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Interpreting Metaphors in Art: Part III – Sheela Gowda

Sheela Gowda: Deciphered

Sheela Gowda (Image source: Sheela Gowda. It.. Matters)

Sheela Gowda is an Indian artist living and working in Bangalore. She adapted to the fast pace of development both economically and culturally in India by making three-dimensional work in the 1990s after a shift from painting originally. 

Her reputation as an artist today stems from the large installations she makes. She usually talks about labour conditions, manufacturing cycles, urban infrastructure, and traditional and modern life using her artwork. She looks for the most suitable materials so that her works can carry a lot of stories. The stories she tells about these benefits in her imaginative handling of practical and economic advantages are derived from cultic and spiritual practices. This production-oriented art engages with matters of production itself as well as ordinary daily activities within either traditional or industrial communities. Let’s take a look at her installations.

Darkroom, 2006 by Sheela Gowda

Darkroom, 2006 (Image source: Bosepacia.com)

Gowda created Darkroom in 2006 from discarded tar barrels she got from her village. On the outside, the building looked like an unofficial architecture of slums but when one went inside, this was not so. 

To allow some light in, she made pierced holes which made it resemble the night sky. The starry night sky serves as a reminder of the universality of hope and aspiration, as it is made up of the lowly materials emblematic of economic suffering in developing countries.

And Tell Him of My Pain, 1998 by Sheela Gowda

And Tell Him of My Pain 1998 (Image source: Sheela Gowda | Välkommen till Lunds konsthall!

A collection of crimson wires hanging and wending around an empty room. Upon closer inspection, it is revealed that the cords, which are used to symbolically mark the foreheads of married Hindu women, are constructed of several threads that are joined together and covered in kumkum, or red vermilion powder. 

Every needle in And Tell Him of My Pain had the entire length of a three hundred and sixty feet piece of thread pulled through it. The work with sinister references to the body loops vessels and inner organs also portrays the labour forms of women that are being marginalized more and more as well as undervalued in India.

Of All People, 2011 by Sheela Gowda

Of All People, 2011 (Image source:Moma.org)

To set the stage for Of All People, Gowda reused components of architecture from Bangalore, for instance, door jambs, wooden tables, and window frames. The elements were painted using vivid yellow, pink, and turquoise shades, which are common for houses in these parts. The arrangement was filled with thousands of votive figures made of wood used for particular social customs within the societies represented there.

Of all people (Installation view at Iniva) (Image source: OfAllPeople)

Once intricately hand-carved, these figurines are now quickly and cheaply produced by craftspeople. Gowda photographed a selection of these “people” and hung them high on the wall, which is where a picture of an elder or an image of a deity might go in an Indian home. Her staged environment and the phantom bodies that inhabit it speak to systems of power that dictate how people live within structures—whether physical, economic, or ideological.

To Sum it up…

In her work, Sheela Gowda sees sentiment over substance. She thinks about how these objects feel and their attachment to one another by looking at them through their motivations and acts. Despite or apparently “frugality” (as she puts it), the work always stays in touch with experience and reality, leaving much room for interpretation. She emphasises process-based art by selecting simple materials, constructing intricate installations, and manipulating found space. Her paintings are filled with subtlety and great emotional force, often appearing deceptively simple.

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By Soumya Kotian

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