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Ruchika W. Singh: The Mother Artist

Ruchika Wason Singh is a visual artist, art educator and independent researcher based in Delhi, India. She completed her BFA (1997) and MFA (1999) with specialization in painting from College of Art, Delhi; and her doctoral degree in art history (with JRF) from the University of Delhi in 2008. She is the founder of A.M.M.A.A.- The Archive for Mapping Mother Artists in Asia.

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?

RWS: I was always interested in drawing and as a child was often on the list of students selected for any kind of drawing or painting activity in school. Of course, at such a young age the perception of art was that ‘good art’ (if there is anything like that) is a skilful representation of what one can see. I never had art as a subject or course in school; neither did I know that there was an art school in Delhi. It was only when I began applying for graduate studies and began looking at the options, I was told by very close family friends about the College of Art. Rama and Deepak Chowdhary, who are alumni of the institution, introduced me to what a BFA course in painting would be like.

I thought that art as a formal university education would be a meaningful escape from the seemingly heavy-dozed humanities courses at University of Delhi. This was despite the fact that I had done exceptionally well in history in my CBSE. In 1992, I appeared for the entrance examination at the College of Art, Delhi. I could not secure a seat and pursued a year in History (Hons) at Indraprastha College. I applied again to the same college in 1993 and was put on the waiting list. After a month had passed, and, just when I had begun to imagine the next two years of burying myself into history books, I received a call from the administration office of the College of Art. A seat had fallen vacant as one candidate had left to pursue a course at NID, Ahmedabad. I couldn't have been happier.

I joined College of Art in 1993 a month after the semester had begun. My earliest memory is that of entering a theory class of history of art in the Foundation course and introducing myself as a late-joiner to Prof. Rajiv Lochan. In the long-stretched, dim-lit and air-conditioned auditorium hall, where only the voice of the professor was sharp and clear, I opened the door, the creaking sound of which distracted everyone. It is ironic that four years later, at the end of my BFA (painting specialization) by when I had worked hard to evolve in my art practice, Prof. Lochan mentioned me to his students in the MFA course and recalled this moment.

The art school, which had seemed to be an escape from history, opened a new approach to history through the visual arts. It was a fascinating world about which I knew little, and so, everyday at the art school was a learning process. I looked forward to being there. Even today I wish I could live those moments again. Studio practice in painting gave me the mental space to voice myself. It is this purging of thoughts and emotions which prompted me to take art more seriously in the future.

Initially, my earliest challenges came from my family members who did not approve of my interest in art as a future proposition. To them, painting certainly did not seem to be a good ‘career’ as much as commercial art did. It took some orientation from my art teachers / mentors, Mr Prashant Vichitra and Prof. Krishan Ahuja to help them look at painting more positively.

I completed my BFA (1997) and MFA (1999) with specialization in painting from College of Art. My journey at the art school gave me the opportunity to engage in discussions on art with Prof. M. Vijayamohan and Prof. Anupam Sud. The art aesthetics classes conducted by Prof. Roobina Karode and the art history classes under Prof. Seema Srivastava laid the foundation not just for theory, but also the world of libraries. It was Prof. Kanchan Chander who kept the window of contemporary art open for us in her discussions. Undoubtedly, my teachers created enough ground for me to take my artistic vocation forward. To them, I am greatly indebted for life.

Learning at College of Art was followed by a doctoral research fellowship, namely UGC-JRF, for a period of five years. My research for the PhD program at the University of Delhi and the birth and nurturing of my daughter Meher ran parallel in my life. These were challenging times, when the role performance became synonymous with social judgement, expectations and time management. I have been blessed to have found support from family members who slowly understood (or had to understand) that I would like to find a balance in my different role performances and would not be giving up one for the other. Thereafter, it became a smoother journey. My doctoral research contributed greatly to my vision and dimension of my contemporary art practice. After receiving my PhD degree in 2008, I went back to full-time studio practice. Later, in 2010 I joined College of Art as Assistant Professor and between 2012 and 2017 as Associate Professor. These were difficult times too, as pursuing art practice along with a full-time job and a family life was very stressful.

Challenges and struggles always manifest themselves in different ways. Finding avenues for dissemination of one’s work has not been easy. In the early 2000s dissemination of one’s art and finding platforms where one can develop one’s work outside of the studio were few. In 2006, an invitation to join the Theertha International Artists’ Residency in Pita Kotte, Sri Lanka, gave me great encouragement. Thereafter, in 2008, I participated in The Third Beijing International Art Biennale in Beijing, China and The Seminar of the 13th Asian Art Biennale, Dhaka, Bangladesh. These initial international participations exposed me to the art world outside of India and also created long-term artistic relationships with international artists, which I find important. The struggles have not ended, but have only manifested differently.

