Part of an unpublished artist dialogue between Rekha Rodwittya and Judy Watson, commissioned by Art Asia Pacific,. March 2, 1995.
Meeting you in Coonoor reaffirmed my belief that so much is shared as a common journey by many of us, despite perhaps the fact that we do not always meet up in our lives with one another. To really know and understand where we are heading, I see it as essential from time to time to re-examine our past actions…..an analysis of sorts that then clarifies how we locate ourselves in our present context.
Curiously my entry into art school was the least pondered over decision The pure love of drawing images that then became worlds in themselves was the fascination that made art school an implicit choice early on in my life. It was in the overall process of maturing into an adult that I began to see far greater purpose in art, and this shift into a more “cohesive gear” was around the final year of my five year B.A. programme in Baroda.
What remains indented as a memory from these early years is the gender issue of inequality that became increasingly evident as an existing situation, and its many layers of discrimination. I began to recognise the social disparities that were gender based, the attitudes of a conservative society which starkly demarcates gender roles. At this time my marriage was over too. I had had a child by choice and was opting to be a single parent. I was aware of the obvious so called “social stigmas” attached to this but was not going to be intimidated as my own beliefs were otherwise. However, I realised the need to become introspective in order to fully comprehend who and what I wanted to be before I could then establish myself in an outer context.
The seventies were witnessing a strong figurative movement. I entered the Baroda art school in 1976 and the narrative school of painting was to have a major influence on my own development as a painter. The faculty of Fine Arts provided many of us at that time a platform to be vocal in debate about the direction Contemporary Indian Art was taking; and issues of modernity in Indian Art were much in evidence as common concerns. With Gulammohammed Sheikh teaching Art History and K.G. Subramanyan in the painting department, there was a sufficient polemical berth that sought enquiries from indigenism to eclecticism as linguistic options in art practice.
I worked relentlessly during my B.A. programme. Much of my works were like psychological landscapes. I worked from subjects around me which I had an immediate relation with. My son, my mother, my classmates all appeared as characters whom I positioned. These works were quite brooding in nature but painted very brightly in contrast. Often these works were directly autobiographical.
By putting myself under a mental microscope to confront who I really was, I raised my feminist voice to slowly gain resonance. I had no role models and so therefore I put together my initial framework of feminist structure via a basic instinct of need. Feminism in the late seventies and early eighties was not a focused issue amongst my peers in India. Left wing politics was what was generally identified with by many of us at college and Marxism did not separate the feminist issue as warranting priority over class struggle. I was faced with having to define my feminist politics in relative isolation.
Receiving the award of the Inlaks scholarship to study painting at the Royal College of Art from 1982 under the tutor-ship of Prof. Peter de Francis, was a break away from what was known and familiar to me. It was a changed period of time for me. Exhibitions, museums, concerts, experimental music and theatre, were all suddenly accessible. The excitement of finally seeing the art that had only been illustrations in books all this while, was a magical experience that remains indescribable. I travelled in Europe extensively revelling in the adventure of being the back-pack traveller. Days on the road with a tight museum agenda in every town and city we went to, hasty meals snatched sitting in public squares, and of course the evenings spent in fervent political debate and art critique in the smokey cafes along the way.
Living in London also exposed me to the ignorance much of the West had-for anything that fell outside of their own cultural premise. The Eurocentric need of appropriating all aesthetical issues to fit western perceptions of readability, stemmed from their lack of awareness of difference of oriental aesthetics, and thereby their lack of knowledge of it. When there was any knowledge of Asian or oriental art, it was always the ancient art of these regions they were slightly conversant with. The Contemporary Art of Asia and the Orient was a total blank for almost all the art students I met up with there. Being unconcerned with the developing histories of these regions they were absolutely uninformed about the process of evolution of the art forms of these countries. It is perhaps this ignorance that resulted in many western art audiences looking at Contemporary Indian art during those years and wishing it away as being art that merely “aped the west!” I saw this as a historical injustice and was very vocal in my protests about this during those two years.
