Every other year, Singapore-based artist Joan Marie Kelly, a senior lecturer at the School of Art, Design and Media in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, turns to India to de-stress. Her passion for painting led her to document her interactions on canvas. One such stop was an akhara, hidden near the Tulsi Ghat in Varanasi. She would watch the pahalwans rough it out in the mudpits, and encouraged them to paint their own selves in an effort to know them better. The result can now be seen on the walls of Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, where in a painting, the wrestlers battle with each other, and in the background, the Ganga flows, with priests praying on its banks.
Fifty-year-old Kelly, whose works have been exhibited at National Arts Club in New York, and Xi’an Art Museum in China, says, “Their paintings were how we came to know them intimately. They told me the difference between what they are doing and gyming.
They are not trying to bulk up for nothing; it is a spiritual practise, an ode to the god Hanuman. Rubbing the dirt on their bodies is the relationship they share with the earth.” With minimal support from the government, they complained about having no money to afford the diet their practice needs — almonds and milk. Such encounters in Varanasi, and on the streets of Kolkata over the last few years have resulted in the 28-work Delhi exhibition. Talking about the show, Kelly says, “It started out as a matter of necessity because I work in a highly stressful environment. People in India are so engaging and really reach out.
If I am in Kolkata, I know the entire neighbourhood in two weeks, whereas in Singapore, may be after three years my neighbours might say ‘hi’. I felt welcomed here and inspired by the colour, I started taking interest in what people were doing and saying.” Among the many frames on display is that of a smiling woman seated on a beach in Puri, hiding her face behind her hand, while her husband stands tall as if guarding her, his hands resting on his hips and legs spread wide out, in Superman’s classic pose.
In another canvas, women dressed in colourful rainbow-coloured saris, pay an ode to river Ganga in Varanasi, amid the innumerable pollutants in the water, including plastic wrappers and flower offerings that stay afloat.
It was Asia that led Baltimore-native Kelly to develop an art practice that investigates the ecosystem of a city. She used creative tools to empower migrant and marginalised communities. For instance, five years ago, an earlier exhibition titled “Zones of Contact”, witnessed her spending three consecutive winters with female sex workers in the brothels of Rabindra Sarani in Kolkata. She created their portraits while engaging them in painting their own faces, apart from holding similar meetings with Bangladesh construction workers and migrants in Singapore. “The sex workers and their daughters were surprised to see they could do something like this. It helped them build self-confidence. They found out something about themselves that they didn’t know about previously,” she says.
The exhibition is at India Habitat Center till April 22