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When the body meets the city

In the very act of representing female subjectivity, women artists might end up creating an image as exotic as the ones routinely produced by patriarchal culture. Hema Upadhyay, a Baroda-trained artist who has just exhibited her work at Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, brings her own artistic resolutions to bear upon the investigation of this challenging genre, writes NANCY ADAJANIA.


"Reject Imports", 2001 ... one of Upadhyay's more accomplished works.

BY its very nature, self-portraiture as a genre carries within it the risk of obsessive narcissism. Thus, the self-portraitist could end up exoticising the represented body. This is especially true of the female self-portrait, which must take its place in a context of female images that are framed and commodified by the dominant male gaze. The danger here is that, in the very act of representing a female subjectivity, women artists might end up creating an image as exotic as the ones routinely produced by patriarchal culture. Women artists like Anju Dodiya and Pushpamala N., have intelligently confronted this risk of narcissistic self-absorption, by repositioning the self-portrait within a larger socio-cultural landscape while liberating it from the male gaze. Hema Upadhyay, a 1972-born, Baroda-trained artist who has just shown her work at Gallery Chemould, Bombay, brings her own artistic resolutions to bear upon the investigation of this challenging genre.

Upadhyay begins by questioning the idea of self-representation as a glorificatory act. She de-magnifies the body and amplifies the urban landscape. The artist's strategy of miniaturising the body in scale and space can be interpreted as an argument against two supposedly opposed, but curiously analogous, paradigms: on the one hand, the fetishistic images of larger-than-life women's bodies reproduced in the patriarchal visual culture of the billboard, and on the other, the static canon of feminism that has, paradoxically enough, engendered a fixation with women's body-parts in contemporary feminist art.

Upadhyay's sleight-of-hand takes the generic imagery of mass culture, which ascribes a use-value to everything from diapers to pension bonds, and stands it on its head. Observe these images of colloquial surrealism: Upadhyay paints the close-up of a mouth with sparkling white teeth. Formally, this image may simulate an advertisement for toothpaste, but its real action lies in the fact that the artist portrays herself the size of Thumbelina, broom in hand. As the artist-protagonist sweeps the black foam away, it could be perceived as an archetypal motion of cleansing.

Or when the self-portrait of the artist, along with her doppelganger, is shown climbing a ladder that goes through the heart of the clouds, this could be interpreted as a rite of individuation. Upadhyay attempts to strip away the consumerist insecurities that are programmed into mass culture imagery, and to uncover the archetypal possibilities of transformation that lie concealed beneath them. I would argue that consumerist aspiration is a kitsch avatar of true individuation. What Upadhyay does is to deliver herself from these kitsch avatars and to re-birth herself.

We have scrutinised the way in which this artist de-fetishises the genre of self-portraiture, but this conclusion leads to another pertinent observation. Upadhyay superimposes photographed cutouts of herself onto her painted landscapes. This pictorial conceit makes the viewer speculate about the "real" environment in which she was photographed in the first place. This "real" environment belongs to her city of adoption, Bombay. A mayapuri, where space is legitimised only as real estate, and any other definition of space is bulldozed out of existence. Where the landscape proliferates with duplex slums and sky-scraping monstrosities. Where the pavement is home to most people and the bulldozer their ultimate annihilation. Where citizens' rights are sold in black, and basic entitlements are curtailed in the name of globalisation. Here, real space is built of fake concrete and fictive spaces concretise into the real.


"In Between B413/414 and A2-403", 2001, gouache, acrylic, graphite and photograph on paper.

Upadhyay tries to imaginatively circumvent this very prohibitive definition of space in Bombay. She dwarfs her own body, to both fit and fight the unequal topography of the metropolis. Hers is not the bent body and mind of the 6.15 p.m. Western Railway commuter. She clones, multiplies herself and enters the city from the decongested skyline. We encounter aerial shots of her flying above the cityscape, trespassing upon precious real estate with impunity.

Or we see her in low-angle shots, climbing a tall building rendered in a distorted perspective, a facade with a clothesline as witness. She personalises the anomie-ridden spaces of the city and makes them her own. For instance, in "I have a Feeling that I Belong", the artist uses the trope of the terrace to create the feeling of liminality (a phrase I borrow from Victor Turner), a magical threshold that allows for the transformation of the self, and so of the world-as-experienced. In this case, Upadhyay portrays herself as a diver ready to leap from her terrace into the city below. In a moment, the city freezes, turns into a spell-bound blue swimming pool. She creates this effect by dulling down Hockney's hyperreal swimming-pool blue into a chalky blue, adapting the Hockneyism into a colloquial rough-and-ready surrealism suitable to her own context.

Significantly, Upadhyay does not isolate the body from the environment but melds the body with the enveloping urban spaces. This is a more complex rendering than the feminist treatments that have currently become fashionable, which end up commodifying the female body while supposedly liberating it.

Upadhyay's experiments with the urban landscape complement her strategies of using the self-image as a photographic cutout. Sometimes, she leaves in only a silhouette of her self-image, as, for instance, in "Sticks and stones shall break my bones but words shall never hurt me". This work is crafted from multiple cutout images and silhouettes of the artist, shown simultaneously climbing and descending a flight of stairs. Here, she exorcises her presence as protagonist/subject and also creates a mystery around the disappearance of the self-portrait.

To create further pictorial illusion and visual distortion, she pastes the photographic self-portraits in a linear axis on the painted space, only to destabilise this arrangement by making the painted steps radiate from the work's left edge. This Escheresque play with perspectives and axes points to the fundamental fact that we don't know whether the artist is progressing in her quest, ascending or descending the stations of life (this is the place to note that there are technical problems in Upadhyay's works which she must address, such as the tacky cutting and pasting of her collage self-portraits, but these will surely be overcome in due course).


"Sweet Memories", 2001, gouache, acrylic, graphite and photograph on paper.

We have seen how Upadhyay stitches space inside out, making public space a crucible for her private rebirths. But sometimes, as in "Reject Imports", she turns her private spaces into a thoroughfare by weaving the so-called "reject" commodities of a globalised city into a quilt of memory-laden roads.

This is one of her more accomplished works: here, she legitimises the "reject" cloth samples with their defective seam-lines, painting them into an abstract grid that helps her come to terms with a landscape which is reassuring in its vulnerability (or its flaws, as some might say).

Bringing this narrative to a close, I would like to say that Upadhyay has made an attempt to re-energise the genre of self-portraiture, rescuing it from the theatre of repetition by rejecting the principle of performance for performance's sake. She has done this by attempting to move beyond the formative cliches of an art driven by gender politics, and into a trans-gendered realm of experience and representation. In the process, her work also points to a possible re-energising of feminist art practice in India.

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