Meet 193-year-old MaltaSingh. He started the first ever Curry House in London’s Brick Lane. It was built by him along with his friends from the surrounding furniture factories, using rejects and found objects. He gave Malta’s national food, pastizzi, a curry flavour. Legend has it that he even fed it to Mahatma Gandhi. He is the protagonist of “Clarke, Clerkin and Kaur: The Thing With MaltaSingh”, an exhibition at London’s Gallery SO. Starting this evening, Malta Singh’s Indian kitchen will dish out chickpea curry, pastizzi and dal for visitors interested in knowing just who is MaltaSingh.
That he is a fictional character, in a pseudo-real setting of a contemporary space, is the design intrigue of artist Jasleen Kaur, and her friends, Danny Clarke and Carl Clerkin. As the London Design Festival (LDF) draws to a close this weekend, this show at Gallery SO is what Kaur calls “fringe design”.
The Scottish Indian artist is the exhibition designer for “Transformation”, a contemporary Indian design show that is part of LDF. Curated by Arpna Gupta, founder of India Design Platform, the show is inspired by salvaged material, melding the culture of recycling with traditional craft. Seven designers — Material Immaterial, Anu Tandon Vieira, Poonam Bir Kasturi, Prakriti Shukla, Vishal K Dar, Neisha Gharat and Alkesh Parmar — challenge the notion of consumerism in their exhibits.
On either side of the escalators, within the undulating glass building of The Guardian at Kings Cross, sit industrial-sized food cans that shelf designer products. Kaur chose containers of tomatoes, spinach and oil sourced from local stores to form her plinth. These cans will later be distributed to local food banks, soup kitchens and gurdwaras. The idea was to minimise waste for the exhibition.
Food, cooking and Kaur are never too far apart. At LDF 2014, she presented the film Balti: Unmeasured Measurements, screened from the back of a van. It documented the process of cooking a langar in the kitchen of Pollokshields Sikh Temple, Glasgow. She made a series of measuring tools using plastic mugs and buckets, recording the intuitive methods of preparing food for multitudes.
“I would take the van to different venues, stream the film at the back of the van, and cook for the audience,” says 30-year-old Kaur. “Six years ago, when I graduated from The Royal College of Art, I wanted to make something that would change the atmosphere of a gallery space, something for my parents and friends, because I think art often excludes people,” she says.
Coming from a traditional Sikh household, and growing up in Glasgow, Kaur is always exploring dual realities. For her 2015 work Marbled Busts, she drew parallels between Indian idols and Western traditional portraits to show three busts of her great-grandfather, the first in her family to migrate from India; Edward Said, post-colonial scholar who “lived between two worlds”; and Army man Robert Napier, a central figure in British India. She requested Napier’s grandson to wear a turban as a celebration of dialogue between two cultures.
Kaur takes things from everyday and gives it a different footnote. “I call it the unpacking of daily life and history, or the aesthetics of everyday,” she says. She hopes to travel to Maharashtra in January next year, where she will be part of an artists’ programme, working with Warli painters.