Hair & Nails, Talk & Touch: 4 Encounters with Women Artists in Mumbai

Over the past few weeks, Jennifer Doyle has been reporting from her travels in India. Following is her final dispatch. — Ed.

Masooma Syed makes small things, sometimes from materials gathered off the bodies of her friends, her family — a crown from her mother’s hair, tiny chandeliers from her friends’ fingernail clippings. An astonishing amount of care, attention, and labor is implicit in each of these works. The delicate materials are carefully washed and cleaned; the structures made from fingernail clippings sometimes require that tiny holes be drilled into them (without destroying them); each strand of hair is stiffened, shaped, and placed.

Masooma Syed, "Crown," human hair twined, twisted, and knotted, 9"x8"x variable, 2005

The works require an unusual degree of care and attention from the viewer, who is asked to pay attention to that which we hardly notice. Salima Hashmi places these works within the practice of “contemporary miniature” (Contrary Signs: A New Generation of Artists from Pakistan, Flash Art 265 March-April 09). Partly because I’d been looking at his work recently, as I am talking with Syed about her work, I think of William Pope.L — his work with hair and nails is deliberately dirty, trashy (while also visually engaging, even sort of floral). Tim Hawkinson made a two-inch bird skeleton and spiderweb from fingernails and hair. But that work is made from stuff from his own body (as is the also case with William Pope.L). There’s a narcissism in play in their works: William Pope.L’s is abject; Hawkinson’s is boyish. I would not say this is the case for Syed, quite the opposite. These works are made from the traces of other bodies, as sentimental and spooky keepsakes.

Masooma Syed, "No Man's Land," human fingernails glued together, 2002.

The smallness of Syed’s work seems appropriate to an artist who moves between Lahore and New Delhi. As she does so, she crosses one of the world’s most vexed borders. These works materially respond to structurally unstable situations, in which the storage and transport of works can be an artist’s most pressing material problems. Work made from the bodies of those around you makes sense, as both a sustainable and loving practice.

Prajakta Potnis Ponmany, "Wallpaper," installation work from series "MEMBRANES" and "MARGINS," size variable, 2007

Artists in Bombay face unusual difficulties in finding studio and storage space. This would emerge as a theme as I made visits to studios, and artists seemed eternally in the process of moving, looking for a new space, and anxious about nosy neighbors coveting their apartments on behalf of friends and family. Real estate in the city is a notoriously fraught subject; in addition to the city’s unique and mind-bending density, rental laws can make it impossible to push people out, so families hold on to leases for generations, while landlords abandon buildings to decay. Prajakta Potnis responds to these material conditions in her works, which seem to fuse home and body — installing a room with wallpapered close-ups of pimpled skin, or building tiny organic sculptures around corners, outlets, seams in the walls. She threads cracks into walls, and makes architectural studies which read more like portraits than diagrams. Looking around her studio words come to me from Jack Smith’s rant, “Ammonia Pits of Atlantis: Evil in the Art World, or Walter versus the Giant Knick Knacks”:

…the curse of cretinism falls most heavily upon the poor parts of the city, poor people are sticking their fingers into the piecrust-like formations that occur when many layers of bad paint buckle away from the plaster and puff out, releasing through the sores endless torrents of fine, powdery black excresence and roach eggcase crumblings… (Jack Smith, Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool, p. 97)

Pontis assembles what look like organic growths from mustard seeds and glass beads.  They are integrated into her surroundings (her studio is infected with them), so discreetly as to be almost unnoticeable.

from Porous Walls series

Prajakta Potnis, from the "porous walls" series, 2009, glass beads, found objects, water colour on wall, size variable

During my time in Bombay, I met four women artists, and most expressed ambivalence about the way the term “feminist” is sometimes applied, especially to work by women artists that references the body. Vidya Kamat explains her fatigue with the question: “Why do you insist on the body?” (It is hard to imagine a male artist like Riyas Komu – whose work is quite centrally preoccupied with the body – ever being asked this.) Kamat does insist, but not on the body as some absolute and authentic object.

Vidya Kamat, "Birthmark Series ID: VIK-01," 2007. Digital print on archival paper 122 x 82 cm (48 x 32 inch) photographic work

Kamat’s work is actually less preoccupied with the body in and of itself than with the act of self-representation, with the relation between image and identity. Using digital technology, in one series of portraits Kamat superimposes images of herself over popular images of gods and goddesses. These are printed on an aluminum surface, which gives the works both a three-dimensional and iridescent quality. When the sunlight hits one of these self-portraits, it becomes electric, psychedelic. These works draw from childhood experiences in which she was dressed as a goddess and worshiped on holy days. Her ability to stand in for the deity was brought to an end by puberty, so these works mark a sense of loss not of innocence exactly, but magic. Her practice explores a self-generated mythic alphabet of electric goddess and unicorns. In her work, the body is a palimpsest — a surface written on, written over, lived through. It is the beginning of a conversation.

Vidya Kamat, "VK-36, Prachi Ravi Verma and soap factory-I," 2005, Digital photomontages on vinyl, 24" x 15".

Navjot Altaf is an established figure in Indian contemporary art, with an incredible range as an artist (see this nice Verve profile). Her large sculptures enter the marketplace, and fund more collaborative works that take years to develop, such as Water Weaving (2005). Interestingly, in our meeting we do not look at a single image of her work; we talk. We talk about the past few years, as she’s been working on a series under the title Touch. When her husband died suddenly in 2005, she set out to work through her grief by meditating on the thing she missed most. The works made under this title explore the poetics and politics of intimacy and contact. At the moment, she is developing a video installation based on her interactions and interviews with SANGRAM/VAMP, a sex-workers collective in the Sangli District of Western Maharashtra.

Sitting on a couch in her living room, eating a piece of leftover birthday cake and drinking tea together, we enjoy a wide-ranging conversation about touch and intimacy within the context of prostitution, and unpack and contest the assumption that all forms of touch within such settings are “unwanted.” The resulting discussion had me thinking about the forms of wisdom which emerge from within communities of people engaged in body-work — and the openness, the interest in others which leads people to explore, push past the limits of contact and communion.