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‘My subconscious is always at work’

Veteran artist Arpita Singh on responding intuitively to the moment, working with textures, and her current exhibition


April 11, 2021 6:20:07 am
arpita singhI don’t like handling completely flat surfaces, so I prefer textural work (Source: Express photo by Oinam Anand)

A note on your new exhibition at Vadehra Art Gallery “Homeward”, states that in the collection ‘cartographical autobiographies assume new dimensions’. Could you tell us more?

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Unless an artist is being illustrative, most of their work is autobiographical; you are making yourself visible. Your work reflects your experiences, inheritance and your universe. The solitary female figure is recurrent in your work, seen in works such as My Mother (1993s) and Wish Dream (2001). This exhibition, too, has Women (2020). It is easy for me to paint women. When I sit to paint, I don’t plan the form. When you put pen on paper that is when a form emerges; you realise that is what you wanted to make and see. Visual art is meant to be seen and understood in a manner that is different from all other experiences.

Texture plays an important role in your work. Would you attribute that to your stint as a designer at the Weavers’ Service Centre in Delhi in the ’60s?

I don’t like handling completely flat surfaces, so I prefer textural work. It also helps make the forms more visible. While working at Weavers’ Service, I was exposed to designing in different parts of India. I realised the relationship between landscape, design and colour. For instance, in Rajasthan, bright colours work best against the yellow desert. In Kashmiri designs, the white line in the middle represents the rivers that flow through the state.

When you shifted from surrealist landscapes to abstraction in the ’70s, I believe artist J Swaminathan told you he preferred your earlier work.

Swaminathan thought it was an international language, and not our own. I told him only what is inside me will come out. I was doing what I felt like doing. After making figurative work for many years, I felt I was not being able to move freely on the surface. So I stopped painting. I began working with dots and lines in black and white, going back to basic elements as an exercise to free up my hands and mind. After some years, there was an urge to add colours — small strokes of orange and yellow at first. Looking at the work, my father-in-law asked if those were flags, and I titled it Flags.

Vadehra Art Gallery, arpita singh The oil on board Homeward, on view at Vadehra Art Gallery till April 16. (Source: Vadehra Art Gallery)

In the ’80s and ’90s, you, Nalini Malani, Nilima Sheikh and Madhvi Parekh exhibited together as an informal group. At the time were there different expectations from female artists?

We did not have specific objectives when we were coming together. Geeta (Kapur) was visiting my home and asked what I was doing. I told her I was making watercolours, she told me Nilima was doing the same. Nalini also worked in the medium. We asked Madhvi, since we knew her well. The medium was a common factor, and we thought we could exhibit together. It was a dialogue between us. We did not look at ourselves as ‘women’ artists. Before our show was opening at Bharat Bhavan, Swaminathan asked me if he should write ‘four women artists’ in the invitation card, and I said just write four artists.

You have responded to political events through your art, be it the 2002 Gujarat riots or the killing of Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad in Palmyra. How important is that to you?

As an artist, one is bound to be affected by what is happening around us. The Gujarat riots were a strange happening for those of us who had seen the Partition, the killing of the Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi (1984). We can’t paint every instance, but related forms emerge. My subconscious is always at work.

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