The innards of Vadehra Art Gallery (VAG) in Delhi look sparse, a quality inherent to the space, even though it’s dotted with visuals. Enlarged matchbox covers have imagery that suggests power and imperialism — an ornate soldier’s headgear, a gun, a grenade, a crown and even Tipu Sultan. On others, charcoal sketches on paper, are surrealist depictions — a skeleton of an animal standing atop a tank, and the disfigured body of a soldier. Against these visuals on the wall stands artist KM Madhusudhanan. Against all that black-and-white minimalism, he is busy painting a horn atop a sculpture of a swine, symbolic of greed, with bright-red paint. The colour red, apart from the charcoal black and soft white, stands out, but is essential to the palette too. “You can say that it all started from Kerala, where we were heavily influenced by communism and Marxism,” he says.
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The artist recently opened his exhibition titled “Penal Colony” at VAG, his first solo since 1985. The series has made pit-stops at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014, Venice Biennale 2015, and recently at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Derived from the 1921 incident in the Malabar region, when around 70 rebel-prisoners, crammed in a train wagon by the British, perished due to suffocation, the relevance of “Penal Colony” persists even today. “I always play with themes that are relevant in contemporary times too. That kind of organised killing is happening now also,” says the 59-year-old, who juxtaposes the wagon with the mechanical instrument designed to kill after a prolonged period of torture, in Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. Hence the title of the show.
The Delhi-based artist’s references goes back to his childhood in Communist-ruled Kerala, which explains his works here, and are extensions of “Marx Archives”. The artist, however, was also drawn to a strange co-incidence —the matchbox industry emerged in south India after 1920, around the same time as the Malabar massacre. “There were many images on these matchbox covers that represented power. As a child, I used to collect these. When I started researching, I began to draw parallels between the 1921 Malabar incident and these visuals,” he says. A panel in the series, Power and Knowledge, showcases those matchbox imageries.
Films form a significant part of his oeuvre, and his experiments go back to his student days at the Fine Arts College in Thiruvananthapuram, where, even though it wasn’t a part of his curriculum, he watched a lot of films. A crucial point came when, briefly, the artist joined the Indian Radical Painters’ and Sculptors’ Association in the 1980s, which saw a concerted attempt by a group of avant-garde artists, mainly sculptors and painters, majority of whom were Keralites. Their works were a response to the issues that surrounded them — caste, feudalism, and the Emergency. The informal collective was helmed by prominent artists such as KP Krishnakumar, NN Rimson, Prabhakaran and Akitham Vasudevan. Madhusudhanan was a crucial part of it. “We exhibited as a collective in Kerala and Baroda. But it had a short life of two years. After Krishnakumar passed away, it just fizzled,” says the artist.
This, however, steered Madhusudhanan towards filmmaking. Having studied printmaking in MS University, Baroda, the artist moved to Delhi in 1995. It was here that he found himself attending screenings of experimental films. “I was trying out different mediums in art, but was very dissatisfied with the work I was producing. Like with the collective, where we aimed to reach out to people with our art, I thought cinema would be a great medium to achieve that kind of reach,” he says. He began with documentaries for the Sahitya Akademi, such as Vijayan (2002, on Malayalam author OV Vijayan) and Balam Aniyamma (1997, on the Malayalam poet Balamaniyamma). This led to feature ventures such as Bioscope, History is a Silent Film, Self Portrait and Razor, Blood and Other Tales. An offshoot of his cinematic venture is his ongoing project, “Archaeology of Cinema”, which takes off from what he calls “mind pictures”. “I draw first and then write the script. That’s why I thought of recreating them as large-sized paintings,” he says. The works were exhibited in Kochi in 2008. Madhusudhanan’s experimentation with different mediums is currently drawing him back to sculptures. His next is a play with light and leather, he says .
‘Penal Colony’ is at VAG till January 10