Artists

From the exhibition catalogue published by Parasol Unit (2013)

Bharti Kher’s work never fails to carry within its deepest core a sign, waiting to be touched and unraveled [1]. This may be because each work is the consequence of slow gestation and embedded conversations, at it assumes lives, negotiates space and appears in the public domain.

This process becomes apparent in a visit to Kher’s studio in a sprawling Delhi industrial complex. A large sculpted cast female nude figure occupies the centre, its long arms distinguishing an unusually tall frame. Kher’s process, of choosing such a body, inviting the model to her studio and casting her in a chosen attitude is already embedded in the work. On subsequent visits, the figure appears to metamorphose, as the bearer of tea cups, or animal pelts; for Kher she is silent interlocutor and witness, talked at and reviled and loved. In this exchange over months the sculpture aggrandizes into a bearer of myths, is teased into a domestic role, and then goes forth carrying the marks of Kher’s private space, a bearer of intimate signs.

How do we speak of Bharti Kher’s growing body of cast sculptures their highly performative gestures, their strange accretion of signs? Kher’s chosen word for them is ‘urban goddesses’ imbuing them with an immanence that carries contradiction at its core. For Kher’s sculptures suggest a psychic disorganization; their dark tones recall other dark goddesses that unsettle the status quo: Persephone, Hecate, Kali, Lilith, each of whom is tied to the earth, its nurture and its hunger. Sexed and libidinous, they have at the same time a proximity to issues of survival, desire and death.

As a growing body of work, Bharti Kher’s sculptures bring to women’s practice in India a completely new dimension, extending artistic lineage to a panoply of sources. Born and educated in England [2] she brings to Indian art’s passion for indigenist sources a sharp scepticism and a play of stories and memory, across cultures. An earlier fabulist, painter Nalini Malani who covers the spectrum from Medea to Alice in the rabbit hole could be a natural way shower, mixing as she does a heroic feminine with a precocious and overtly sexualized mind. Like Rebecca Horn or even Anthony Gormley, Kher creates the body outside its social context, extending its dimensions and capabilities. In Kher the gestures are sharper, less deluding, the heroism more individuated and the sphere of influence domesticated. In this emotional attrition of opposites, between the domestic and a timeless heroism, I believe Kher seeks her own equilibrium.

In a period of two decades, Bharti Kher has come to be identified with two or three bodies of work: her bindis as form and surface ‘skin’, her sculptural installations and the dynamic panoply of urban goddesses.

One may argue that Kher’s manifold bindi as it swarms over surfaces, occupies, and occludes vision mocks the Hindu system of bodily chakras, or disc like spaces, representing the flow of human energy. Or else it mimics the energies of Asia, that migrate and multiply at speed. In Kher’s world this energy expands, builds up and cascades into a havoc, or many small wars of multiple conflicts. I also like to believe that in their quieter forms these bindi works afford her an outpouring of serenity, a fullness of beauty, in their deep chromatic and velvet surfaces. What the bindis indicate is her need to build up forms through the act of accretion. The body sculptures draw only partially upon the bindi and stand distinct in her oeuvre through a well calibrated difference. Kher draws upon the human - most of her works are body cast - but these quickly ascend the scale into the surreal, even as they stand at the axis of an intense sexualization and domestic association.

Origins

Kher is artist as background hunter -- dredging out pasts, interfering with known icons. As one who can recognize and transform, it seems important for her to enter an existing narrative and appropriate it. Her work thereby becomes tributary to a bigger narrative, even as it invokes a patina of age, use, possession. Here we see an association with bindis as marks of possession and ownership, and the use of bodies already possessed and marked.

A series of constructed photographs that Kher first exhibited in New Delhi in 2004 carried within them the seeds of her present work. In a work titled The Hunter and the Prophet, a woman appears, bearing the face of a jungle cat, her red booted foot placed in a gesture of conquest on a goat’s carcass, the butcher’s iron hook in full view. In one hand she holds a red feather duster. A design of bindis play across her corset, the animal hair on her thigh and chest imbue her with a bestial energy. To allow an image to rest on this matrix admits ideas of a combative sexuality and a problematizing of women’s domestic role.

Kher’s first sculpture of what came to be seen as urban goddesses Arione (mixed media 2004), was a precursor to an unfolding vision. Arione stands at the cusp of disparate concepts and ideas. Breasts exposed, bearing cup cakes, her dark body morphing into a hooven foot, she is both seductress and dark servitor. The symmetry between food and sexuality (the cherry topped cup cakes, mimicking her breasts, their strawberry pink almost too sweet to consume) is amplified by another set of asymmetries. The domestic gesture of the cup cakes, stoic and gestural - like the bearer of the feather duster - is challenged by her own body strength, her dark energies.

