(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


Drawing Breath


Drawing Breath


Artist Himali Singh Soni is also a writer and divides her time between London and New Delhi. She holds an MFA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths, University of London and MA in English Literature from the Bread Loaf School of English, USA. Besides having attended art and writing workshops, she has also exhibited widely across the globe. Her immersive, experimental digital work titled “Particle and the Wave” draws upon Virginia Wolfe’s novel, The Waves emanated from a collaborative project of an algorithmic assessment of the number of semicolons used in Wolfe’s classic.


The conceptual work shows flowing digital texts (the wave) from the classic with highlighted semi-colons (the particle) popping out jerkily, consciously drawing the viewer’s attention. The semi-colon being a punctuation mark that suggests continuity, the work – which has strong literally allusions –explores our continuing relationships with microcosms and macrocosms. Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness fictional classic consists of waves of soliloquies spoken by six distinctive characters where she explores aspects of individuality, self and community and yet they compose a central consciousness. The theme of the novel not only gets reflected in Soin’s work but, interestingly, resonates with the overarching theme of the exhibition itself. In the novel, there is also a seventh character, Percival, who does not speak in his own voice, which makes one wonder if the semi-colon particle is him! The semi-colon as a punctuation mark has over time has come into disuse and thus Soin’s focus on it alludes to our ever-changing society and worldviews (though personally I regard it as an indispensable wonderful space-marker that I use constantly, as you may notice in this review itself!).


Particle and the Wave


When the Astronaut Fell in Love with the Archaeologist


The fantasy-filled romance of Soin’s titling of her second work says it all: “When the Astronaut Fell in Love with the Archaeologist”. Fragmentary thoughts floating in and out of cognition captured on otherwise blank pages invite us to choose our own adventure and ascribe whatever meaning we wish to the work. The unassuming curated presentation of the photographs clipped onto strings hung out to dry like developing photographic prints with their shadows falling below on the gallery wall give an additional creative dimension to the work.


Anoli Perera is a Sri Lankan artist based in Colombo with a background in the social sciences and international studies and has participated in several exhibitions including in India, Sri Lanka and New York. Her Book Art done on randomly selected pages from her mother’s phone book are displayed in the form of an unfolded book. Each of the individual works has a recurring central woman figure in varying moods and positions of watching out from the window and approaching it. Juxtaposition of the actual artwork drawn from a selective memory drawn from family history with the scribbled entries opens up possible interpretations. Perera allows the viewer to interpret who the figure is and what she represents – envisioning herself as her mother; remembered moments of the artist when she quietly observed her mother; shared womanhood; drawing upon her memory of observing her unconcerned mother. The soft tonalities of the work in mixed media accentuate and evoke the mood.


Book Art


Book Art


Shrimanti Saha is a young artist who lives and works in Vadodra. She completed her MVA from the Faculty of Fine Arts from MS University of Baroda and is a recipient of the Inlaks Fine Arts Award in 2015. Saha has participated in many group shows across India and owing to her style of painstakingly created intricately imagined works in mixed media has brought her popularity at a young age.


Landscape with Pink Pool


Landscape with Pink Pool deals with human relationships with nature and shows an imaginary world divided by boundary walls. Steps lead down from the walls to groups of the quotidian world of men and women engaged in various mundane tasks. The figures, abstracted boulders and organic forms give the landscape a dream-like, surreal quality rendered in soft pastel hues and neatly blended with mixed media of water colour pencil and gouache, giving it a tender homogeneity and held together by the cross-sectional view from above. While the central distinctive pink pool keeps the eye focussed on the work, two images stand out sharply in the work. The first is the group of women nearer the foreground, with long flowing hair down their naked bodies that reminds one of the unique protest by mothers and grandmothers of Manipur against rape and murder by the security forces some years ago. The second is the man at the left bottom corner seemingly out of place. Or is he the overseeing supervisor or even god himself?


The lingering pink of the work, perhaps deliberately curated as such, leads us to the display of the next artist in the show on the pink gallery wall. Bakula Nayak lives and works in Pittsburg, USA with strong ties to Bangalore, her birthplace. A graduate in architecture, she completed a master’s of science in communication design from the Pratt Institute, New York. Nayak has participated in many solo and group shows. Her series of works on found, vintage paper done in mixed media we are told were done during her intense illness and portray her contemplation on the limitations of the body and the mind’s potential to overcome physical ill-being. Nayak’s visual language is steeped with symbolism and hidden meaning.


There is a song


From left: Scarlet Thread; There is a song; Call Out


Victory Garden


In all her works there is a conscious attempt to reclaim her body from the inner theatre of conflict of body and mind. In both 'Scarlet Thread" and “There is song” we see second parallel figurative elements containing body-mapping lines, while the shower and water dripping from a can could be seen as efforts to self-cleanse. While she is at pains to "Call Out" for help from her inner being, the motif of a puddle (as seen in Amaryllis and a few of the other works) with a sailing paper boat set off against the prickly cactus plant in "Victory Garden" reflect her will her to navigate and stay afloat during her difficult time. At times she adds an animal figure as both a symbolic as also a mimicking formative element: the slug in "Under the Glass Bell" to look within, the goose to stay focussed ("Straight Ahead"), the rooster to "Call Out".


From left: Under a Glass Bell; Amaryllis; Straight Ahead


Bangalore-based artist Rakhi Peswani’s hanging panels of embroidered textured fabric titled "Cultivating the Craft" portray the tediousness and pain of translating creative exploration of the self and the process of ideation. While the panel fronts have embroidered motifs that evoke different moods, sewn onto the rear side are the tools of the craft, the needle and thread and blades, which no one gets to see. There is however one exception that draws singular attention: here, where dainty fingers thread or pick the outer shape of what appears to be the vulva on the front panel suggestive of the sexual power for creation, the rear side too mirrors the image rather than depict the tools of the trade.


Cultivating the Craft


Cultivating the Craft


Cultivating the Craft


Since we are still in the grip of the pandemic, Vadehra Art Gallery has done well to give a full display of the show as also a 3D immersive view on their website. Here it is pertinent to clarify that the titles provided in the review above were taken from the gallery's website and not included in the show. This is what the curator Dipti Anand had to say about the rationale for non-inclusion of the titles in the show itself but not in the 3D presentation:

"Yes, this was very much a conscious decision . . . For one, the works in the show are heavily narrative, possessing either textual elements or a deep textuality prompting a 'reading' of the artwork. I felt pinning descriptive labels to the walls would result in too much 'text' and take away the abstraction of 'reading' . . . . I'm also interested in how the artworks activate the space around them and how viewers linger or move through the gallery . . . . " Explaining why the gallery took a different approach for their online presentation, she added that this was "mostly because the 3D mapping . . . still functions as substitute for the real experience. Considering the distance between the viewer and the gallery / curator, it made sense for the digital walkthrough to be enriched by text since other faculties of experience are limited in that case."

I fully endorse her view that online viewing is no substitute for the real thing, so will certainly urge all those interested to go and visit the show – following due protocols – which remains open till 24 February 2021.


(All images of the artworks are courtesy of Vadehra Art Gallery and the respective artists; those shown in the gallery space were shot by Aakshat Sinha.)


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*I would like to acknowledge that much of the content in the review draws upon the insights shared by Dipti Anand and our ensuing discussion and the information available on the Vadehra Art Gallery, website (including the titles of the works). At the same time, I hasten to clarify that many of the opinions expressed in the review are entirely my own and may not to be attributable to either the views of Anand or Vadehra Art Gallery.

Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.


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