25 Sep – 03 Nov 2012
‘We Like It Here, We’re Not Moving’ is the title of the largest work in the show. It depicts a group of objects that are unfamiliar yet evocative, partly abstract but also very much part of our bodies and suggesting a narrative. Some of the figures stand and pose while others lie languidly in rest or self-observation. Many of the figures interact – some are a little kinky – and each is depicted with immaculate detail, like a collective of preening actors in their finery, onstage with a backdrop of exquisite red lotus leaves. As the title piece of the show, is this a code or an entry point to the rest of the work in the exhibition?
I like titles that suggest a strong narrative but are still open ended. ‘We Like It Here, We’re Not Moving’ could refer to a political drama about migration or to a minor domestic dispute over a picnic spot. The intention is to get the viewer drawn into a story that they ultimately have to piece together, to generate their own narratives. I can’t say that the painting encapsulates the rest of the show but what is a common feature is the interplay between the recognisable and the unfamiliar, so here too there is an important role for ambiguity. Stylistically, the technique is clearly rooted in Indian miniature painting and yet the tradition has been subverted, sometimes drastically and in other instances in a subtle form, so that different styles or schools of painting are juxtaposed in ways that wouldn’t have occurred historically.
You’re also bringing in commonplace historical references from entirely different traditions. In ‘Back to the Sauce’, for example, The Mona Lisa sits in an easy chair wearing combat fatigues and is offered a bottle of whisky in the visual style of a 1940s American advert. She is surrounded with icons from traditional Indian miniatures and framed by an elaborate Medieval European manuscript border.
It’s true: I beg, borrow and steal historical references voraciously. I don’t really believe in originality – or rather, I think it’s over emphasized – but I do get very excited by making connections and the references can seem very divergent.
Although the paintings shift from the non figurative to images that are overtly narrative, there are recurring motifs that crop up in many of the paintings. Protrusions, cellular forms, various animals and vegetable forms, and these cushions...Do they have specific meanings for you?
They do to me, but again, I’d assume that the viewer might project an entirely different meaning. I’ve been drawing since I can remember and certain forms keep reappearing almost unconsciously. The cushions, for example, have taken on a life of their own. Looking at paintings of the Kama Sutra or other Indian love scenes, the bolsters and cushions are literally props, but they have their own identities. I imagine them when the humans leave the room, doing their own thing. There does seem to be a common thread with forms that have an inherent sensuousness, but I’m always looking for ways to make relationships between disparate entities, patterns and visual references.
Juxtaposing divergent cultural, historical and stylistic elements is an established approach in art making. You grew up travelling and surrounded by Central Asian textiles and artefacts from Afghanistan that your mother deals in and collects. Are there specific qualities inherent in that material that has influenced your work?
Absolutely. I love textiles because they’re basically flat but the weaving or embroidery gives a three-dimensional quality that invites touch. Even if you can’t physically handle them you do so with your eyes, absorbing shape and texture in a very intimate way. Indian miniatures have a similar impact in that you see the whole but get drawn into the minutiae of the brushstrokes. I’m also really drawn to the decorative arts because there’s something liberating about the visual intensity of an object that isn’t specifically made to be ‘art’. It can have a utilitarian or ritual function, or simply be a surface that somehow demands mind-boggling detailed decoration. Even a toolbox from Nuristan (in Eastern Afghanistan) will be decorated with beautiful ornate carving – it’s quite different from what I’d find at Home Depot! During my travels, I also became fascinated by very specialised skills and techniques, many of which have died out in the West and are sadly becoming obsolete in India as well.
What kind of skills are you referring to?
