A tale of two Indias told in barrels and pipes, cow dung and hair

Sheela Gowda’s work points out the tensions between the modernising, powerhouse economy and an older India steeped in custom and tradition

Thu, Apr 10, 2014, 01:00

“I wanted to suggest another dimension, another universe,” she explains.

It is a simple but powerful work, specific in its sources but general in its implications, evoking ideas of labour, shelter, community and purpose. “I like the immediacy of the material to the viewer,” Gowda notes. There’s a sensual, pungent physicality to the tarry, reworked metal. While it is shaped into a monolithic form, like a minimalist sculpture or a modernist building, it stubbornly retains a rough-hewn character. “It’s an imperfect material that doesn’t quite translate into the perfection of geometry.” One feels that Gowda’s view of contemporary India, and perhaps the wider contemporary world, is contained in that phrase.

Working with cow dung
She doesn’t see her work in terms of a before and an after: a painter turned installation artist. “I was always interested in the way the figure interacts with the background in painting. When I began to use cow dung, I used it as a kind of painting medium, in washes.”

Then she painted rudimentary marks on to flattened discs of dung, and eventually it became a more sculptural material for her. “It wasn’t a break, more as if the painting expanded into the room.”

Ubiquitous and used as a manure, a fuel and as an ingredient in mud bricks, cow dung is, for Gowda, usefully symbolic as “an everyday substance packed with energy”. At the same time, as with an Irish artist using, say, turf, she is wary of her employment of it “becoming exotic elsewhere”. She is not interested in being exotically Indian. Sharp Eye Policy could be an alternative title for her exhibition, because she uses her skills to interrogate images with admirable ruthlessness.

Protest My Son , centring on a billboard- sized reproduction of an appropriated newspaper image that depicts a tribal demonstration, is a case in point. Follow the logic of her work and you realise it is in part a critique of the protesters who are, she suggests, acting out a drama of contrived tribal identity. The knee-jerk reaction is, she points out: “I’m privileged, they’re downtrodden.” In fact they are playing on easy preconceptions of them as being “other”.

What’s going on, she elaborates, is more nuanced. There are layers to the story that are invisible. One such layer she hints at by including a fake tiger claw – a very lucrative and highly sophisticated trade. Again, she is not being moralistic: “They do what they have to do to survive.” But, she points out, to pity them is to doubt their intelligence, to patronise them. Instead, she encourages us to unpack the complexities of this image – and of all images.

Open Eye Policy is at Imma until June 22. imma.ie

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