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Hemavathy Guha: Art of Multiple Sensitivities

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Hemavathy Guha is a Delhi-based senior artist who is currently creating artworks in mixed media using buttons, needle and thread and acrylic as a base on canvas. In addition, she is involved in community art projects and also makes short video films. She received her fine art education from the College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai, India. Thereafter, she joined the community artist’s studio at Garhi Artists Village, New Delhi, where she worked in the printmaking and painting studios for two decades. She has held 18 one-woman exhibitions in several parts of India and also participated in several national and International exhibitions of repute.

Hemavathy received the Delhi-based Vadhera Art Gallery’s first Young Artists Award in 1991 and was also the recipient of the All India Award by AIFACS for best painting in 2010 and again in 2014. She was invited to hold a solo exhibition of her graphic works in Florean Museum, Romania, in 2002 and was awarded the Visiting Artists in Residency at St Michael’s Printshop, Canada in 2004. In 2012, her project “Offering of Free Food” was selected by the internationally renowned curators, Raqs Media Collective, as part of the Sarai Reader 09 Exhibition. She was the curator of the Indian section of the Third Jerusalem Biennale of Art, 2017.

1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?

HG. I’ve always been inclined towards the fine arts, right from childhood. Or, I could say that I was more interested to see the pictures in my school books rather than read the texts in them. Born as the eldest daughter in a Tamil Brahmin family, I faced several challenges to enter the field of art and had to struggle a lot. There was a lot of opposition in the family to me painting all the time and out of fear of being scolded, I would do it secretly. Owing to the disapproval from my family, I suppressed my deep desire to become an artist till I became financially independent.

In those days, there was no counseling and I’d no idea that there was a college where I could study fine arts. After school, we shifted to Pondicherry from Delhi, and I continued my college education in Chennai. Here, I came to know about the College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai, when I participated in some art competitions. However, the summit was still far away. The college was unique and not many people knew about it. However, it was impossible for me to join the college without some kind of financial support. Even then, I kept up with my painting.

After graduation, I returned to Pondicherry. My intense desire to become a professional artist led me to an Italian lady, Marie Luise, in the Aurobindo Ashram who agreed to teach me painting. She would arrange ‘still life’ and taught me the basics. I would also visit whatever art-related events took place in that small town especially in the Aurobindo Ashram. I also met an artist who was in charge of Bal Bhavan and was teaching painting and I learned some techniques from him as well.

I came back to Chennai to continue my post-graduation. In my second year, I got a job and finally became financially independent. I was residing very near the College of Arts and Crafts and came to know about the “Madras Art Club”, which I immediately joined. On the first day itself, I was spotted by RB Bhaskaran, a senior artist and art teacher from the college, who noticed my talent. After about two years in the art club, I wrote the entrance aptitude test for the college and was selected for the painting course. After some deliberation, I resigned from my job to pursue art. I faced a lot of difficulties living without a regular job in Chennai, paying college and hostel fees, and with no one from the family willing to help. I somehow managed, taking up some assignments such as illustrations for magazines and designing work for ad agencies.

However, financial difficulties forced me to look for a job again. I got a job in Delhi and shifted; I’d spent my childhood in Delhi, so in a way I was familiar with the city. I immersed myself in painting, printmaking and spent time visiting libraries to read books on the life of great artists. I also met other energetic young artists at Garhi studios with whom I exchanged ideas on art. Whenever I came to know about any print biennale/triennial, I participated, sometimes even paying the entry fee. Those days you could not transfer funds online. I would show the prospectus to my bank and make them give me a cheque for the entrance fee. I did not have a godmother or godfather to promote me and neither did I study in Baroda (now Vadodra) or Santiniketan to have an advantage. I found a lot of appreciation for my works at the international level where people do not know you and appreciate only the work. This kept me going.

2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?

HG. I’m currently working on a “migration series”; the idea emerged from the way I was affected by the recent migration of laborers during the pandemic. I felt sad for them and wanted to help them in whatever way possible. Since, at my age, it was difficult to offer help physically, I donated some money to feed them. I empathized with them completely – in a way I too was a labourer like them, doing all my work at home! To come out of the apocalyptic situation I was witnessing, I immersed myself in my work. Migration as a topic was the natural outcome. I have also recently worked on a project called “Tracing the Trajectory of Traffic Police”, within the framework of Five Million Incidents 2019-2020 conceived by Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective.

I would like to add that since the lockdown was sudden, I didn't have the usual materials I work with. After some searching, I found some sheets of Fabriano paper. So, I decided to work on the paper using just needle and thread. Due to limited space and materials, I decided to work on a small scale. I'd made a lot of sketches on the theme of migration, which is what I converted into needle and thread.

Migration, Needle and thread on paper, 35 cm × 25 cm, 2020

Space - I, Buttons and needle work with acrylic on canvas, 17 inches × 21.5 inches, 2012

Space - IV, Rice paper on Waterford paper, 29.5 inches × 22 inches, 2012

Space - IX, Red and Black rice paper on Fabriano, 17 inches × 19 inches, 2013

Black work, Black rice paper cut and pasted on paper, 29.5 inches × 22 inches, 2019

Space - X, Rice paper pasted on Arch paper, 29 inches × 22 inches, 2013

Cosmos, Buttons, needle and thread with acrylic on canvas, 40 inches × 40 inches, 2016

Starry Night 3, Buttons, needle and thread with acrylic on canvas, 40 inches × 40 inches, 2017

Inner space I, Buttons, needle and thread with acrylic on canvas, 40 inches × 40 inches, 2016

Yamuna River, Buttons, needle and thread with acrylic on canvas, 42 inches × 36 inches, 2018

3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?

HG. Yes, I do welcome this trend. I too work across various disciplines, which gives me scope to fully utilize my talents and faculties. If an artist is multi-talented, then she can express herself in any medium she feels comfortable with. I like to do community art projects which deals with society and social issues. These give you some personal satisfaction, but may not earn you anything.

4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?

HG. Art can certainly be used to spread social messages, but in the end it is for artists to decide what they’d like to express and in what way. Even if a work does carry a social message, in my view its reach would always be limited. For instance, if you are talking about the issue of migrants, the migrant community may never get to see your work. But through social art projects, you can reach them, and that’s what I try to do.

5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?

HG. My art happens in the studio. It all starts with the thinking, ideation and conceptualization, followed by sketching and then follows the final process of actual creation. I first prepare the base of the canvas in acrylic and then I work directly on it, spreading the buttons, arranging and stitching them.

6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?

HG. I hope it will change for the better and that it will prompt Indian galleries to look at the works of all Indian artists rather than a select few. I don't think artists can change their work deliberately to satisfy a business need. Art must come from within. I don't think what one individual thinks matters much. There are people and many stakeholders who control the business of art. Yes, what I or you think is not going to change anything. You have to fight to get what is due to you.

7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice . Does it get reflected

in your art?

HG. I am also interested in writing, trekking, travelling and meeting different kinds of people. Although many artists would be happy to go to the US or Europe, I like going to faraway places and being a trendsetter. I have succeeded in this. While I am abroad, I visit museums to see the works of great masters and imbibe some values from viewing them. Yes, these activities do find a way into my works and enable me to give them a more global outlook.

(All images are courtesy of Hemavathy Guha.)


The artamour questionnaire is a regular series of interviews with visual artists across disciplines, who share their views about art, their practice and their worldview on a common questionnaire template. Like, comment, share and subscribe to stay updated.

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