On January 11th, the Rockbund Art Museum (RAM), situated in the 1932 Art Deco building of the previous Royal Asiatic Society, opened Indian artist Bharti Kher’s first large-scale solo show within Asia. Curated by Mumbai-based art historian and Adjunct Curator at the Guggenheim, Snadhini Poddar, Bharti Kher: Misdemeanors surveys a fifteen-year span of the artist’s creative practice from the early 2000s to the present day. Twenty works comprised of sculptures, bindi paintings, photographs, installations and outdoor murals were brought together from leading international private and public collections as well as commissioned by RAM to transform the six floors of the museum into the artist’s own fabulous terrain.
Born in London to Indian parents who had immigrated to England, Kher received her education in painting at Newcastle Polytechnic. She traveled to India in the early 1990s at the young age of twenty-three, and after meeting her husband, the well-known artist Subodh Gupta, decided to live permanently in New Delhi.
Bharti Kher, "Misdemeanours", 2006, Fibreglass, wood, skin, 148 x 185 x 60.5 cm.; Courtesy Crozier Fine Arts Collection.
As an outsider in both her worlds, Kher’s work traverses the carefully laid boundaries of conventional metanarrative to question the very meanings that construct our understanding of the world. A sculpture of a grassland hyena with the pelt of a goat on its back stares back at the audience while perched on wooden boards made from materials of the forest. An iconic life size female elephant sculpture depicts a weakened animal dying on the ground, while a sea of sperm-shaped bindis painted onto the surface of her skin engulfs the elephant with a wave of life and masculinity. These most unlikely pairings of materials and symbols coincide naturally, projecting a sense and logic that implicate a mythical existence parallel to our own.
Kher’s story is one of material realities, and through these realities, processes and journeys. In The Hot Winds That Blow From the West (2011), 131 radiators are stacked into a minimalist archetype – the cube. However, the work itself is not minimal at all. The artist found the old radiators – a product of the long gone industrial revolution – in the United States and shipped them to India, where she further conducted various experiments, and finally decided to allow the materiality of the objects to tell their own tales. In other works such as What Can I Tell You That You Don’t Know Already (2013) and Western Route to China (2013), Kher fabricates multiple layers of time and space within the two-dimensional confines of mirrors and maps. Again, using her trademark bindis, almost like road marks, she lets her unconscious mind spill over the cracks and borders of defined territories. The viewer is drawn in by the currents of movement created by repetition and color, where the stark contrast of material depth creates the illusion of peering down through the rabbit hole of Alice’s wonderland.
Bharti Kher, "Western Route to China", 2013, Maps, bindis, 4 pieces, 119 x 145 cm each; Courtesy the artist.
And who are the characters that populate this wonderland? “My work is not really about very grand theories or ideas,” remarked the artist during her public conversation with RAM’s director Larys Frogier, “it’s really the small gestures of everyday.” In the Hybrid Series, what is described as “the myths of domestic bodies” is represented in the artist’s perception of the hybrid identity. The bodies reside in a constructed modern limbo space that implicates the indoor environment of a household, where women mutate into animals, children resemble Hindu gods as well as Western devils, and household appliances can also be household pets. In her goddess statues, the modern-day Athena is both perfect in her Grecian hair and rugged in her indigenous garments, she is connected both to nature and modernity, is both strong and vulnerable. Bharti Kher’s eerie works challenge the notions of acceptability and comfort; it asks us to reconsider what we know and what we see.
(Image on top: Bharti Kher, "What can I tell you that you don’t know already?" , 2013, Mirrors, bindis, stainless steel, Overall dimensions variable; Courtesy the artist.)