Vita Nova: Reimagining Dante
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
by Ranjan Kaul
An exciting new exhibition inspired by Dante’s literature, Vita Nova: A new life, will soon open for the public in the capital at the Italian Cultural Centre. Curated and conceived by Myna Mukherjee and Davide Quadrio to commemorate Italian poet, writer and philosopher, Dante Alighieri’s 700th death anniversary last year, the show is being presented as a collateral to the India Art Fair 2022. La Vita Nuova (Italian for ‘The New Life’) or Vita Nova is a remarkable work by Dante, a ‘prosimetrum’, where prose alternates with poetry and is an expression of the medieval genre of courtly love; it gave rise to the Western myth that the love of a woman can lead to the divine. However, the exhibition is not limited to the theme of Vita Nova per se but explores the entire gamut of Dante’s rich literature, including his greatest poetical work, The Divine Comedy.
Six renowned artists from India and Italy – Andrea Anastasio, Francesco Simeti, Marta Roberti, Puneet Kaushik, Raghava K.K. and Shio Shiv Suleman – were invited to investigate ‘the new life’ as reflected by Dante’s body of work using their individual styles and mediums of expression. The exhibition promises to be a rich and immersive experience of a fascinating and magical world ranging from mythology and arcane imagery to metaphors of political protests.
Born in Rome, Andrea Anastasio divides his time between Italy and India. His work and research lie in the potential convergences of conceptual art with design, and focuses on the manipulation of objects, consumer goods and local materials order to generate linguistic short circuits, while sabotaging their conventional meaning. He was artist in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Bosto, in 2005 and 2008 and has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in various Italian and international museums.
Us, 2022 (2006 onwards)
What Is Left Behind, 2022 (2009 onwards)
Moth, Wool, polyester, copper, eyelet, machine-made hand-finished carpet
Pale Pink Chirst, 2018, Glazed ceramic and metal frame
Conce e mute, 2009
Reflecting our deep interconnections within ourselves and with nature, the artist works with a variety of mediums and materials – woodcuts, wool, fabrics, carpet, cardboard packaging, ceramics, tannings, metal frame. In his work What is Left Behind he uses dust and dirt collected from the floor stuck with decorative stickers.
“After two years of the pandemic,” Anastasio says, “the relevant thing is realizing how deeply we are all interconnected and how life demands a constant tuning into the ever-changing dimension that we call reality.”
Shilo Shiv Suleman is an award-winning Indian artist whose work lives and breathes at the intersection of magical realism, art, technology and social justice. Her work weaves together the sensual and sacred, past and future. She has been exhibited widely and has painted over 40 murals in 15 countries. She is also the founder and director of Fearless Collective, a growing movement of South Asian artists who are trying to reclaim public spaces from ‘Fear’.
Suleman’s Grove is a meditation on the interdependence of breath, where the artist has collaborated with a neuroscientist to create art that interacts with our brainwaves and other biofeedback sensors; breathing becomes the thread that connects all things.
Grove, 2016 by Shilo Shiv Suleman in collaboration with Yogendra (lohar),
Brass, fabric, humidity sensors and LEDs
Rebirthing The River, 2022 by Shilo Shiv Suleman
in collaboration with lohars, Shehzad, Babulal, Yogendra, Embroiders: Mehboob
River body (sculpture), brass, Iron and mirror
Flood (the river), Embroidered fabric and upcycled plastic
Vahaan/vehicles (the masks), Metaland embroidered and upcycled plastic
Picking Up Pieces of Myself, 2021 by Shilo Shiv Suleman in collaboration with Shehzad and Babulal, Brass and precious stones, consisting of 20 organs
In her work, Rebirthing the River, Suleman harks back to Indian mythology and folklore where rivers were often embodied as women: Yamuna’s desire and rejection created life; Ganga’s cosmic waters turned black; Saraswati chose to leave, turning the Thar into a desert when she left. In a contemporary immersive installation and ritual performance, the artist has created a wearable sculpture inspired by these river myths. While in Dante’s universe, life ends in an inferno, in our softer cosmologies the artist asks: “What if the river chose to return? How would we treat her? Touch her?”