I do not think that I have a role model/s because no one person is perfect. But I admire many people for what they have chosen to be or the vantage point from which they cultivate their artistic practice. Eventually, art is a part of life and living life is as much an art. I do not think it's possible for me to separate them. I greatly admire Anupam Sud for many reasons; but most of all, for teaching me to take a stand in life. I also deeply respect the late Mr Awanikant Deo (ex-secretary, Lalit Kala Akademi Regional Centre, Lucknow). Our discussions on art often lasted for hours and his thoughts on the criticality of art and the need for clarity on one’s art practice outside of the sphere of art economy intrigued me. His passing away earlier this year due to Covid has left a personal and creative vacuum in me. Eventually, it is what we think and the choices we make that shape our personality and get percolated into one’s art practice. I greatly admire the works of Julie Meheretu, Arpita Singh, Li Jin, Mishima Kimiyo and Morita Shiryu. Owing to my art exchange within east and south-east Asia, I have developed a liking for art of these regions.

2. What art projects are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?

RWS: My recent/ongoing international projects are much different from my studio art practice. There have been creative collaborations, a possibility which I have not explored earlier. I was paired with artist Aidan Myers from Wales, UK, as part of a digital book project. It's been a very exciting experience, considering that I have been working on artist books for a long time now. The project is jointly curated by Open Books International and The Godown, Kuala Lumpur.

Currently, I am participating in the ongoing MAP 2021 international artist residency by Heritage Space, Hanoi. This year we are working remotely through international collaborative projects. My book project, The Book of Collective Healing, is in collaboration with Ryusuke Ito (Sapporo), Daniel Rode (Dresden) and Katja Jug (Zurich). It is a travelling book which will transit to all these destinations and each artist will contribute to the work.

Sounds of Living

Predator- II , Sumi-e ink and Gouache on paper, 10 inches x 14 inches, 2018

Everyday Ecologies -I , 36 inches x 40 inches

Relic-V, Sumi-e ink, Gouache and collage on Shikishi paper,

4.5 inches x 5.5 inches. 2020

Relic-III, Sumi-e ink, Gouache and collage on Shikishi paper,

4.5 inches x 5.5 inches. 2020

Relic-IV, Sumi-e ink, Gouache and collage on Shikishi paper,

4.5 inches x 5.5 inches. 2020

Relic-II, Sumi-e ink, Gouache and collage on Shikishi paper,

4.5 inches x 5.5 inches. 2020

Relic-I, Sumi-e ink, gouache and collage on Shikishi Paper, 4.5 inches x 5.5 inches. 2020

The Singing Mountain, Mixed media on canvas, 2018

Rhapsody of Urban Living -IV, Sumi-e ink and Gouache on paper, 12 inches x 16 inches

Songs of Habitat, Sumi-e ink and Chinese painting colour on Washi paper,

9.5 inches x 10.5 inches, 2019

Sounds of Landscape, Sumi-e ink and Chinese painting colour on Xuan paper,

9.5 inches x 10.5 inches, Collection: H.E. Mr. Sun Weidong

Songs of Habitat, Sumi-e ink and Chinese painting colour on Washi paper,

9.5 inches x 10.5 inches, 2019

Balagan in Metamorphosis and Other Stories V,

Sumi-e ink and Chinese painting colour on Xuanzhi paper, 27 inches x 54 inches

Rhapsody of Urban Living VI, Sumi-e ink and Gouache on paper, 12 inches x 16 inches, 2017

Untitled, Chinese ink and Chinese painting colour on Xuanzhie paper, 14 inches x 14 inches

Desire in Metamorphosis I, Sumi-e ink on paper, 12 inches x 8 inches, 2017

Rhapsody of Urban Living -I, Sumi-e ink and Gouache on paper, 12 inches x 16 inches

Urban Wilderness I, Sumi-e ink, Gouache on paper,

5 inches x 7 inches, 2013

I have also participated in the recently concluded edition of The Blood of Women – Traces of Red on White Cloth, curated by Manuela De Leonardis, showing at Palazzo Fruscione, Salerno, Italy. It is a feminist project woven around the theme of menstruation.

The Jeonnam International SUMUK Art + is an international artist residency program which took place in July-August. It was an invitation to join a curated group of artists and explore the possibilities of traditional Korean painting art materials. I had the opportunity to work with a special kind of Korean Hanji and Korean ink. The works are currently exhibited at The 2021 Jeonnam International SUMUK Biennale in Sinan, South Korea. My studio practice involves working with papers from China, Japan and Vietnam. The Korean Hanji has been a valuable extension of my art practice and learning.

