Artists

As an artist, I believe only if I am able to make what I see, will I then be able to make what I cannot see. - Arpita Singh

It somehow seems like a better idea to delve into the works of veteran artist Arpita Singh, marking her fourth retrospective exhibition at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi, by exploring the solemn space of an artist studio and the blank canvas that confronts her. As with any artist, the moment of making the first mark on the canvas is a scary proposition for Singh, but eventually, in the artist’s own words, “a link is established between form, content, brushwork and colour”. [1] Given the nature of the forces acting on and structuring the subject, the censorial nature of the self, almost inevitably, takes birth in the studio itself; an operation that begins even before there is a chance to step outside, to breathe, gauge, and then acclimatize to the varying environments available. This reminds us of the deluded notion of the white, blank canvas - empty and waiting to be filled and consumed with ‘meaning’ - that is confidently presupposed before one even picks up the brush to paint, but one which does not in actuality exist a priori. The blank surface for the artist is always already filled with what the artist has in her head or in and around her. The matter then is not of covering the blank surface but rather to clear or clean it until what needs to be visibilised appears in terms of brush marks.

Given the scale of the exhibition, which spans six decades of the artist’s oeuvre, with more than 200 artworks on display, one feels compelled to revisit the originary moment of first marks and understand the elemental nature of creative processes. Curator Roobina Karode asserts this position in the methodical selection of Singh’s early oils, sketchbooks with doodles and scribbles, drawings and watercolours on paper. Instead of a chronological arrangement of her works, Karode chooses a rather free flowing schema of display that does not overwhelm the viewer. One moves from one section to the other, encountering her larger works on canvas, framed sketches and drawings, without being arrested by a certain decade and the need to reduce her creative compendium to a linear progress. This sense of non-linearity in spectatorship allows for a broader time-space engagement with Singh’s artworks. The viewer is also presented with her sketchbooks which foregrounds her creative process through stray symbols, letterings and numbers which find place in her later pen and ink drawings on paper. Although contained in a glass case and creating a distance between the tactility of the notebook pages waiting to be turned over and the viewer who might be curious to see what comes next, they nevertheless fill a gap that walks us through her preparatory stage to larger, finished canvases.

Singh’s oil paintings from the 60’s and early 70s, mostly oils on canvas, show her initial investment and concerns which are more attuned to the content rather than form. Objects like bottles, furniture, fruits and flowers, kings on playing cards (Memory, 1970; Journey, 1971 and Figure and Flowers, 1972) reminds one of Chagall and Rousseau’s metaphysical themes - stand in stark contrast to her abstract paintings from the mid 70s. Like deletions and additions in a dreamscape, one can see a movement of idioms and imagery throughout her later works. The lone figures from this era (1960s), shadowed by darker hues undergo a transformation and come into the light almost, when Singh starts to portray them in the rituals of the everyday. In the 80s and 90s middle-aged men and women engaged in conversation, having tea or at a party acquire a leitmotif. Overtime, these figures transpose themselves onto larger narratives of politics, psycho-social and physcho-sexual complexities in Singh’s narratives. If one encounters pathos and emotional sensibilities like love and loss in her Kidwai series (Munna Apa’s Garden, 1989; Ayesha Kidwai, 1988; Amina Kidwai with Dead Husband, 1992), we also face her demons as an artist-citizen responding to the political climate. 2005 onwards, figures of men with guns (both in uniforms and civilian clothing) are seen crawling in and out of her diptychs and triptychs, technological acceleration makes old and new modes of convenience like cars and airplanes appear, her figures are now no longer in repose. My Lollipop City; Gemini Rising (60”X84”, oil on canvas, 2005) depicts a chaotic urban map-like constellation of human figures, with an aged couple at the top center of the canvas with the words ‘heaven was a place where you make memories’. Crowded along with other symbols of religion, urban spaces and structure of language - creating a scene of palpable chaos - are men in black overcoats. One could see them as a representation of a phallic Law. In a sense, the artist’s constant experimentation in the domain of painting has also empowered the spectator to expand their ambit of ‘meaning making’.

Singh’s frequent use of hieroglyphs, letters or numbers stands out and creates a certain dissonance when they spill over, get enmeshed with or stand out in sharp contrast to the figures in her paintings. The planes, toy cars, men with guns, women in domestic or public spaces, flowers and other decorative motifs are all part of an artist’s refusal to conform or be hemmed in by a particular language of aesthetics or politics.

In this exhibition, the viewer is primed to acknowledge the various registers of materiality, socio-political themes and the subjective choices of Singh’s vast repertoire. Her abstract drawings and paintings from the 70s can be seen as intense experimentation with mark-making. We see the artist working mostly on paper, with monochromes, but spiraling deep with free-spirited curiosity into the essential nature of lines. There are repetitions of lines, impulsive strokes, scratches and deletions - leading to a vigorous yet meditative quality in the process of understanding time, depth and space. In a need to pin down these processual dimensions of her work, some have even read this brief interlude into abstraction, as a reference to her involvement at the Weaver’s Service Centre in Delhi in the 1960s as a designer. The tactile nature of her work on paper, her obsession with lines (warps and wefts) can be seen as a close study of textiles. However, to enlist the service of one or few influences or references in Singh’s work would be a reductive exercise at best. Just as art critical discourses around modernism in the post-independence context was positioning women artists as ‘young artists’ or ‘new contemporaries’ and increasingly bracketing them as naïve (Madhvi Parekh), Expressionist (Malani) traditional (Nilima Sheikh) or decorative (ArpitaSingh).[2]

Similarly, as Deeptha Achar claims that the category of ‘feminst-modernist’ in India has to be understood through not just these artists’ assertion of ‘the body in pain’ or ‘personal is political’ but also through a broader influence of women’s movements, an exposure to global discourses on art as well as literary and artistic headways in the country. [3] For her, an ‘aesthetic of the personal’ cannot be productively categorized without paying attention to these energies.

In a 1996 catalogue of her solo exhibition curated by Barun Bhattacharjee, Arpita Singh notes, “I am a woman, I think as a woman, I see as a woman, my references are always feminine--this is the starting point. This does not mean that I am always referring to the female form or femininity. I know what then the work grows the starting point melts, references become signals to lead anybody or everybody to the desired place. I don‘t remember myself, the frame breaks and I, the woman, stand there as anybody, as everybody.”[4]

NOTES

[1] https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/watch/arpita-singh-of-stories-untold/article26148526.ece

[2] ACHAR, DEEPTHA. "FEMINIST INTENT." Interrogating Women’s Leadership and Empowerment (2014): 195.

[3] Ibid

[4] Shodhganga, The Personal Space of Woman: the Paintings of Arpita Singh

The exhibition is on from 30th January 2019 - 30th June 2019, KNMA, New Delhi

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