According to mythical lore, the various parts of Sati’s burning body scattered in 57 spaces; where a part fell, that place became sacred. In Picking the Pieces of Myself Suleman treats her own body as a site of ceremony and reclamation, while the gallery becomes a sacred space. Twenty organs made of brass, beaten by hand into shape and carved on the artist’s body (consecrated by fire, as it were) serve as a metaphor for how we break up and put ourselves back together. By embodying these myths, Suleman reminds us that these stories, archetypes, metaphors and rituals need not live outside ourselves but inside our own interior temples.
Into the Metaverse I, 2022, by Raghava K.K. and miniature artists from Jaipur,
Oil on canvas with mineral paints
Into The Metaverse II, 2022 by Raghava K.K. with miniature artists from Jaipur,
Acrylic on canvas with mineral paints
A multidisciplinary artist, storyteller and curator, Raghava K.K. currently lives and works out of New York and Bangalore. Last year, Raghava was the first Indian to launch an NFT at Sotheby's, New York, in partnership with Burning Man, a collaborative artwork created using brainwaves, AI and painting robots. Raghava’s art practice traverses traditional forms of painting, installation and performance, embracing new media (AI, neuro-feedback, biohacking, board and video games, crypto currencies, etc) to express post-human contemporary realities. Describing his series that will be on display at the show, the artist says, “I wanted to bring together two worlds of painting . . . The works bring together generations of craftsmanship and new technology, the materiality of different mediums and a new encounter.”
While drawing is her primary medium of expression, Marta Roberti uses installations and animated videos, through which she explores the relationship between East and West, studying and reworking local myths and their representation. Her artistic production has always found inspiration in the idea that the ego has no boundaries and that it is not only human. A resident of Rome, Roberti has participated in several international exhibitions and festivals and has also lived a few years in Asia, where she participated in several residencies between China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Se io mi intuassi come tu ti imnii: La minotaura. Inferno, Canto XII, Versi 1-30, by Marta Roberti
Kashmiri chain stitch embroidery: Textured chain stitch and chain stitch. Drawing by Marta Roberti. Hand embroidery by Fayaz Ahmed Sofi and by Ghulam Ahmed Wane.
Embroidery’s Art Director: Paola Manfredi. Made in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Se io mi intuassi come tu ti imnii: La Ladra e il serpent, Inferno, Canto XXIV, Versi 79-151,
Fabric cotton, embroidery cotton/viscose blend, Kashmiri chain sttitch embroidery: Textured chain stitch and chain stitch. Drawing by Marta Roberti. Hand embroidery by Fayaz Ahmed Sofi and by Abdul Rehman Dar. Embroidery’s Art Director: Paola Manfredi. Made in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Se io mi intuassi come tu ti imnii: Se io mi instuassi come tu ti imnii: Centura.
Inferno, Canto XXV, Versi 16-33, 2021,
Fabric cotton, Embroidery cotton/viscose blend, Kashmiri chain stitch embroidery: Textured Chain stitch and plain chain stitch. Drawing by Marta Roberti. Hand embroidery by Ghulam Rasool Mir and by Ashiq Ahmad Thakur. Embroidery’s Art Director: Paola Manfredi. Made in Srinagar, Kashmir
Se io mi intuassi come tu ti imnii: Se io mi intusassi come tu ti inmii: Le tre fiere: Lupa. Inferno, Canto I, Versi 32-49, 2021,
Fabric cotton, embroidery cotton/viscose blend, Kashmiri chain stitch embroidery: Textured chain stitch and chain stitch. Drawing by Marta Roberti. Hand embroidery by Ghulam Hassan Dar. Embroidery’s Art Director: Paola Manfredi. Made in Srinagar, Kashmir
Se io mi intuassi come tu ti imnii: Le tre fiere: Lince. Inferno, Canto I, Versi 32-49, 2021,
Fabric cotton, embroidery cotton/viscose blend. Kashmiri chain stitch embroidery: Textured chain stitch and chain stitch. Drawing by Marta Roberti. Hand embroidery by Ghulam Hassan Dar. Embroidery’s Art Director: Paola Manfredi. Made in Srinagar, Kashmir
Se io mi intuassi come tu ti inmii consists of a series of drawings made on Yunnan paper, with embroider work done in Kashmir and translated into tapestries made with the chain stitch technique. This complex project was realized with the collaboration of the Italian Indian embroidery expert Paola Manfredi and the embroidery work was carried out by Srinagar-based crafts-persons. The title of work is a verse taken from Dante's Commedia (Paradiso IX,81), which roughly translates to “if I could penetrate you, understand you, perceive you with the same empathy that makes you penetrate me” and poetically expresses the idea of metamorphosis that is at the heart of all her work.
