For Hema Upadhyay, the interstitial realms of private and public remembrances, the conflicts of the autobiographical and fictional are constructed as visual sociographies that represent notions of nostalgia, history, identity, gender, migration and dislocation. In a self reflexive urge, she locates her gaze onto the city of Bombay and its hieroglyphics of space, which is both her ‘home’ and her frame of ideological import. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful and everything conceals something else. [1] In the public imagination, Bombay is a city of dreams, yet its waking moments are filled with the liminal realization that the dream of modernity framed as desire, is now seen as urban repression. Interrogating the extremities of the city and the altered notions of freedom and being, Upadhyay positions herself within the ‘observer-participant’ dialectic probing the ‘within’ and ‘without’ of living in such precarious socio-spatial systems. In her interpretation of city life and its atmospheres, commerce and commodities, ambiguity and ambivalence, simultaneous fixity and fluidity, organized and unruly space appear through the lens of the artist’s body/self in a unique feminine aesthetic.

Self-representation, itself a paradoxical and iterative structure, is as much psychological and aesthetic; [2] locating the ‘I’ in the realm of the ‘Other’, Upadhyay places herself in a psycho-physical field, with the body located, dislocated and relocated, interweaving personal and social experiences with the worlds of dreams and cities. Navigating the realms of the politics/poetics of memory in a surrealist/post-modernist language that combines performance in painting while also amalgamating photography, collaborative and site-specific installations, she deploys the body/self as a subject and object in art. For Upadhyay, the engagement with her own body and its representation has been a gradual process, exploring physical and psychological processes seen through her own eyes. Upadhyay has maintained a critical distance from overt representations of the feminine self, and in her earlier work, the body emerged as a present absence, via symbolic objects that marked human traces and stories of habitation. As a creative subject who enters into a dialogue with herself as the art object, with the outer world as a space of opposing possibilities and encounters, [3] Upadhyay conceals as much as she reveals, resisting narcissistic portrayals and gendered constructions of the female body.

Upadhyay does not paint self-portraits, but photographs herself, she is not the central protagonist of her compositions, but appears in multiple miniscule, metaphorical and performative acts. The use of multiples is also a reference from the Mewar miniatures where there is a continuous narrative through a repetition of the same figure within a single painting, akin to a filmstrip. The miniaturization of her body vis-à-vis the urban landscape through photographic cut-outs is an act of subversion, and within it she alternates between the self and other, intimacy and alienation, while generating multiple perspectives of the world in which she lives. Challenging commercial norms of feminine beauty, as endorsed in the media and popular visual culture, her choice of such a portrayal is an act of reclamation; a representation of the ‘Real/Everyday’ body with its frowns, pimples, fat, lethargy and signs of deterioration, in its circumstantial identity, a quest for new equations and significations of feminist subjectivity.

Combining critical enquiry with a sense of irony, pathos and sense of play, Upadhyay articulates surreal sequences in her paintings, stitching together fragments of experiences across historical (her family originally belonged to Pakistan) and real time. Upadhyay was born in 1972 in Baroda and shifted to Bombay in 1998 and her encounters with this maximum city and how the metropolitan identity is created been her concerns over the years. The life of the migrant and the dislocated body in the urban archipelago is symbolized through the autobiographical lens of the artist, raising existential dillemmas of whom does the city belong to, amidst such explosive demographic shifts.

In the present repertoire of paintings, titled ‘Extra-Ordinary’, Upadhyay explores the subtexts of these two disparate words propose, the ordinariness of an ‘extra’ life that the metropolis offers its citizens. Unlike the overall decorative patterning of her earlier work (often used as a visual camouflage) within which the body/city conversed, fluid design appears at the edges of these paintings, framed within frames of overlapping narratives. Fixated at the centre in somber dark hues of polluted gray and sleazy black, the decaying city emerges out of a bordered beauty. The actual and fictive, imagined and remembered city are evoked through personal and social worlds of the artist; she frames the canvases with the Bombay skyline that are seen in picture postcards and advertising lingua and zooms with imaginary binoculars onto real issues of environmental degradation and the apathy that governs our existence.

Bombay is bursting at its seams, its sparkling rivers have turned into black drains, its sea and creeks are filled with urban waste and the city generates garbage that spill beyond its dumping grounds. The city is constantly churning things, people and ideas, yet this does not produce desired outcomes, nor outcomes closely linked to people’s needs, [4] its citizens choose to sleepwalk in urban phantasmagorias. Plastic objects, toys, fruit-bowls, animals and vegetables lie half-submerged in black waters; flamingoes feed on toxic marshes while the city planners shake hands on a land development deal, texts about urbanity sprout amidst imagined greenery whilst the artist’s dismembered hands try to hold the scattered imagery together. These texts are quotes from thinkers who have ruminated on modernity and development and the surface appearances of urban landscapes clash with its inner decay. Are the floating bodies living or dead, what are the markers of achievement in the money economy when human bodies pile on one another for space and breath?

The works are an amalgamation of painted surfaces and photographic cutouts, shots of the Real City encounter imaginary worlds, the artifice of globalization creating a bizarre beauty that holds onto itself through delicate threads. The onslaught of metropolitan life and our struggles to preserve our subjectivities gives rise to an ontological insecurity, in the production of cities lie the hidden workings of desire and fear. Through the tropes of doubling and concealment Upadhyay beings together politics and poetics, urging us to understand the darkness of our lived moments, questioning the future of her city that lies threatened with the destruction of its own discovery.


[1] Steve Pile, Real Cities: Modernity, Space and the Phantasmagorias of City Life, Routledge, London 2005.

[2] Danielle Knafo, In her Own Image: Women’s Self Representation in Twentieth Century Art, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009

[3] Danielle Knafo, In her Own Image: Women’s Self Representation in Twentieth Century Art, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009

[4] Steve Pile, Real Cities: Modernity, Space and the Phantasmagorias of City Life, Routledge, London 2005.
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