UTOPIA LAND, Heritage SPSpace, Hanoi, 2017

UTOPIA LAND, Heritage SPSpace, Hanoi, 2017

Rhapsody of Urban Living V, Sumi-e ink and Gouache on paper, 22 inches x 30 inches, 2017

Collection: Public Collection, Thailand

International Workshop, Bangkok, Thailand, 2018

Page from My Sketchbook, Sumi-e ink on paper, 2013

Habitat Manual II (part of the OPEN BOOKS Project by Mary Husted), size variable

I am also exhibiting at the Asia Triennial Manchester 2021 at the Manchester Poetry Library, Manchester, in November .

My motivation and inspiration to participate in these events comes from the endless possibilities of art practice which I see in the works of other artists. If I am invited to engage myself in something through which I can learn more and can grow, I feel privileged. I do not see myself churning out works day and night without looking into the possibilities of artistic growth.

Apart from studio practice, I have also been involved in maternal research. Through my project called A.M.M.A.A. -The Archive for Mapping Mother Artists in Asia, I take the opportunity to organize an annual artist residency and workshop. I am currently working on the events for 2021 to be held in November and December. I am glad that the project has gained encouragement and momentum and I had the opportunity to talk about it at Stopping the Fucking Wheel by Desperate Artwives Takeover at The Missing Mother Conference, Bolton School of Arts, University of Bolton, this year.

Currently, I am working on my presentation on the forthcoming series (M)Otherwise curated by Hannah Bowles. It is a part of the HOW TO BE TOGETHER Residency by Galit Criden at Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths, London. I am hopeful of engaging with the British Asian diaspora. I am also hopeful that a more inclusive approach to feminism, vis-à-vis motherhood and art practice within the Asian societies and art institutions will evolve.

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?

RWS: It is the nature of art that it is not static. In this sense, it is a positive change. We can see that there are many intersections in the thought process, visual expression and experiencing art itself. Firstly, it is for the artist to feel the need to do it, and secondly, be satisfied with what one has done. Personally, I would not have opted for the digital book project had I not found it conducive to my art practice. This is just an example to say that within one’s own self the artist always knows when a work is guided by a creative need and when it is a loaned vision for artistic practice. This is the most important aspect.

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

RWS: I can only speak from my own position, and so for me there has always been an emotive, expressive approach to my art. Not just the concept, but the act of painting itself. I cannot see art devoid of emotions. It is through the self that one can see the world. We are our own prism to see and perceive things, situations and people around us. In this sense, society is an extension of us and we are a part of it. How far an artist stretches this societal link is subjective. I have not done it consciously, but if I were to, my expression would certainly be tinted by my own experiences in society. At the same time, I greatly admire the works of Chittaprosad, Zainul Abedin and Kathe Kollwitz – their works have a strong social content.

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

RWS: I work in my studio, well situated on the top floor of my home. It saves my time navigating on the busy roads of Delhi. Making notes, both visual and textual, reading and studying on the materials I use, are all important parts of the work process. Practically, drawing is an essential part of my work and I like to do a lot of pencil drawings before I move on to ink. Often, these drawings themselves become very engaging and could take as much time as a work in ink would. In my painting, I keep Sumi-e ink at the centre of my process and seek to work with it on different materials. Sometimes, I also work with oils on canvas and gouache on paper. Each medium demands its own process and I feel the need to detach myself from the other, while working with one.

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?

RWS: Regarding the business of art, I am not the right person to answer this question. To talk about what is created, I think a lot of works around the pandemic have been produced. I see it as an artistic rescue. Artists are fortunate to have the space to vent out their phobias and experiences of trauma. In a way, it is a significant, temporal documentation of this unimaginable time. But gradually, I think as the normal comes back into our lives, the art of Covid times will become a valuable part of our history. Some of my drawings will be a part of the Covid times’ works in the Special Collections and Archives, University of Kent.

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

in your art?

RWS: I love to travel a lot. It takes me out of my domestic routine and regular studio work. Travel allows time for detachment, observation, introspection and self-awareness. During my travels, I do a lot of documentation and look out for art materials. I bank on them to keep me excited to do something new in my studio. I also read books and like to watch documentaries. Since sometime now, I have been watching videos on psychology by Dr Gabor Mate, Prof. Bessel Van Der Kolk and Dr Peter Levine. It’s surprising how the human mind and body respond to the environment and I find it quite intriguing. I am currently reading The Body Keeps the Score. My readings do not get reflected in my art as visual forms, but my art is certainly shaped by who I am.

(All images and videos are courtesy of the artist, Ruchika Wason Singh)


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