For Michelle Poonawalla, her exhibition at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery is a homecoming of sorts. The artist, entrepreneur, and socialite remembers her grandfather, Jehangir Vazfidar’s exhibitions at the gallery, which has inspired her understanding and technique of art.
“My grandfather never let any other factor besides his creativity dictate his art, and in this sense, he found true freedom as an artist and a human being. He passed on the importance of creative freedom to me, and the title of the show, “Born Free”, is a tribute to this sentiment. While he used his unique painting technique to create portraits of luminaries, I felt that the technique and values that were passed down to me are best expressed by portraits from nature. I believe the natural world carry traits that represent both the strength and fragility of creation. There is a lot to learn from these creatures,” she says.
Having had a number of successful exhibitions, the last few being in Delhi, Pune and Parma (Italy), Poonawalla presents 25 new works in her latest series that explore fragility and the power of nature. Her portraits, she says, highlight the variance of life form, from the strength of a bull to the fragility of a butterfly.
Her paintings are a tribute to Vazifdar, a well-known artist and architect. In them, she uses the “fake proof technique” she learnt from him. “In this, oil paint is applied to the canvas in a thick impasto style and then systematically carved with a ruler or a palette knife to reveal a unique texture, which is impossible to replicate. The process of creating a painting using this technique is exciting because there is an element of uncertainty. It requires patience and each canvas has to be worked on in one go, from start to finish. I’ve been preparing for this show over the past year, exploring the possibilities and challenges of this technique. It has allowed me to reconnect with my grandfather, who was my mentor, while also exploring my own creative spirit,” says Poonawalla.
However it isn’t a mere replication that the Pune-Mumbai based artist has followed. She has developed Vazifdar’s technique by projecting an interactive and dynamic image on top of the canvas. Creating a new digital art form, she uses motion sensors to interact with the audience. The works she feels reflect the strength of the old masters whilst incorporating technologies of the 21st century. “It allows an otherwise static artwork to come to life, drawing the audience into the work and the work into the gallery,” she says.
Even as more artists turn to technology and digital mediums, Poonawalla says, “I started using technology in some aspects of my art practice because nothing represents our reality today more than technology. Technology, used creatively, can tell a powerful story and create a special, memorable experience for the viewer.”
Poonawalla, who has been contributing to charities that support nature and wildlife, significantly to the Elephant Family NGO, says nature is her greatest muse and she believes there is a lot to learn from the spirit of animals. However, while as an artist she offers her creativity to support the causes, she doesn’t want to preach through her art.
“I want to give the viewers an experience and let them take what they want from it. I want to share my creative world with people in some way and reach out to them. I do believe that art can mobilise people,” she says.
Ask her what she looks forward to next, and Poonawalla answers it’s her collateral project at the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018. The work addresses the issue of fragility and mankind looking at conflict and war. The work will continue her use of digital mediums to present images showing violence, fragility and suffering alongside her signature butterfly motif used to represent the souls of innocent victims in conflict.
“The Kochi-Muziris Biennale project is an entirely new installation. We’re surrounded by images of human suffering – of innocent people fleeing homes because of war, loss of life, and destruction; it’s hard not to be affected by this. I wanted to use elements of my art but elevate them so that I could give the audience an experience that forces them to stop for a moment and give this a thought,” says Poonawalla, who is confident the artwork will prove to be an impressive experience for viewers.
* The Jehangir Art Gallery has withdrawn a painting from this exhibition. We have therefore removed its photo from the story.