Artist Bharti Kher’s cul­tural her­itage in­forms her work but def­i­nitely doesn’t de­fine it, writes Vic­to­ria Lau­rie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Bharti Kher: In Her Own Lan­guage

Artist Bharti Kher has felt alien in two places: Bri­tain, where she was born into an In­dian mi­grant fam­ily, and In­dia, where she ar­rived as a 22-year-old English-speaker, mar­ried, and stayed to work and raise a fam­ily. “I was an out­sider in both places,” she de­clared in 2013. “Poor me. Lucky me. Of­ten I had con­ver­sa­tions about the idea of au­then­tic­ity be­cause I think within the first few years when I ar­rived in In­dia, it was very dif­fi­cult — I mean to find a place. I wasn’t re­ally In­dian enough, and so how could I com­ment on the cul­ture?”

Kher has since vaulted over the ar­bi­trary fences that di­vide artists into one cat­e­gory or an­other, based on na­tion­al­ity, sex, gen­der or the ma­te­ri­als they use.

“I couldn’t care less where I was from or where you are from,” says Kher with a mat­terof-fact di­rect­ness soft­ened by in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm for her topic. “If your art is go­ing to de­fine you by your place, that is some­thing that I am not ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested in at all.”

What in­ter­ests and de­lights her, when we meet in the Lawrence Wil­son Art Gallery at the Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia, is the way her dozen art­works — paint­ings, in­stal­la­tions and sculp­tures — sit in the gallery’s el­e­gant and sparse spa­ces.

“I love mak­ing art but it’s such a joy to see work out of a stu­dio,” she says. “It creates con­text and it helps one un­der­stand im­agery.”

Get­ting a clear view of her big­ger works is near im­pos­si­ble in her crammed stu­dio in Delhi. “Sculp­tures can sit in my stu­dio for years, I work on 30 to 40 projects at a time. It’s like a kitchen: there’s jam be­ing made here, some­thing else there.”

She’s pleased to be in­vited — for a se­cond time — to Aus­tralia, this time by Perth In­ter­na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val’s vis­ual arts pro­gram. The re­sult­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, Bharti Kher: In Her Own Lan­guage, which runs un­til June 13, is her first solo show in Aus­tralia. She also has work show­ing at Cock­a­too Is­land in Syd­ney as part of the Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney.

Kher’s lan­guages are English and Hindi, the lat­ter painfully learned af­ter meet­ing and mar­ry­ing artist Su­bodh Gupta in In­dia. Their two chil­dren are English and Hindi-speak­ing. But her lan­guage of ex­pres­sion is art, “which touches some­thing that is com­mon to us all. The idea is not to be na­tional or in­ter­na­tional, but to just do what you do to make your work.”

One glance at her sculp­tural pieces tells you much about Kher’s sin­gu­lar think­ing. War­rior with Cloak and Shield is a strik­ing fe­male fig­ure — resin cast from the body of one of Kher’s friends, naked ex­cept for un­der­pants and shoes. The fig­ure stares calmly at you from un­der an elab­o­rate set of horns sprouted from her head. It is nei­ther a fem­i­nist state­ment, nor an ode to Gre­cian an­tiq­uity, al­though oddly it stirs thoughts of both. In re­al­ity, the in­spi­ra­tion comes from the re­cesses of Kher’s mind, usu­ally af­ter a half-made work has sat gath­er­ing dust.

“This one sat in my stu­dio for about two years. And then one day I re­alised it needs horns and hair. I’m look­ing at African tribal styles to bind up hair, so I think: ‘Let’s use that.’ The idea is that th­ese women are not from a par­tic­u­lar time. There’s a sense that you can’t place my women, they defy time and any kind of log­i­cal plac­ing.”

War­rior em­bod­ies a com­plex vul­ner­a­bil­ity; this pow­er­ful woman is bur­dened by huge horns that don’t al­low her to move eas­ily.

“But she has a cloak and shield to pro­tect her,” says Kher. “I’m play­ing with the con­tra­dic­tions be­tween what it is to be male and fe­male, de­con­struct­ing the idea of (men) be­ing the war­rior by fem­i­nis­ing them. I think she’s beau­ti­ful.”

Kher leads me to an aus­tere, shrine­like al­cove where, on a mar­ble plinth, sits a golden bowl. The work is called Sing to them that will lis­ten, and its mean­ing lies in thou­sands of tiny grains of rice con­tained within the Ti­betan singing bowl. If you peer closely, you see mi­nus­cule writ­ing on ev­ery grain; Kher ex­plains that each grain holds part of a real per­son’s plea for a part­ner, ad­ver­tised in an In­dian news­pa­per’s mat­ri­mo­nial col­umn.

