Artists

For most of the past decade, Anita Dube was exploring Anita Dube has been exploring and elaborating her endeavours into sculpture. Having studied Art Criticism at Baroda, her approach to making art was tangential, independent and untrained (though certainly never naïve in any way). Her first efforts were with carved and painted wood, a vocabulary she inherited from her peers within the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association for which she became the designated spokesperson. Carved wooden objects were soon to be paired or decorated with other objects and materials and since the mid-1990s the artist has concerned herself exclusively with the found (or, more aptly, selected)and then manipulated object.

A breakthrough of sorts came in 1997 with the suite of works entitled “Silence (Blood Wedding)” which entailed bones from a human skeleton the artist sheathed in a skin of red velvet and liberally sprinkled with confections of beading, lace and embroidery. With this work, Dube grappled simultaneously with contradictory histories of sculpture and humanism; cottage production and the rarified language of high-art; the fetishes for beauty and detailing which often obfuscate the attempt to construct or excavate meaning. Since “Silence (Blood Wedding)” Dube has continued to encase objects in velvets of different hues, following programs of vastly divergent themes and achieving surprisingly diverse results. Though always potent, curious and affecting, none of the subsequent works using velvet could achieve quite the same impact as “Silence (Blood Wedding)” (using human bones is a hard act to follow), that is, until recently.

An invitation to participate in a group exhibition to be entitled “Wayside Deities” led Dube to turn her attentions to the primitive and animistic markers of Hindu theology which are so prominent throughout India. This was not exactly a radical departure in content nor investigation for the artist, for most of her work in the past decade has been dealing with concerns revolving around the concepts of Bhakti, Darshan, ritualized fetishistic devotions and their intersections with contemporary socio-political developments. What the exhibition’s premise did enable the artist to do was to be liberated from the sole responsibility of establishing the received context for her works, insuring a religious/political reading of her works no matter what they may be. Dube rolled up her sleeves, so to speak, and grasped the opportunity.

One senses that the base components of Dube’s newest sculptures - toilets, drain-pipes and bathroom fixtures - had been beckoning to the artist for some time already. So multifarious are the interweavings between ritual cleansings in all religious constructs (but especially Hinduism) and how the obsession (or lack thereof) for cleanliness manifests itself among different secularized socio-economic groups within India (but also demarcates strong barriers between public and private spaces and can glaringly spotlight a lack of civic responsibility) that an almost overwhelming number of meanings can be read into sculptures made out of sanitary fixtures. Add to this their references to Western sculpture of the 20th century (from Duchamp’s urinal to Manzoni’s can of feces to Robert Gober’s sinks) and we have works which are certain to be top-heavy with Conceptual gestures. Yet one’s initial readings of Dube’s sculptures are as formal extravaganzas which are lovingly crafted and highly resolved. The sanitary fixtures, having been designed to accommodate the human form and its functions, are bodily in both their curves and scale. Cloaked in the deep orange velvet, they become streamlined ciphers our gaze has trouble adhering to, their surfaces rendered into a state which hovers somewhere between animal and vegetable. Punctuated with chrome accoutrements, these most quotidian of vessels now resemble baroque armours and expand a dialogue in which form not only follows function but blossoms into decoration (the chromed nuts, bolts and brackets appear as rare jewels adorning the body of bloodied beast or even its orchidial genitalia). As status symbols, Dube’s works are tongue-in-cheek surrogates for the excesses of haute couture, lugubrious furniture for florid lifestyles. A good deal larger than all of her previous velvet-covered objects, these works initiates a new confidence for Dube, one which could seemingly lead to the monumental and perhaps even the architectural.

Yet all forms and materials carry the weight of both meanings and symbolisms, albeit ones which are constantly shifting and subject to interpretation. Speaking about previous works, Dube has expressed the desires for her sculptures to have “the effulgent quality of the gods” but also to participate in a “marvelous contamination of via a profane intermixing with the real world.” [1] Prophetic, then, that she should be asked to create works under the banner of “Wayside Deities,” precisely that point where the divine and the mundane should meet so blatantly (think of a moment when the driver of a bus stops at a roadside shrine to light a stick of incense as some sort of insurance that he and his passengers will make it through the winding mountainous route). Dube takes it as an opportunity not only to bring the quasi-figurative, sensually-loaded markers of belief into her own (now established) lexicon of objects but to also crank up the volume on her own investigations into the insidious misuse of religion for political gain and social coercion.

In a statement the artist wrote to accompany these works she posits that the process of transforming sanitary fixtures into art objects “articulated somewhat my feelings about the incestuous nature of control, corruption and secrecy within the smooth exteriority of this new social engineering.” [2] Here one can divulge Dube’s use of materials and as metaphors as well as her reliance that personal and expression can adequately stand-in for the investigation of larger social processes. An urgent necessity is made for the capabilities of reflection, meditation, transformation and mediation to come into play (and “play” in a child’s sense being especially operative) when attempting to make sense of the world or even to right its wrongs. But, for myself, the most telling part of Dube’s statement is in the use of the simple phrase “somewhat my feelings”. Here, one has a sense of the hesitancy with which the artist releases her sculptures into the world, her hesitancy to compete within the public arena of art, and the sacred fragility which she invests into the objects of her making. In this way, Dube shares in her art practice but also her artistic identity attributes but other iconoclastic women artists (Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeouis, Nasreen Mohamedi, for examples) who have homesteaded the residual spaces between major art movements or schools of thought, who have forged grand transformative projectsoutofextremelyhumble and personal encounters. “It’s the either/or polarization that disturbs me: the body/mind, male/female, science/religion, philosophy/politics thing. I like to move between all these areas - slip in and out, say yes or no,” the artist has stated [3]. For all their polish and bravura, Dube’s recent works maintain a severe scepticism of their own ability to articulate anything, a stubbornness to be knocked into any knowable containers, and even a doubtful acknowledgement of themselves as works of art.

Notes

[1] From “Sieve-O-Physics: An Interview with Anita Dube” by Kamala Kapoor; Art Asia Pacific, Issue 26, 2000.

[2] Statement issued by the artist for the exhibition “Wayside Deities”; Art Inc. Gallery, New Delhi, January 2002

[3] Kapoor, Art Asia Pacific.
Published by Lalit Kala Akademi, June 2002
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