Anjum Singh: An Artist of Distinction
Anjum Singh’s life was brutally cut short by cancer, but her art remains embedded in the viewer’s memory long after the paintings are off the gallery walls. Her last show, I am still here at Talwar Gallery, New Delhi, 2019, was a landmark in her artistic career. She transformed all the pain she must have experienced through the years of medical intervention into unforgettable images of internal physicality. She translated her agony into an observer’s subtle study of physical distress.
This difficult transformative process was possible because of Anjum’s excellent drawing skills and her mastery over the mediums. In the watercolours and coloured drawings, she used the subtle washes of paint as expressively as she slathered oil paint lavishly to make a bold statement on her canvases. Just as she evoked the pulpy pliancy of flesh and the drips and daubs of body fluids in her watercolours, similarly she captured the heart as a machine in oil. Her lines were fascinating in their versatility. In her use of bright reds and pinks, subtle greys and greens, Anjum proved herself to be a consummate colourist.
Although she focused on the body in her last hurrah of a show, Anjum’s lifelong engagement was with the city, urban environment and hints of urban decay. I remember seeing her wonderful work, Cola Bloom at a Khoj workshop decades ago. The assemblage of empty Coke bottles painted in graded shades of pink and amassed like a monstrous blossom was her ironic comment on conspicuous consumption. The same train of thought was carried forward in her installation, All that glitters. This was shown at the exhibition. All That Glitters is Litter mounted at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, in 2009, and showed a heap of trash made with bright, sparkling acrylic. In that exhibition, Anjum showed her beehives, made with magnets. They evoked the overcrowded urban habitats. Such use of material demonstrated Anjum’s instinctive feel for materiality. I recall how Anjum once painted on stainless steel sheets. The paintings were later shown at Palette Art Gallery. Her inventiveness would have led her to explore material much more had she not died so soon.
Anjum fought gallantly against her illness and over the years she has made her mark as an artist of distinction. She had a feeling for abstraction, an intellectual curiosity, and originality of imagination. I keep mulling over the tantalizing thought-what would she have done next had she lived? She will be sorely missed.
Life and a Language for the Future
Almost half-way through her brief piece on her years as a student at Santiniketan for Critical Collective last month, Anjum's e-mails abruptly stopped. Then on the final day of Navratri there was a sliver of hope; she wrote to say that she had not been well, completing her piece with the words, ‘It's fine…no worries’. It transpired that Anjum had been following a new line of treatment which promised hope, but sadly, in the ensuing days, failed to reverse her condition. Her passing on November 17 is perhaps the darkest moment in these months of interminable anxiety and collective despair. On the register of the familial bonds of Delhi's art fraternity, its generational cross overs and palpable links, the loss of Arpita and Paramjit Singh's daughter, friend to so many, is a moment of deep, shared mourning.
Writing on her years at Santiniketan, Anjum revealed so much of what one had come to know of her; a distinctive, blithely contrarian spirit, acutely observant in her passionate embrace of the experience of art. Anjum's training at Santiniketan and the Corcoran School had imbued her with an excellence in draughtsmanship, which she combined with a fastidious attention to detail in her diverse embrace of materials. Her natural propensity however, was to uncover fragility in the face of rapidly evolving change, and to play it out as a mark of her time.
Her early work recalled, somewhat tentatively, Morandi's bottles, painted in exuberant colours with the effect of a suspended still life. The sculptures and paintings that followed in the period of rapid globalisation marked a sharpening critique of consumerism, in exhibitions like City in Progress and Urban Sprawl. In works such as, Cola Bloom (2004), a large desert flower made of hundreds of cast cola bottles, clustered in bubble gum pink excess, the bottles now appeared as industrial, indistinguishable multiples. The physicality of the sculpted object and large and small format paintings marked a decade long preoccupation with the gouging, breaking, rebuilding that marked Delhi's built surfaces. On canvas and paper the effect she sought was of the city's roads and piles of debris, seen in somewhat surreal conjunctions. Piles of trash construed in acrylic, metallic trees and plant forms cast in bronze were a part of her dystopic vision of a changing world. Violence also registered to reveal large cast egg forms emitting a leaked, viscous flow of metal bullet shapes, like mutant, corrupted ova.
Anjum was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and after a gap of about 10 years had a homecoming exhibition at Talwar Gallery in 2019. It was an event like no other, not in the least because of the power of her small format works which were vivified in microscopic sanguine forms, imaging the spread of disease, mechanical interventions, and an altered sense of self. In a throwback moment what came to mind were her earlier sculptures of severed latex tubes, crammed and intertwined in a cube, recalling all the ‘absurdity and exaggeration’ of the work of an artist that she admired, Eva Hesse. Yet as Arthur Danto wrote for Hesse's final show at the age of 32, Anjum's last works did not ‘feel tragic’. Instead there was life, flashes of humour and all her painterly skills on view. Even in the excruciating passage of disease, she found an enduring language to confer to the future.