka: Fukuoka Art Museum, 1988): p. .
5. The preceding show in this series, which dealt with the work of Rasheed Araeen, questions the widespread assumption that Western art is correct or orthodox and that non-Western artists are forever imitators. Jean Fisher, "An Art of Transformation," Asian Artist Today - Fukuoka Annual VI, Rasheed Araeen exhibition catalogue (Fukuoka: Fukuoka Art Museum, 1993): pp. 12-16. I recall hearing Mistry express the same complaint when I visited him in 1988. Despite the importance of this problem, there is no room to discuss it here.
6.Using Sitting Bull as an illustration, Sheena Wagstaff describes how Mistry has transformes the Hindui deity Nandi into the universal figure of a bull. Sheena Wagstaff, "The Bird that Cuts the Airy Way,"Dhruva Mistry Sculptures and Drawings exhibition catalogue (Cambridge: Kettle's Yard Gallery, 1985): pp. 9-25.
7. In the preceding show in this series, Kuroda Raiji pointed out how Orientalism is reproduced even today. "A Sketch of the Re- location of Rasheed Araeen in the Context of Contemporary Asian Art," Asian Artist Today - Fukuoka Annual VI, Rasheed Araeen exhibition catalogue (Fukuoka: Fukuoka Art Museum, 1993): pp. 35-36. Orientalism is an enemy of all of us that can occur anywhere at any time.