The stark white walls evoke a sense of vacuum at the Talwar Gallery in Neeti Bagh, Delhi. In that void, Rummana Hussain’s creations, displayed on the first floor and in the basement of the gallery, float about in fragmented continuity. Pieces of shattered terracotta lie in suspended animation against hand-made papers; indigo and earth pigments are smeared roughly on the base; and abstract images borrowed from religious texts or physical structures, such as the Babri Masjid, stir up an uncomfortable history. Hussain, one of the frontrunners of conceptual art movement in India in the ’90s, passed away of cancer in 1999 at the age of 47. Even in death, in a contemporary space in 2015, her visual testimony is topical. “Breaking Skin”, an exhibition of 15 works created between 1992 and 1994, highlights Hussain’s departure from allegories and allusions of her previous works, to a more direct assault of the political and the personal.
For a post-Independence artist, Hussain’s oeuvre claims the radical movement that had engulfed the art scene at the time. Intimate but ambiguous references to women and notions of femininity strained her usual figurative paintings in oil and watercolours. The Babri Masjid demolition in December, 1992, triggered what was to become her limited but seminal body of works in the form of installations, sculptures and performances. “In the ’80s, people knew her as a painter, then she came to be known for her installations. It was almost like two different people. This exhibition links the two dichotomous bodies of works,” says Deepak Talwar, Director of Talwar Gallery. The 50-year-old met Hussain in ’98 and procured her collection from 1990 to 1999 in 2005. “The communal incident did trigger this shift, but some works had already surfaced before that, by early 1992,” he adds.
The process of this transition is evident. From the employment of materials such as canvas, artificial paints and even brushes, she turned to “low art” materials — Xeroxed paper, indigo, earth pigment, charcoal and terracotta on paper. There are no brush strokes, either. Colours are rubbed in, imprinted or creases are impressed upon paper in its stead. This “rejection” was pushed further when she added layers to her works.
At the gallery, the process is seen through Crushed Blue Piece (1992), in which indigo, charcoal and earth pigment is used on crushed paper, resulting in coloured, fractal dimensions to its surface. Bodyscape (1993) utilises the same effect with earth pigment and charcoal, appearing like a magnified view of the skin.
In what can be seen as a scathing response to her political surroundings, Hussain progresses out of two-dimensional surfaces. Earth Picture (’93) uses terracotta pieces and nails. While Behind the Thin Film (’93) juxtaposes the Biblical reference to the Tower of Babel with the famous image of people atop the dome of Babri Masjid. “You could almost feel the works come off the walls to become installations. The use of all these layers led to her next form of materials — bricks (which symbolise the construction and destruction), photos, sound, colours and performances,” says Talwar.
Hussain further gathers up the storm with her engagement with the female body. “Earlier, her focus on the role of women and her personal experience created subtle dialogues,” says Talwar, “She was a woman, and a Muslim woman on top of that.” Hussain, thus, brings close political with the personal like never before. The explicit yet complex representations of the female body appear on textured paper base, a proof of her growing comfort with the image as compared to her former allusions to it. “Her works are more intimate here, much more raw and vulnerable. She doesn’t know what’s coming next. Her expression is raw and visceral,” says Talwar.
The present selection of works, last seen in the ’90s in New York, is part of the third major exhibition ever held on Hussain. With not many notes and journals to go by and with a limited number of works created in the ’90s, it becomes important to view her works in the light of crucial political and cultural shift of the era. “This exhibition took three years to put together, but when one looks at it, they are almost like her personal journal,” says Talwar.
The exhibition is being held at Talwar Gallery, Neeti Bagh, Delhi, till December 23. Contact: 46050307