“I do not know how to draw a straight line, hence when I was an art student at the Delhi College of Art, I never went on to do sketching and drawing,” says Delhi based artist Sheila Makhijani. She sounds defiant at times as she answers the questions put to her by Roobina Karode, the curator of Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi. Causing a great discomfort to both the chair and the audience, Sheila moves on saying, “For a long time I never used to title my works. Then I started asking myself what I was doing in those works. So the question ‘What’ itself became a title. And I do not remember many of the titles I have given to them,” she presses on. “That means you can re-title them,” exclaims Karode. “Perhaps, I can re-title them but I will not,” Sheila pitches in. “Why?” challenged a bit, the curator asks, “Because they already have a title,” Sheila affirms, quite naturally. I like the give and take and I like the verve with which Sheila Makhijani presents her case, or rather I would say, I like the way she refuses to speak about her works. But here is one woman artist from our times who is going to make it big in another ten years in the auction circuits and museum shows. After Zarina Hashmi, Sheila Makhijani would make it, if not in the same lines, but for her small little conceptual works, which she refuses to be called even ‘conceptual’. She may prefer them to be called ‘ineffectual drawings’ and ‘boring’ drawings eventually turning into paper sculptures.
(A work by Sheila Makhijani)
Somehow Sheila Makhijani’s image in my mind is closely connected with a three distinct images; one, the word image ‘Mayfair Gardens’, two, a group of impatient and vocal artists namely Subba Ghosh, Shukla Sawant, Anita Dube, Manisha Parekh, Bula Bhattacharya and the indomitable former gallerist, Prima Kurien, three, a fair girl with short hair cut, in a pair of jeans and tucked in light blue shirt, wearing a pair of thin rimmed spectacles. I have seen several works of Sheila in various shows and also had some opportunity to talk to her during late 1990s. She seemed to be reticent but smiling all the way. In Kiran Nadar Musuem, in a panel discussion organized as a part of the ongoing group show titled ‘Working Spaces around memory and perception’, curated by Karode, I see a different Sheila; she is articulate and deliciously irreverent. There seems to be a perennial desire to annihilate the artistic self from the body of the works that she as created so far. She has done a wide range of works that includes drawings, paintings, sculptures, paper sculptures and installations. However, Sheila insists that she likes to draw and does not want to know what she draws. This methodical madness of the artist has resulted into a complicated drawings which she calls as her ‘Zebras’, “though my zebras have different colours,” Shiela quips. One wonders whether she is sarcastic or serious.
(Work by Sheila Makhijani)
Sheila is severely serious and critical about her own practice as an artist, we come to know as she talks on. In my view there is a Cinderella moment in all her drawings. The squiggling and swirling lines ultimately assume the forms of footwear of different designs. Then they implode or explode into various directions. However, the artist takes special care to keep the drawings in the focal centre of the paper. There is a series of ‘Sketchbooks’ which are drawings turning themselves into sketchbooks as the artist cuts and rearranges her drawings even by stitching them and putting them into transparent polythene sheaves. There are some impossible drawings that she folds and turns so that they become sculptures of their own merit but drawings encased in a different format. Sheila says that she is not satisfied with these works because they ‘happen’ out of the TINA factor. There is no alternative. Had there been another way of preserving her drawings, they would have become something else. Here she does not take any effort to highlight her artistic genius. She almost presents her creations as a burden out of no choice. It also sounds that if there was another chance she would have done them differently or would not have done them at all. Such kind of negation of subjectivity is so rare and it is something quite commendable as her utterances sound quite refreshing.
There at the same platform I see and hear out along with others what the Delhi based artist Manisha Parekh has got to say about her practice vis-a-vis working space and memories. In Manisha’s case too I distinctly hear her effort to depersonalize her works to the extent they become quite autonomous, without the weight of the artist’s personal memories or autobiographical twists and turns manipulating their meanings or coercing them into the minds of the viewers. It is so striking that both Manisha and Sheila deliberately avoids personal references or anecdotal narratives from their works. Manisha, for instance, brings up three instances from her creative oeuvre so far. Firstly, she presents her first Royal College of Art Annual exhibition that she had done as a student there around fifteen years back. Secondly, she speaks of the works that had helped her to think out of grids and clustering and thirdly, she underlines those works that she had done ‘in sites’. From the very beginning, Manisha also shows the tendency to avoid autobiographical narratives from her works in order to impart a graphical and abstract quality to them. Though there are glimpses of her personal memories in the earlier works, she had taken very conscious effort to abstract them. Like Sheila, Manisha too draws images, abstracting the object value of things around her and making them a part of a different kind of representation that universalize the imagery without burdening it with region, religion, nature and national specifications.