What was extremely fortunate was that the RCA had many tutors who were knowledgeable about Indian art. Peter de Francis was also in contact with writers and artists like Geeta Kapur and Gulammohammed Sheikh and had an in depth understanding of the socio-political and cultural history of India and the Indian sub-continent. It was pivotal to my growth to have him as my teacher. He understood the cultural specificities of my referential sources and understood too the eclectic direction of my linguistic choices.
My works now dealt with the human alienation found in big cities-the resulting fragmentation, the hierarchies, oppression and deprivation, violence and inequalities and gender discrimination. I worked extensively with water colours and the largeness of scale was introduced in my work during this time. Besides the practical side of the M.A. programme a written thesis had to be presented. I wrote on the evolution of Indian painting from 1750 to 1984 and titled it “A Painful Journey.” Frank Whitford who was my examiner awarded me a distinction on my submitted thesis. It was a proud moment for me as it spelt the beginning of my attempt to write as a painter on issues related to art.
My post graduate years also defined a wider platform of social and political issues to embrace. One could feel and voice ones politics with articulation because it had become something real and understandable for oneself. There was a tremendous sense of liberation and the personal anguish that had accompanied ones strife, lost its sharp ragged edges of pain.
Returning to India was not an option. It was animplicitchoicethat complimented my politics and is adecisionI never regret. I could never envisage myself displaced from my cultural situation on a permanent basis. The art scene was an active one that I returned to. Artists such as Vivan Sundaram, Geive Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, Bhupen Khakar, Gulammohammed Sheikh, and Nalini Malani were artists who were working continuously and regularly exhibiting their art.
However no real polemical issues were being raised as an alternative intervention that could provide a critique to the ideas of the figurative narrative artists. A number of young artists from Kerala who had studied at the Trivandrum school of Fine Arts chose this time to come to Baroda, some to do their post graduate studies and others like Krishnakumar, to set up their studios and work here. I became very friendly with these artists. We created an extremely challenging intellectual environment for ourselves that straddled issues pertaining to new figuration, art and politics, distortions and misrepresentations in history, radicalism and post-colonial ramifications on the cultural context of India. As a result a platform of ideas of differences to the established mainstream arose.
It was at this time that I fell in love with one of the artists from Kerala, Surendran Nair. He was doing his post-graduation in printmaking having studied painting in Trivandrum before coming over to Baroda. We have been together as a family with my son Mithun, since October of 1985.
I was fortunate to have a gallery contract with Art Heritage of Delhi that provided me a monthly allowance. I therefore did not need to seek out a job to financially sustain myself and instead channelled all my energy into my art. My paintings had become less fragmented and instead of the kaleidoscopic multitude of simultaneous images, there was a greater centricity to the overall totality of the painting. The figures were placed up-front, not unlike a staged tableau, and the images of the women who were the protagonists were emphatically confrontational. Many of the paintings dealt with overt feminist statements where the male gaze of appropriation was challenged. The speed and prolificness with which I worked during these few years after my return from England enabled me to put out many ideas, play and experiment with linguistic options, and explore a surface quality from thick impasto to thinly painted layers.
When a number of my earlier mentioned friends from Kerala banded together to form the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association, Surendran and I refrained from being part of this collective as we observed too many contradictions within the overall manifesto of the group. For me particularly the major point of difference was the non encompassing of any feminist concerns within a determined radical cultural repositioning. That this group was the catalyst to providing forms of debate such as their exhibition and seminar entitled “Questions & Dialogue” which attempted to query established aesthetical positions, substantiates undeniably that they contributed historically to that period of Contemporary Indian Art.
This setting apart of myself to demarcate and pronounce my individual self, was a water-shed in my journey as a painter. I needed to be alone-to isolate myself in the confines of my studio space, to feel and mull over whatever I had gathered to be important to me. I purged the remains of whatever innate desire I might have had for general acceptance, understanding how imperative it is, if need be, to stand in isolation and not fear that focus position.
The political scenario in India was undergoing changes that were disturbing. There was a growing religious wave that was slowly bringing fundamentalist retrogression into the centre stage of Indian life. Civil unrest in states like Punjab, Assam and Kashmir brought up issues of national identity to be re-examined.
