(ME)(MORY): Constructing the Feminine Self

Updated: Feb 17

by Ranjan Kaul

(ME)(MORY) is an ongoing group show of nine women artists belonging to or having origins from the Indian sub-continent exhibited at the Vadehra Art Gallery on two floors and curated by Dipti Anand. As a visual artist who likes telling stories and a fiction writer, what interested me about the show is that each of the featured artists weaves a unique personal narrative of self and identity, often with literary moorings and historical and cultural perspectives. The nine artists come from diverse inter-disciplinary backgrounds with distinctive techniques and creative intentions and yet they are inexorably connected; each of them undertakes similar negotiations through their visual language to construct notions of identity, experience, and different aspects and stages of creativity. The show explores these multi-sensory and multi-dimensional narratives of the self by challenging the traditional literary genre of memoir by incorporating elements of possibility rather than simple evidence.

When I visited the exhibition along with my co-founder at artamour Aakshat Sinha, it was a privilege to have Anand give us an illuminating walk-through and share with us useful insights of the artists’ backgrounds and their thought processes behind the artworks.* Explaining the choice of the exhibition title, she elaborated that the word ‘mory’ has different cultural references including that it derives from French murier (mulberry tree) known for its herb of immortality and the Latin term memento mory that is a reminder of death and that the title served as an open-ended book-end for framing of life and identity. As she says in these excerpts from her curatorial essay:

“These imperfect book-ends frame self-exploration as a multi-narrative through a mediated set of relations between oneself and the other . . . the artists approach the construction of these artworks as they might the construction of themselves, from a quasi-dream-like state or an ecstasis, or states of overpowering emotion . . .”

Curator Dipti Anand, who holds a master’s arts degree with concentrations in philosophy and literature from the Center of Experimental Humanities at New York University, has herself an inter-disciplinary background. Apart from her curatorial activities, she is an independent book editor, writes poetry and fiction, and recently finished her first novel.

Responding to my specific question about why she chose women artists from interdisciplinary backgrounds and excluded male artists for the show, this is what Anand had to say:

"What the show encapsulates is a celebration of femininity and and a deeper sensitivity that is often a greater part of feminine experience - so, no, defining the show as a women's show is neither a feminine gesture or a deliberate exclusion. It's more a philosophical interest in a certain kind of subjectivity and self-negotiation . . . . I was drawn to artists from different interdisciplinary backgrounds because I was interested in a diversity of expression . . . . I would rather focus on the inclusiveness of the show in terms of diversity of material, geography and age."

As we enter the exhibition hall, we first view five abstract landscapes by Mumbai-based artist Biraaj Dodiya. The artist received her MFA from New York University and a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Recipient of the 2021 Civitella Ranieri Visual Arts Fellowship, she was also awarded the 2018 Jack Goodman Scholarship in Art and Technology and has been exhibited widely both in India and the US. Her larger work titled “Green Ray” is somewhat reminiscent of Ram Kumar’s abstract landscapes in terms of treatment but that is where the comparison ends. While Ram Kumar’s distinctive heavily layered abstractions of aesthetically constructed spatial relationships are completely devoid of reality, Dodiya’s are imagined nocturnal landscapes with a mellow moodiness in a family of muted, sombre shades with direct references to recognizable elements of nature – ray, cave, waterfall – howsoever abstract their depiction.

Green Ray

From left: Roar, had you kept quiet; Twin Falls; Memory Cave; Cold Water Alarm

All created in 2020 during the pandemic period, through the works Dodiya deals with herself and her forced isolation, relying on intuition and snatched fragments of memory. Using sharp, confident and fresh brush strokes in oil on linen, she speculates an imaginary world that is unknown or may forever remain unknown once the pandemic is over. What I particularly liked was that the unframed works have a beguiling unfinished character to them with an ochre primer wash left on the sides of the stretched canvas to suggest the ongoing process of creation and the unknown future.

London-based Pakistani artist Faiza Butt’s representative porcelain sculptures have become iconic of her practice where she reconnoitres varied cultures, mythologies and autobiographical narratives to blend craft with fine art. In her series of “The Sleepless Constellation” and “Two Sides of the Coin” the neatly executed and imaginative executed paintings done on the underglaze after completion of the firing process have dual narratives on both inside and outside, emanating from her own identity as a woman, a mother and a multicultural person. While the sculptures serve the utilitarian purpose of serving bowls, the paintings and their handcrafted not-perfect shaping of roundedness evoke an artistic sensibility, though I would personally have searched for a less illustrative depiction of the narrative.