(work by Manisha Parekh)
Depersonalization in Manisha’s works becomes interesting as she re-visits the innumerable drawings that she has done over a period of time and takes them out for some exhibition. Suddenly she realizes that those works cannot go individually. They have to go together, if not all but at least few of them. Then the selection becomes another process, which has to be done dispassionately, keeping the design aspect of aesthetical presentation in mind rather than the emotional nuances that had caused those works. A considerable amount of depersonalization happens in the selection process and also in presenting them in grids. Also Manisha, over a period of time has found out how these grid formations also could be very limiting as it would become a sort of personal statement and she would be, at some juncture, forced to find a convincing story about those grids. It was when she found out the possibility of de-gridding them and giving many of the individual images a sort of independence by transferring them into sculptures using armature and jute threads. They look like a set of magical alphabets destined to be deciphered by the audience. Manisha does not attribute any particular literary values to these abstract sculptural forms, on the contrary they appear as form on the wall with an inbuilt possibility of rearrangement at will. While the grid based works could locate and dislocate the central focus or gravity of viewing, by shifting the grids to off the centre or up and down, these sculptural images also have the ability to dislocate themselves depending on the artistic will or curatorial will.
(A work by Manisha Parekh)
Dislocation is an interesting notion as far as the display strategies of Manisha are concerned. She prefers the appearance of the works to be determined by the available space, an idea that she had learned during the first Khoj Workshop in 1997 at Modi Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, neighbouring Delhi. The works could be brought in the middle of the backdrop and at the same time it could be ‘dislocated’ not only to highlight the presence of the work but also the presence of the backdrop itself. This was one of the instances that had given Manisha the ideas about her site specific works. Though Manisha does not claim herself to be a site specific artist, the presentation tells me that she has done some very impressive site specific works. She gets the ideas from basic forms or basic people. This also could be translated into basic principles. Manisha gets her ideas from the basic principles of life; life seen in a holistic perspective where the thingness of things are given importance than the external values attached to them. That’s why in her works one could see the daily utensils and worker’s implements getting transformed into abstract shapes and ropes and knots becoming sprouts and growths. I would say these works are strangely erotic also because the hemispherical structures could be a stand for the female principle and the animated knotted ropes could be a taken as the aspiring male principle. One of the most interesting works that Manisha has done is the ‘Lotus Pond’ made out of plywood sheets. Done in Japan, this work is a master stroke in Manisha’s works so far as it shows a lotus pond filled with lotus leaves eaten by worms. She envisioned the lotus pond she had seen in Japan during a residency as a cultural cauldron rich and healthy but eaten away by parasitic creatures leaving the leaves porous. Light and shadows play a very important role in this work.
(A work by Manisha Parekh)
My aim of writing this article was to point out how some interesting women artists of our times deliberately take an anti-narrative stance and almost annihilate their own subjectivity within the works of art they create by completely removing the autobiographical references. In a feminist context, autobiography is one of the crucial components that breaths liveliness into those otherwise staid works of art. Avoiding autobiography and also not resorting to the conventional abstract visual language, these artists in their works initiate an interesting dialogue regarding works of art and woman’s subjectivity. Should woman’s subjectivity always be connected to their personal narratives? Can women artists not have a stake in the languages that transcend race, gender, nationality and geography? Why should women artists always resort to the very highlighting of their personal life in order to claim a space within the intellectual and public domain? Can they not assert their individuality by questioning and doubting their own creativity and play up some sort of ambivalence in order to understand the creative process as well as their creative role in the general zone of creativity? Looking at the works of Sheila Makhijani and Manisha Parekh, I believe that it is possible and it is not always necessary to do feminist breast beating in order to be out there as artists of name and fame. That does not mean that these artists do not have gender dignity and gender politics. The very idea of challenging the norms of expectation from a woman artist by annihilating such an oppressed subjectivity is all about being gender conscious and political; a woman’s subjectivity as a gendered subject as well as a political subject need not necessarily be worn in their sleeves, they seem to say. But then it is a personal choice and as an art critic I like their choice.