The Nehru - Gandhian dynastic political rule was still controlling Indian politics and no strong opposition to counter the Congress monopoly had really emerged with any force or conviction. It was in such political situation that the Hindu fundamentalist lobby banded together to create the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This overt entry of religion as a political doctrine shook the secular fabric of Indian life.
This was not to leave the cultural context of India unblemished. Different religious fanaticism now threatens the freedom of creative expression by deciding what is appropriate to a moral code that is defined by them via their religious sanctions of propriety. No voice of query or descent towards religious issues is tolerated by these extremist religious groups, and the metaphoric “stone throwing” at one another is an approved political strategy and which appears continuously programmed, to keep around sectarian divides.
Writers like Salman Rushdie and Tasleema Nasreen had Indian fundamentalists up-in-arms because they saw the Islamic faith as being violated by their respective writings. Painters like Arpita Singh and M.F. Husain have used images from Hindu mythology which came under censure as being deliberately provocative to religious beliefs. Playwrights and actors have experienced bans on their work and picketing at their performances because it is said that their works offend religious sentiments.
In light of this growing repression it became imperative to protest and bring to discussion what a secular democracy really means. With the brutal murder of Safdar Hashmi, a communist writer and activist, the organisation SAHMAT was founded to combat communalism and it has become a forum for artists from all disciplines, activists and people from other professional streams to make public statements via a variety of activities, regarding communal harmony.
As an artist I feel it is necessary that I clearly opinionate my political affiliations and thereby my art would reflect this too.
Traveling out of India and working in new environments is also very stimulating for me. My entire approach to these segments of time is one where I strip myself naked of preconceptions or expectations in order to allow for a deluge of observations to occur. I believe that vulnerability exposes you to feel nuances which would otherwise bounce off overly armoured mental exteriors. I paint wherever I have travelled. The physical relocation alters routine rhythms of work patterns. There is an urgency of time which propels an out pouring of reactions to all that I am witnessing or experiencing, and this filters through and gets transcribed and accommodated via metaphor into my paintings.
I have a very strong “world” I carry with me and I add and subtract to it with new learning experiences. New York was one such travel experience that gave me a whole new spectrum of situations to examine. The very nature of this vast metropolis with its many layers that give birth to its wholeness, provides younumerouspoints ofentryandidentification. Every complexity that is humanely conceivable appears stratified within this multi-racial society. What was very palpable was how life became a continuous stream of endless energy, never-rupturing…..merely changing its form.
I battled for many years to paint nudity in a way that did not perpetuate the male appropriation of female nakedness for sexual titillation. When I finally did unclothe my female figure it was to present and embody a corporeality of form that situated the nakedness of vulnerability. I wanted to pictorially explore the notion of strength via the acceptance of vulnerability being an integral emotion that accompanies all human growth and change.
Today there is a strong representation of feminist intent amongst many women artists in India. Nilima Sheikh, Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh, Sheila Gowda, Pushpamala, Navjot and Rumana Hussain are artists whose works I feel connected with and respond to. Journeys are never always the same, but destinations are often similar and I see many of us largely sharing preoccupations that converge and overlap at many points.
It is also the common histories like colonization which rampaged over cultural identities, leaving similar wounds that we share as common scars even today. I view too the ancestry of womanhood as a shared one by all women, that situates the feminist movement as its collective voice of reprisal against centuries of gender discrimination.
I want that the functions and purpose of my art remains closely identified with issues from life. Time alone determines how appropriate choices have been. What is important however is that one’s actions are driven by conviction and positive belief. I need to always evoke, for myself and for others, the resurrection of hope.
I really liked and identified with your art Judy. The connections you establish with your Aboriginal history, and the encompassing of new issues of concern such as gender and environment, are strongly identified statements. Simultaneously one has the sheer magic of a pictorial construct, that establishes an aesthetics which spans the inclusion of references from Aboriginal tribal art to world art history.
Our strife to determine our identity for ourselves, is the journey most shared by you and me. There is much yet to be encountered in our respective ongoing journeys, yet one is sustained in spirit by the solidarity of shared ideals.
With much love,