“I was try­ing to take this idea of how ev­ery­one seeks love, what we will do in com­mu­ni­cat­ing and find­ing love,” she says. “I’ve been col­lect­ing mat­ri­mo­nial col­umns for a num­ber of years … I think of them as so­cial and an­thro­po­log­i­cal stud­ies — in five pages — of the en­tire sub­con­ti­nent of In­dia.”

The use of rice grains was in­spired by a pro­fes­sional rice writer in the In­dian tourist town of Dilli Haat, where he in­scribed her name and those of her chil­dren on rice grains.

“It all starts to come to­gether, I’m look­ing at the mat­ri­mo­ni­als and now I’ve met this man — it’s per­fect — so I bring them all to­gether.” You sense that In­dia’s in­fin­itely cre­ative, al­ways chaotic ar­ti­san scene suits her well. With her ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to de­tail, Kher worked out how to spray the grains and pre­serve them so they wouldn’t be eaten by in­sects. “I put them all in a bowl and mixed them all up. All the peo­ple, all the

and Shield, classes, all the struc­tures, all the men and all the women in one bowl.”

We move on to Cloud­walker, a life-size fi­bre­glass fig­ure that is part woman, part Hindu god­dess and part an­i­mal, bran­dish­ing a pitch­fork and danc­ing on one foot. Kher de­scribes her as “an ur­ban witch, a woman of both mythol­ogy and ev­ery­day life, a hy­brid”.

One of her most fa­mous works is a life-size fe­male ele­phant slumped prone on the ground, her skin cov­ered in an in­tri­cate patina of spermshaped bindis. One of three ele­phant ver­sions sold for nearly £1 mil­lion in 2010 at Sotheby’s; com­men­ta­tors var­i­ously de­scribed the ele­phant form as rep­re­sent­ing In­dia’s en­vi­ron­men­tal de­cline or the na­tion’s seething life force.

A cen­tral mo­tif used by Kher is one of In­dia’s old­est cul­tural adorn­ments, the “bindi”, a dec­o­ra­tive dot worn by In­dian women on their fore­heads and rep­re­sent­ing the third eye. Masspro­duced “bindi” dots are used in their thou­sands, in dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes, to form swirling lay­ered pat­terns. The bindi works on dis­play in Perth in­clude Virus, a 3m spiral made of 10,000 hand-dyed bindis on a gallery wall.

Sim­i­lar in­stal­la­tions have been made in Nor­way, Ja­pan, Bri­tain and China, with each work be­ing com­pleted when the en­tire set is in­stalled in a hand­crafted box.

“It’s al­most like you give a life to an ob­ject and you put faith in it. Virus is a time­piece that marks a year, a space into which this work has in­ter­vened.”

Each work is also tagged — in notes Kher in­cludes in the box — to a no­table his­toric event for that year. “This Virus will mark the re­cent dis­cov­ery of the sound of two black holes clash­ing,” she says. “So I’ve cre­ated a time vor­tex that you can en­ter in Perth.

“The pro­ject started in 2010 and will con­tinue un­til 2040, when I’ll be 70 … I may or may not be alive but the work con­tin­ues to in­ter­vene and cre­ate a sense of mean­ing.”

Kher’s use of the bindi, the “third eye”, “is not cul­tural, it is con­cep­tual”, she in­sists. “I like the ex­tra­or­di­nary pos­si­bil­ity that th­ese works can ‘see’ you, just through [ex­plor­ing] an idea.”

It comes back to Kher’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to speak a uni­ver­sal lan­guage through art, even if aspects of that lan­guage de­rive from a spe­cific cul­ture.

“We are all com­mu­ni­cat­ing through im­agery, whether we are from Africa or In­dia or Aus­tralia. I’ve changed this (bindi) sym­bol’s mean­ing, its syn­tax and semi­otics. It’s so much more now than its ori­gin, and that’s why art is in­ter­est­ing.”

She adds with ca­sual af­ter­thought: “And you’ve got to take it some­where else. Oth­er­wise it’s bor­ing.”

is at Lawrence Wil­son Art Gallery, Perth, un­til June 13. Her work is also show­ing at Cock­a­too Is­land as part of the Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney un­til June 5.

Bharti Kher at Syd­ney Bi­en­nale this week, left; War­rior with Cloak


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