Since Arione, Kher’s readings into the domains of female energy have become less ironic. Rather they are marked with her own need to extend into a gestural/performative space, to release an anima riding the scale from the sexual to the paranormal, approximating an archetype. As her goddesses evolve, there is a choice of colour - flesh and dark. One is more socialized, in attitudes of engagement that suggest a more familiar narrative. In the years 2006-2008 she made Arione’s Sister and Mrs. Hera Moon, both cast in the penumbra of an India in the fever of a capitalist boom. Full bodied cognates, part animal, part alien, they have an air of expectancy, probably not unlike Kher herself on the threshold of discovery. Arione’s Sister, the miracle bearer of myriad shopping bags, a fleet footed alien is a heraldic sign of the times. The niceties of middle class aesthetics are refined by Hera Moon, who contemplates a spider on her hand in the environs of wall paper, furniture and a mirror, the domestic settings familiar from Kher’s early drawings. Kher’s sculptural installations are in many instances vivifications of these drawings. Sentient feeling is transferred onto the surface of furniture - as in her staircases to nowhere, cubicles and chambers.

Kher creates metaphors forthe unconscious mind, the tyranny and traps of domesticity, the mundaneentangledwiththemacabre.In2008,shemarkedadark territory with And all the while the benevolent slept. This work draws heavily from the Indian goddess Chhinnamasta, which translates as the severed headed deity that feeds her devotees from her own expansive wound. Within the goddess lexicon Chhinnamasta exemplifies feminine sacrifice. Kher changes the reading by substituting the tea cup and the skull, as markers of a persistent vanity. Subsequently her goddesses have arraigned themselves with other props. Warrior with Cloak and Shield with her horn like extensions, like a quotation from Rebecca Horn and the more recent Lady with an Ermine and The Messenger completely invert their domestic appurtenances with a powerful physicality. Drawn as these are from live bodies - slim, athletic and then redeemed by unusual features - these sculptures work like portraits. Visitations from the past perhaps, or time travelers, wearing their destinies into an indeterminate future.

On this cusp Kher draw on an interesting panoply of image - narratives around the goddess, and her complex morphology. As compared to the male gods, fixed and somewhat remote in the sites that they inhabit, the goddess in India is immanent, appearing with blinding speed and efficacy - especially where there is failure of male agency. In the Indian context the divine feminine embraces every manifestation of youthful beauty but also aging, rage, deformity, indeterminacy of gender, vengefulness and disruptive behaviour. In this way the transcendental is a manifestation of the sublime: the status quo is established only to violently dislodge it through an unpredictable temperament and sexuality. The feminine suggests flux rather than fixity, unease rather than calm. Kher may also ally with what may be called the minor narratives in mythology. These occupy a vertical space that is below the great gods but peoples the domestic and the charmed worlds of the interface between the human and animal worlds. Examples of disruptive and tendentious goddesses associated with different social classes include Bahucharaji, who has the power to turn men into women and women into men, worshipped as a protectoress of hermaphrodites and the transgendered, and importantly, of deformity [3]. Two headed, multi limbed, part human part beast like the Vedic Agni or the God of Fire, have an unnatural speed and voracity [4]. As the repository of eros and nurture, the divine feminine is also a determinant of degrees of truth, gestures of deviance, aspects of beauty, and of violence as restorative. In short, femininity is never singular, it is always a spectrum. Against such a backdrop of female energies with their animal mounts and magical energies, Bharti Kher plays with the notion of ‘divine attributes’ and completely reverses its potential. She speaks of her works as “grand narratives that involve form, structure, formality, language - not your anthropological study spectacle.”

The natural tendency is to see the bestial as somehow debasing. Kher confers animalism in order to lend mutability. The power to communicate with animals involves psychic ability; in turn, animals gain wisdom from human discourse. The free play from human to bestial is also empowering because it looks beyond the closed circle of feminine experience.

As the sculptures appear, we see that there is a discontinuous flow to Kher’s female forms. By appropriating the signs of earlier cultures they create a surreal female typology. Across her work, the triad of father-mother-child is replaced by mother-child-ape. Her warrior with her palm leaf shield, the fornicating, decapitated body, and the figure flying on her broom stick tease out the memory of cinematic flourish, childhood, and play. Here is the making of an aesthetic, one that draws from metaphors and associations. In this engendering of the urban goddess, what does her appearing signal? Is it a recuperation of lost arts, a return to intuitive ways of being, a rejection of gender roles? In lending her forms an animalism, a shamelessness even, in the acts of domesticity, Kher seems to give her figures another kind of agency. Standing on the cusp of beauty and strangeness the works themselves are informed by a refusal to bear accepted signs.

Art Making/ Making Art

I would propose that Bharti Kher’s art begins with the act of refusal. A refusal on her part to accept things as they are, a desire to interfere with their stability - textual, or iconographic, their use or their location. We see in the work a lively discourse of found objects, found bodies, art and myths all of which are then tested by her for their individual truth. Kher sees this affect as productively destabilizing: “if you push a little more, what will happen?”

