A friend’s mother was mentioning Bharti Kher’s famous Indian elephant, to me. She described it in great detail on our way to a museum, in South Delhi. She elaborated, talking about this piece (that I had only seen in photographs and heard so much about) recalling the several emotions it stirred while one stood in its captivating presence. Titled ‘The Skin Speaks a Language not its Own’ is one of the most iconic and talked-about works of art by a contemporary Indian artist, the sculpture stood out for its scale, detail and  sheer beauty ( this life-sized female Indian elephant was sold for a record Rs 7 crore fetching the highest price ever for any Indian female artist).  She continued telling me that she wishes it was still on display and that I would have the chance to see it; however the sculpture was moved to make way for a retrospective exhibition.

Kher’s sculpture evoked a flurry of emotions, as the elephant lay vulnerably. The title, The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own, and the work itself is said to be an embodiment of India. Kher takes a fibre glass elephant, the animal being both relevant and reverent in the Indian context and the Bindi which is the Hindu symbol of the third eye that sees beyond the material world (sperm shaped to address gender roles and definitions of femininity in India) to question whether the ‘large’ subcontinent will rise or crumble in its quest for development.

This exploration of ‘in between-ness’ with an absence of cause and reason are recurrent themes for Kher. Bharti has emerged an artist of importance in the open era with her multi disciplined work in sculpture, photography and painting as she questions issues of personal identity, its societal dynamics and roles and the context of Indian traditions and culture; this while correlating to the contemporary concerns dealing with genetics, evolution, technology and ecology. British born Kher who now lives and works in Delhi is aware of her cross cultural upbringing and it is privy to her work.

Kher’s body of work is diverse in nature. From the materials she uses to artistic sensibilities to the subjects, she is known for her vast assortment of subject but it is the repeating patterns and the gestures, that she keeps throughout her work, that defines her aesthetic. We can spot it from as early as her art in 1980’s and early 90’s. It is easy to spot her preference towards drama and contemporary life, her love for India and the play of scale. Like Narad muni in the Hindu mythology, a character that appears and disappears at the most prophetic times, her characters appear and re appear to showcase the puns and the rhythms of the day to day Delhi life that she has known and loved. 

Although Kher’s work is diverse in materiality, sensibility, approach, and subject matter, repeating patterns and gestures do appear throughout, starting with her early workduring her student years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Deeply rooted in her love for India, her subtle understanding of scale, and her bias towards human drama and contemporary life from her everyday in New Delhi. Her practice uses cyclical characters that appear and reappear, including the ape for instance, and a highly attuned sensitivity to the cascades, puns, and cadences of language, as expressed in her.

Bharti Kher’s beginnings with figurative paintings, spoke loud of the Indian patriarchal society from a feminine perspective, starkly represented in her compositions of Indian interiors. She traces and charts the pluralism of Indian traditions and customs, pitting them against modern western norms and values, commenting on the weird phenomena of the Indian society’s receptiveness to all things foreign even as they uphold their very own culture.

Bharti Kher’s work with the recurring presence of the bindi- the small female accessory that becomes a power statement, creates a diverse visual experience and opens up discourses and interpretations, while addressing ever changing idea of femininity in India and is intrinsic to both her sculptures and paintings. It became the media of conveyance for contrasting themes as an essential surface element in her work. Here one is reminded of ‘The girl with the hairy lip said No’ (2004), which came as a reaction to the suppression of women in India and used domestic tyrannies common to the domestic lives of Indian women to create an alarming dialogue. In this powerful piece of work, Kher takes a dig at both the British high tea culture and the tea serving cliche in Indian arranged marriage settings, using a ruined table laid for a tea party, with elements like broken chinaware and hair lined cup. In a recent series of panels, Kher uses the Bindi, thousands in numbers to create patterns communicating exile, immigration, cross-border interactions and the metre of the passing time.

Kher’s women in the Hybrid series (2004), (The hunter and the prophet, chocolate muffin, angel, family portrait, and feather duster), in her transitional state between domesticity and violent aberrations, as their photoshopped selves  to alter to a part human -part animal, appear both seductive and demure, seemingly in agreement with their given roles, as well as imperious and resistant. It is as though it were a celebration of this choice of deceitful and ever mutating idea of the self.

Inspired by artists like Hieronymous Bosch, Goya and William Blake and their allegory to fantastical creatures and mythical beasts, Kher took the blue sperm and gave it a whale’s heart for An Absence of Assignable Cause. Made entirely in fibreglass, the gigantic heart and its protruding veins are all decorated in colored Bindis in true Bharti Kher style.

In part inspired by artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco Goya and William Blake, Bharti Kher references magical beasts, mythical monsters and allegorical tales in which they might feature in her work like the reference to the blue sperm. Unable to find sufficient scientific documentation about its anatomy, Kher invented the appearance of the whale’s heart for An Absence of Assignable Cause. Created in fibreglass, the artist has decorated the enormous heart and protruding veins and arteries with different coloured bindis.

Her first major retrospective in North America opens this month in Vancouver. This exhibition brings together sculptures and paintings that represent the diversity of Kher’s practice and articulate the perceptions and realities of being female today.Her unique language of colored bindis and mythical beasts, hybrid humans and sari sculptures talk a lot about her take on gender, power-play and body politics.

From the unique language of her bindi paintings and abstract sari sculptures to the provocative animal-human hybrid figures, this comprehensive selection of works speaks about domesticity, gender and body politics.

“If I could remake my artistic career, I think I would be a minimalist painter. All the art that I love comes from the tradition of reduction—but I can’t because I’m super maximum!”

– Bharti Kher.

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