“My complete belonging is within the womb of my feminist ancestry,” declares Rekha Rodwittiya in the statement that accompanies her solo show, “Love Done Right Can Change the World”, at the Sakshi Gallery in Colaba. Anyone familiar with the Baroda-based artist’s work would know what to expect from the show — gorgeous canvases which foreground the female figure as powerful and in control, and shorn of the burdens of traditional beauty, and sexuality that accompany the male gaze. While the 23 works on display checks these boxes, they also transcend these expectations by situating the personal and the political alongside each other, thus presenting a complicated picture of Rodwittiya, both as a person and an artist.
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This comes across most strongly in the suite of works called Pages from a Diary, which recall the 58-year-old’s early years as a photographer. Rodwittiya, who graduated from the MS University in Baroda in 1981, became financially independent at the age of 18 when she started taking photographs commercially. “My area of influence in photography in those days was the genre of documentation and archiving of folk traditions and practices that was being done by Jyoti Bhatt, my teacher,” she says.
Subsequently, when she left for the Royal College of Art to pursue her Masters, she put away the camera as a recorder of her personal history and instead, chose to commit her experiences to her memory. She says, “I never went back to using a camera even as a tool to gather references. And when the smart phone was launched, I began to use the mobile camera to take photos of our cat. It was only after (partner) Surendran gifted me a camera in South Africa that my interest to use it as a tool within my work surfaced. This time, however, my interest was to take photographs of objects and locations that I specifically travel to, and to then bring them back to the studio to be placed into the inscription of wider narratives.”
One thus finds autobiographical elements — harking back to earlier works, or photographs of the people and objects that the artist interacts with daily — placed alongside elements that speak of her position as an artist in the larger, historical world of art. So in Pages from a Diary 2, we see the female figure in the foreground of the image — standing tall and firm — alongside the sexualised depictions of female figures by earlier, predominantly male artists. Looking at this, the meaning of what Rodwittiya has achieved, and what she continues to do, strikes us afresh. An artist who has always subverted assumptions about the feminine in her art, Rodwittiya remains unafraid of expressing her personal and political convictions, even if it means challenging all the “classical” ways of seeing.
Rodwittiya’s work needs alert eyes. The casual, superficial glance is entranced by the sheer beauty of the canvas. But there’s always an undertow of meanings. One painting, for instance, shows a woman grasping the horns of a goat, and you wonder how to interpret it. Is it an expression of aggression, or assertion or simply playfulness? What would you make of the painting which shows a woman, surrounded by all manner of life — fruits, flowers, birds — but casually dangling a pair of scissors from her little finger? Is she implying her power over the setting she is in, saying how quickly it can all be destroyed? There are no easy answers, and that’s exactly the point: Rodwittiya wants you to read the narratives she paints, but she won’t give you the key to them. It is up to the viewer to tease out the meanings, which is in itself a rewarding experience.
‘Love Done Right Can Change the World’ is at Sakshi Gallery, Colaba, till January 7.