Kher builds up her works through accretion and conjunction of different elements. The obvious comparison here would be with Subodh Gupta whose practice is predicated on conjoining, shaping and building with identical or similar forms. Kher does the opposite. Dealing only in singular figures who are their own environment, she replaces the normative with surreal accretions. The effect there is one of re-making - through breakage, spoiling, isolation - and a change in the essential character of her forms. Resting on her high heeled shoes, tentatively on foot and hoof, Kher’s figure suggests only a tenuous stability. In her powerful essay On beauty, Luce Irigaray suggests mutation can in fact redeem femininity saying “female forms are always incomplete, in perpetual growth, because a woman grows, blossoms and fertilizes (herself) within her own body”. She adds “As women, we have thus been enclosed in an order of forms inappropriate to us. In order to exist, we must break out of these forms.”

A word here about objects and materials as they teeter and careen into the domains of the unexpected. In more recent work, Kher’s idea of the hybrid approximates an intimacy of skin layers, covering, assuming partial identities. The process would start with casting a model, one that becomes embedded in the work. “The person is the vehicle. The process takes the skin of another”. Kher sees these conjunctions as transferring the energy of one to another “The small acts of marking flayed skin or dead skin, to mark the body is shamanistic, to take something of another. When I cover with skin or the fur of an animal it brings on the energy of another” [5]. Another copiously used element, the wall paper works wonderfully to pull us back into the domain of the middle class, its bourgeois beautifications, its shrinking landscapes. She builds her art through the conjunction of unexpected elements. In the persistence of the tea cup there is a compact of domesticity, a lingering colonial bourgeois influence of ‘good taste’, but like Magritte whom she admires, the unexpectedis never mere caprice. The tea cuptrailwouldalso inevitably lead toMeretOppenheimwithhersurreal,fetishizedtea cup; shoes, picture frame, and animal skins, all of which appear in a much more heightened degree in Kher.

To excavate the forms that people Bharti Kher’s work, one has to look at her watercolours, done in her early years in Delhi. Detailed domestic scenes of a highly self conscious middle class aesthetic, display cabinets and kitchens, carpets and porcelain cups appear in miniature format. These would be remnants of a colonial past, all vividly recognized through the gaze of one who returns to the homeland of her parents. In her works of 2002-04 she uses Oriental carpets - a weaving tradition that persuasively links the aesthetics of east and west. Kher, an example of reverse cultural and ethnic migration uses a decorative symbol like the carpet but also its more embedded readings, of Orientalism, and nomadic cultures. Women in many cultures in Iran and eastwards prepare their own carpets for dowry. Carpets which also represent the notion of paradise, the eternal garden, one not despoiled by time or use, are in Kher’s work the location for fornicating dogs.

We are beset with a curiosity, about the spaces that engender such free lateral associations. The scenes are almost always domestic: animals fornicating on the carpet, the terror of smashed teacups, dentures, bowls with rice that sing, women armed with domestic appurtenances both simultaneously suggest and transgress a domestic milieu. For Kher is anything if not transgressive, or deeply suspicious of settled expectation.

As a growing cast of characters, Bharti Kher’s urban goddesses compel us to uncover the aesthetic territory in which they are being located. Luce Irigaray [6] writes about how women confront the very aspects of their womanhood, that creates the potential for the divine feminine saying “In those days (prehistory) women were represented as goddesses: not only mother goddesses - the only ones subsequent eras accepted - but also as woman goddesses”. The crux of the work seems to lie in her relationship to the figure: chosen and life cast in her studio, dignified by a life size form, entrapped in domestic function, mutilated and reconstructed and then lent a mythic cast which makes her larger than her own time and space, as ‘woman goddess’.

Irigaray also suggests that for a woman to exceed herself these are three options. The first is for the woman to submit to the annihilation that oppresses, the second is to embrace colour and that which is sexuate in nature. The third option is to mutate, to constantly accommodate the need for change. As propositions, sexualization, annihilation and mutation all resonate in Bharti Kher’s practice.

Notes

[1] In the last year, I have with little planning, and even less anticipation, devoted much of my writing to Bharti Kher. Her growing body of sculptures has informed my own ideas on the artist’s response to new post colonial positions, the potential views of reverse migration and economies of circulation. The subject of this essay is her sculpted figures, what she refers to as urban goddesses that form only a part of her seemingly complex, seemingly discontinuous oeuvre of bindi works, and installations with found objects.

[2] Educated at Newcastle Polytechnic, England, Kher returned to India in 1991. During her early years in Delhi she created a series of small water colours which are at the core of her artistic practice, and serve as a template for her sculptural forms.

[3] Kuber the Lord of wealth described as having three legs, eight teeth and one eye in the Puranas is described in the Shatapatha Brahmana as the lord of thieves and criminals.

[4] In another instance, Bahucharaji, worshipped in Gujarat as a shaktipith is believed to cure impotency and deformity.

[5] In conversation with the writer.

[6] 'Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000' ed. Hilary Robinson, 2001, ‘How Can We Create Our Beauty?’ (1990), Luce Irigaray, pg 313 - 316.
From the exhibition catalogue published by Parasol Unit (2013).
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