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Contemporary Artists and Contemporary Articles: 4 Indian Artists Using Unconventional Materials

Unconventional Materials

Contemporary Indian art is experiencing an evolution; a growing number of artists are pushing the boundaries of artistic expression by utilizing unconventional materials. This shift from traditional mediums like paint and canvas reflects a desire to engage with contemporary social issues and explore new ways of storytelling. Let’s delve into the practices of five such artists who deserve to be known more, each offering a nuanced perspective on the role of materiality in art. Their work reflects a nuanced understanding of modern art practices, while also addressing broader cultural, social, and environmental issues.

Mithu Sen

Mithu Sen is known for her provocative and often humorous approach to art. Sen’s work spans various forms, including drawing, sculpture, and installation, but what sets her apart is her use of unexpected articles like hair and artificial teeth. These materials, associated with the human body are used to create surreal and unsettling artworks. In ‘Black candy’, for instance, Sen uses human hair and synthetic fibers to disrupt traditional perceptions of beauty and femininity while also delving into complex themes of desire, intimacy, and identity. She also incorporates tactile elements such as candies and audio installations to encourage intimate reflection on human desire, masculinity and femininity. 

‘Black Candy’ (2010) by Mithu Sen. Source: mithusen.com

In ‘Border Unseen,’ she utilizes teeth as a symbolic material to blur the lines between physical and conceptual borders. The use of teeth symbolizes loss, displacement, and the erosion of cultural identities, inviting viewers to empathize with marginalized voices.

‘Border Unseen’ (2014) by Mithu Sen. Source: mithusen.com

By incorporating elements typically hidden or considered taboo, Sen prompts viewers to confront their discomfort and preconceptions. Her innovative use of materials provoke visceral reactions in viewers, but also encourage them to think about her themes more critically and engage in meaningful dialogue. 

Reena Saini Kallat

Reena Saini Kallat is a visual artist known for her interdisciplinary practice involving drawing, photography, sculpture, and video. Kallat often employs materials like rubber stamps, electrical wires, and textiles to explore themes of memory, identity, and historical narratives. One of her notable works, ‘Synonym’ uses thousands of rubber stamps bearing names to create intricate installations that comment on issues of migration and displacement.

‘Synonym’ (2007-2009) by Reena Saini Kallat. Source: reenakallat.com

The sheer volume of names on the panels alludes to the vast number of people who migrate, creating a sense of anonymity and overwhelming numbers. This use of rubber stamps, traditionally associated with bureaucracy and record-keeping, transforms them into powerful symbols that critique the homogenizing tendencies of such systems and highlight the human stories behind statistics. In ‘Woven Chronicle’, through the intricate weaving of electric cabling, Kallat traces the migration routes of various groups, from indentured laborers to professionals, underscoring themes of movement and displacement. The installation, made of electric cables serves to remind us of barbed wires. 

Kallat’s ability to merge everyday materials with profound historical narratives sets her apart in the contemporary art scene.

‘Woven Chronicle’ (2018) by Reena Saini Kallat. Source: reenakallat.com

Shilpa Gupta

Shilpa Gupta is an artist whose work spans various media, including interactive video, sound, and public interventions. Gupta often uses technology to create immersive experiences and engages the audience in a dialogue about identity, borders, and the observer’s role.. Her notable works include ‘Speaking Wall’ (2010), which invites viewers to become a part of the artwork itself instead of passive observers.  They don headphones and stand on a platform, following the instructions of a voice emanating from the wall itself. This voice, guided by sensors that track the viewer’s position, directs their movement forward and back. 

‘Speaking Wall’ (2009 – 2010) by Shilpa Gupta. Source: shilpagupta.com

Gupta’s use of technology in ‘Speaking Wall,’ and her work in general, fosters a dialogue with the audience.  By blurring the lines between artist and audience, she challenges our passive consumption of art and invites active participation, making the audience integral to the artwork’s meaning. This participatory approach fosters critical reflection on contemporary issues and empowers viewers to become active agents in shaping their understanding of the world around them, while maintaining accessibility.

A closeup of part of the exhibit. Source: shilpagupta.com

Hema Upadhyay

Hema Upadhyay’s art practice is a captivating exploration of social issues, particularly gender dynamics, politics, and globalization, within the context of contemporary India. While she employs various mediums ranging from performance art to installations, it is her innovative use of offbeat materials that truly distinguishes her work. Upadhyay has a penchant for transforming mundane, everyday objects into powerful statements that challenge societal norms and expectations.

‘Made in China’ (2003) by Hema Upadhyay. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In her notable work ‘Made in China’ (2009), Upadhyay masterfully utilizes mass-produced plastic objects, primarily toys, to delve into the complexities of globalization and consumer culture. The installation features thousands of miniature plastic figurines arranged in intricate patterns, symbolizing the rapid proliferation of cheaply manufactured goods flooding Indian markets, largely originating from China. Through this assemblage, Upadhyay prompts viewers to contemplate the socio-economic implications of globalization, including issues of labor exploitation, cultural homogenization, and environmental degradation. By repurposing these mass-produced items as tools for social commentary, Upadhyay highlights the paradoxical nature of globalization, where connectivity and progress often come at the expense of marginalized communities and ecological balance.

Upadhyay’s work isn’t without its critics. Some argue that the reliance on readily available materials can limit the complexity of the message. However, her ability to imbue ordinary objects with potent symbolism and social critique is undeniable.

In Conclusion

These four artists represent just a glimpse into the dynamic world of contemporary Indian women artists who utilize non-traditional materials. While their approaches are diverse, a common thread emerges: a desire to push the boundaries of artistic expression and engage with contemporary social issues. Although the ephemeral nature of some works, the logistical limitations of others, and the potential for limitations in conveying complex ideas are all factors to consider, these artists are undeniably redefining the very definition of art. Their work compels us to see the world anew, challenging our perceptions of beauty, value, and the very materials that constitute art itself. By sparking conversations and provoking thought, these women artists leave a lasting impact on the contemporary art landscape.

Written by Lakshmi Nagaraj, an independent mixed-media artist and arts professional working towards pushing the boundaries of art practices and including marginalised voices while doing so. 

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