In her works Roberti invokes a metaphysical interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. For her, “Life is nothing but a process of intraspecific metamorphosis where each species is the metamorphosis of the previous one.” She thus visualizes Dante’s Divine Comedy as an imagined series of large-format drawings depicting interaction between human and animals and discovered in the poetry of mythological creatures and human-animal hybrids. She explains, “I played at transforming mythological creatures and animals into the feminine by inventing characters like the Centaur, Minotaur, and Lucifer, using myself as a model and creating self-portraits in these mythological animal forms."
Puneet Kaushik is an artist-anthropologist who evokes, through his choice of mediums and techniques, the cultural history of the periphery. He has travelled across South Asia to document art- and craft-making techniques and cultural histories of the artisanal communities. Best known for his investigations into gender, identity violence and sexuality, his works have been exhibited in several exhibitions worldwide. He is committed to reviving traditional craft techniques through innovative materials and technology and by focusing on equitable working conditions for crafts-persons and engaging with them.
Blue hybrid, set of 10 Jaipur blue pottery, 2019/21
Kaushik works though a plethora of mediums, including paper, flower, vegetable matter, skin, hair, threads, textiles, marble, glass and ceramic. Through his work, which include drawings on paper, mixed media and monumental installations, he disrupts the viewer’s understanding of the linearity of time, history and lived experiences. By his choice of abstract subjects and his refusal to be bound by existing prosaic parameters of art reception, he challenges the restrictive notions of contemporary art practice in the subcontinent.
Italian artist Francesco Simeti lives and works in New York and is known for his site-specific installations that present enchanting scenes that reveal a more complex subtext upon closer inspection. His work often appropriated photographs from newspapers and magazines to raise questions about the role of images in contemporary discourse. Public art is a fundamental aspect of his practice and he has held several exhibitions across the globe.
Temecula, by Franceso Simit, 2008-2011, Woodcut
Zimbabwe, by Franceso Simeti, 2008-2011, Woodcut (black)
Colorado, by Franceso Simeti, 2008-2011, Woodcut (silver)
San Antonio, by Franceso Simeti, 2008-2011, Woodcut (silver)
Entangled with plants and flowers, historical archives, and other kinds of matter, Simeti’s works conceal multi-layered meanings, intricate narratives and subversive elements, using traditional etching techniques.
As the curatorial note explains, “It is in fact a ‘selva oscura’ (dark forest) as Dante started his masterpiece Divine Comedy. These apparently innocent, subdued landscapes hide realities of places which are polluted or misused by human beings. It is another theatre, not a theatre of the world, but the theatre of what is wrong with this world. In the video, the same juxtaposition of early springtime New York . . . with the social demonstrations for black life matters bring into the picture a tension between Nature and Humanity, and the tragedy of their relationship.”
While retaining the historical and cultural moorings, the Dante-inspired Vita Nova collection of transformative and immersive works are a commentary on our current times and our worrisome engagement with an endangered nature. At the same time, the works of the six artists on display explore and raise questions about the role of craft in the evolution of the tectonic-plate-like shifts taking place in the world of contemporary art.
Andrea Anastasio, one of the featured six artists, aptly sums up what the show seeks to achieve, “Art processes can help us rely on different ways of engaging with reality while broadening the space of encounters, opening it to the vast dimension of diversities. Every single action that is rooted into a subtler awareness of the moment is Vita Nova. Then the crafts-person, the artist, the viewer are different moments of the same process: a participatory act of a vital dialogue. Making things then can embrace the enigma of our condition, while pushing us to embrace the vulnerability that makes us human.”
After an exclusive preview and reception on 28 April 2022, the exhibition will be open for viewing from 29 April to 31 May 2022 at the Italian Embassy Cultural Center, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi.
(The images of the works are courtesy of the curators and the individual artists.)
Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.
His art can be viewed on www.ranjankaul.com