Two Sides of the Coin The Sleepless Constellation

Ruby Chishti lives and works in New York, but she too has her origins in Pakistan and studied at the National College of Art, Lahore. Her installations, sculptures and site-specific works have been widely exhibited internationally including in New York, London, Madrid and Hong Kong. Chishti’s sculptures built on wire frames use preowned and waste fabric and variety of mixed media are based on intimate personal memories borne out of cultural moorings and contextual circumstances.

Her imposing work titled “An Intangible Sanctuary of Ocean and Stars: Men’s Vintage Wool Coat” displayed at the far end of the display hall against a flat green background immediately draws attention, not only for its hugeness but because of its expressionistic treatment and what it conveys. The coat could be hanging on a peg on the wall or a figure slowly moving away – the person who wore it once is now absent or walked away. The distorted memory of the coat when she was a young girl that once provided protection and warmth is now tattered and an intangible sanctuary – she can neither reach it nor draw comfort from it. Contrastingly, the disturbing paint applied in thick strokes gives the work a menacing look. It is pertinent that Chishti describes the coat as “Men’s Vintage”, not a singular father figure but old-fashioned men in plural. Thus, there is a mix of emotion here: the imposing size of the coat (8’ 6” height) representative of the patriarchal order and the new world of “oceans and stars” which is there to be taken.

An Intangible Sanctuary of Ocean and Stars: Men’s Vintage Wool Coat

Restoration of a Fading Memory

There is similar evocation of patriarchy in another of Chishti’s work inspired by the traditional jalli Islamic architecture and reflective of overarching cultural customs. The gaps in the metal frame are further reflective of the process of “Restoration of a Fading Memory” and the unfinished stage of creation. Curator Dipti Anand tells us that the work is based on the artist’s personal experience of the birth of a girl child where women are seen hugging and consoling each other, lamenting the child’s fate. Had we not been given this insight, we wouldn’t know because the child is absent in the work. The backdrop is garish and kitsch, perhaps deliberately so, to portray the outward sham of pomp and show.

“The Only Blind Spot in History” is another interesting work using a similar treatment that shows the posteriors of middle-aged women past their sexual prime, involved with their own worlds and no longer targets of sexual objectification. They couldn’t be bothered by what or who is behind them – the “blind spot” – standing as they do in casual poses, sometimes with their legs crossed, unconcerned, looking away, involved with themselves or each other. The only beings who watch them now, if at all, are the silent, sitting birds from atop the ledge. Apart from its comment on the male gaze, the work is a severe indictment of patriarchy – the metaphorical connotation of the phrase “blind spot” is suggestive of the old order’s inability to accept the notion of women's equality of women who continue to be denied their rightful place in society.

The Only Blind Spot in History

In our ensuing discussions on Chishti’s works featuring women, Anand mentioned a relevant aside with respect to the recent interest in queer anthropology and the notion that there are alternative ways that gender and sexuality can be looked at that challenge notions of normative behaviour and cultural acceptance.

For her polished works titled “Drawing Breath” Apnavi Makanji uses a mix of graphite and collage cut-outs that marry seamlessly. The work that has the bone as its base explores the idea of the super-inflated significance we ascribe to ourselves as humans, the bone being indicative of the arrogance of thinking that the rest of the body rests on it. Apart from one of the works where the bone is more sharply defined, in the others there is only of suggestion of it using soft graphite rendering, reminding us of our place in nature and the food chain. While the bone is depicted in colourless grey in graphite, the cut-outs are actual colourful photographs of birds, animals, organic elements, and minerals. However, the works are not alienating, with the neatly executed connecting lines and negative white spaces giving the works homogeneity, spaciousness and openness, inviting us to see the world more completely. Born in Bombay and brought up in Geneva, Makanji lives and works in Geneva. Living amidst a snow-covered habitat would’ve possibly inspired her subconsciously to make meaningful use of white in her work. The artist has held many international exhibitions, including at Brussels, New York and Mumbai.

Drawing Breath