Well, over the years I’ve worked with spectacle repairmen, knitters, forgers, marble carvers, metal casters, sari embroiderers, shoemakers, sign painters and of course, miniature painters. Apart from the sheer mastery of their respective materials, I’m fascinated by the way the craftsmen and women organize their workspaces, time and resources. Ultimately, I got drawn into finding ways of applying these various skills to my own visual language and I commissioned a range of craftsmen to interpret or construct my designs using their techniques. A shoemaker devised a wooden former to create a formal shoe that split at the front into two and a spectacle repairman created glasses for three or six eyes. In these cases, the utilitarian function had to be ditched and it was a test of their abilities to adapt to new technical challenges. With the miniature paintings, the techniques don’t need to be altered so much and the change occurs specifically in the application of new idioms.
So you re-contextualize cultural references with techniques that are also reapplied in unexpected ways. Are you concerned that an emphasis on process – the very process of working with various craft traditions – will overshadow the work itself?
It’s true that in focusing on the production methods, working relationships and issues relating to appropriation and authorship, the content of the work could get overlooked, however I’m happy to talk about the background to the work because it’s a huge part of what I do. It’s also not uncommon for artists to be more interested in the process than the product. I remember Richard Serra describing an elaborate construction that was built to reinforce the floor at the Tate Gallery to hold the weight of one of his massive sculptures. The underground structure wasn’t visible to the public but it seemed far more interesting than his 1000-tonne block of metal! For me, the background and interpersonal relationships that go into the making of the work adds another dimension and I’m happy to describe it.
Can you tell us something about Riyaz Uddin, the miniature painter you work with in Jaipur?
Having previously worked with many of the other craftsmen in India and Pakistan, I was looking for a miniature painter who was old enough to have the technique but young enough to be willing to mess with his own tradition. When I met Riyaz about 16 years ago, he was in his mid-twenties and already an incredibly gifted painter. He had been taught by his father and was very open to trying things out. He is also a lovely guy and we quickly became good friends. The first thing I wanted to try out was using the miniature brush to create an Agnes Martin grid and then put turbans on it. It was wrecking two traditions – screwing up the traditional Indian part of it as well as the rarefied Agnes Martin modernism. Over the years, the imagery has become more complex and wide ranging and the studio has grown into an atelier with up to nine other painters.
So how does Riyaz react to the final work? Perhaps he’s accustomed to it now but I imagine initially, what you were doing was very different from how he was used to seeing his work.
None of the painters I work with seems too surprised by anything anymore! When I met Riyaz, his entire output was based on reproducing traditional paintings for the tourist market – and this remains the case with nearly all Rajasthani miniature painters today. There’s very little need for invention or originality when copies of copies will suffice. I think he was excited to apply the technique to entirely different imagery, but of course there’s an important economic dimension and the work has provided security for a number of families over the years. One of the features of traditional miniatures is that you can clearly see the level of skill by comparing it to earlier references or even just looking at the outline of a face. It’s either perfect or it isn’t…and Riyaz is really one of the best painters I’ve ever seen.
That does raise the question of authorship. Why don’t you attribute the work to both of you and does it worry you that what you’re doing might be interpreted as cultural appropriation?
Attribution has been an ongoing concern, more so for me than for Riyaz. Ultimately, I’d say that the imagery is still quite alien to him and his main objective is to render it with as much technical prowess as possible, without getting involved with the formal or creative decision making aspects. The question of cultural appropriation seems peculiar to me. In the 21st century, it would be odd to not have a cross-cultural collision of visual references – and I celebrate this. It’s also hardly new. Even 17th Century Mughal miniature paintings absorbed techniques and idioms from Classical European painting.
There seems to be a pattern of conscious ambiguity on all fronts. Even the use of antique papers creates an illusion of authenticity.
I’ve always been interested in fakes and forgery, which I see as an entirely legitimate art form and essential to storytelling and mythmaking. Yes, the old papers do imply age, even when the drawing is clearly new, but they also have their own character that interacts with the image they hold. I’m drawn to a notion of ‘slippage’ where meaning and veracity are fluid. The exhibition includes a wall that’s densely packed with drawings, notes, found and made objects. The wall represents my studio and also a bubbling well of possibilities, cross-references and working processes. I like bringing out the more anarchic side of the imagination, breaking out of the frame and the polite ordering of the white cube.