Sharmistha Ray is an international award-winning visual artist and TED Fellow with numerous solo shows and high profile projects under her belt. The recipient of notable awards including the Montblanc Young Artist World Patronage (2012), Ray has also worked on special art projects with leading institutions and corporates like Berklee College of Music, The Godrej Group, JSW and Mahindra & Mahindra. She is an occasional art writer and founder of Bellevue Brunches & Salons, a mobile cross-cultural salon that aims to augment participatory modes of engagement with contemporary art in surprising new ways.
Team Gaysi caught up with the globe-trotting artist to talk to her about her recent painting “Mythic Beings” which is part of an upcoming body of work that focuses on gender, sexuality and archetypal notions of beauty and power. [Courtesy all pictures @sharmistharay at Instagram]
An Artist Without Limits : Sharmistha Ray
Q. Your work is titled Mythic Beings and its central premise is beauty and desire. What was the inspiration behind this work?
Beauty and desire are a veil behind which the actual meaning of the painting resides. For the visuals, I wanted to set up a tension between cross-cultural representations of beauty and iconic symbols of masculine power. But this painting is not about men and women: rather it’s about the collision of essentialist forces in order to provoke a dialogue. Of course, there’s a social critique about gender, but a good painting has to create a many layered network of meanings that encourages open ended interpretations. I hope I’ve been able to create such a painting. The inspiration is the ‘odalisque’ – or the reclining nude. It all started with her.
Q. Did you recently explore mythology as an expression of art or was it part of your growing up years? Tell us something about it.
As children, I think we all develop an understanding of the world through stories, before we actually enter it as adults. Mine is a Bengali family, so my elders in particular, were very fond of storytelling. These stories were all mythological or rooted in folklore and fairytales, and often times, the stories could be quite dark and sadistic. In a way those stories were truer than the veiled stories of today, which present a sunnier reality to children. I have always been drawn to mythology of any kind as a carrier of symbols. I am interested in symbols and the hidden messages that are locked within them, waiting to be decoded. Now, I am interested in the personal mythology, which is reflected in our culture as a kind of narcissism through social media, selfies and so on. The more we lose, the more we try to hold on. The return to the figure and myth-making narrative was a natural progression for me as a way of decoding my own history and making that confluent with a larger narrative about social realities.
Q. There is an order within this work. Can you elaborate on that to produce a meaning?
Essentially, a visual artist works with a toolbox, and the greater the experience, skill and knowledge, the more varied is the toolbox. There are thousands of decisions that go into the making of single picture or work of art. This particular painting took me two years to conceive and paint, but most of that time was spent hashing and rehashing the conceptual path for the work. Images are so widespread and viral in today’s commercially and technologically driven age, so I wanted to be absolutely sure about the kind of images I was using and what kind of narrative I was constructing. While there is order, hopefully there is disorder too: both are key elements to produce a more varied and complicated meaning.
Q. Desire seems to be at the core of your work. Do you think that desire allows one to understand the world and our reality?
Desire is too abstract and temporal, so it can’t be the core. I am interested in something far more permanent than desire. The naked female is probably the most powerful signifier and symbol in human history. The image of the nude, and its sprawling visualizations and interpretations, evidence that truth. As a painter, I’ve always wanted to scale the ambition of western history painting to tell a story. The nude has played a central role in that history. Even while I say this, so much has been written about the difference between being ‘naked’ and being ‘nude,’ most notably by the art historian Kenneth Clark: “To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word “nude,” on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.” In that sense, I’ve probably painted the nude, rather than a naked woman as the subject. Although, the figure on the bottom right, at the feet of the odalisque, is rendered ‘naked’ even though she’s still wearing clothes. Naked implies vulnerability, an unmasked quality. The reality of our experience is not rooted in desire in the way that you mean; but in masquerade, a desire to be other than what we are. That’s what the three burlesque women in the painting represent: performance. We perform constantly, and not only our gender as Judith Butler has written extensively about, but every aspect of ourselves.
Q. An artist is a by-product of its times. Is your work uncovering a spiritual or mysterious aspect of the world as we see it?
We are all by-products of our times, but what I find most interesting about making art, is that you really have to be very critical about how to be as specific as possible about the times you live in, but not get lost in temporalities. In that sense, I think as an art historian (I am trained as one), which can sometimes be a burden as I’m always trying to get a birds eye view of what I do in the studio! I am interested in the mystery of life, but I think any one who seeks to create original work in any field is ultimately drawn to the unknown aspect of our existence. Another way to look at spirituality is a belief in duality: we know a lot about our physical bodies and the material world, but much, much less about non-physical being and non-materiality which is experienced simultaneously. There are whole fields of physics, theology and philosophy that deal with this subject, so even my knowledge on it is rather scant.
Q. Who is Shiva? Man, woman, myth or divine? Or is there a deeper meaning to Shiva, revealed only to those who seek?
Shiva is another powerful cultural symbol. Even though this painting may appear critical of Shiva, it is not. Although I’ve set up obvious polemical gender/power dynamics, I believe what Shiva represents as the ultimate reality beyond material form is a pure and unadulterated philosophical abstraction which is very different from the fascist appropriation and complication of meaning that is happening in our society today. The personification of Shiva appears as a sort of visual meme in my painting, as a beautiful male model with classical ‘fair and lovely’ features that we usually encounter in pop culture imagery. I am interested in the distortion of all these realities that a powerful symbol can produce.
Q. There is a strong presence of the mythological figure Lord Shiva in your work. Shiva literally means that which is not. It is not described as light but as darkness and yet your work has these varied deep colors. What do you feel when you choose your colors? Do you embody your translation?
Having used abstraction as a strategy for many years, ‘that which is not’ as you put it was fundamental to my approach to form and color. I would continue to build up the surfaces, to disrupt the linear visual path, and hopefully take optical sensation somewhere it was not expecting to go. I am also committed to the language of phenomenology, which is plainly, sensing through the eyes. This school of thought had a marked influence on color systems, by freeing color from rigid singularities and opening it up to relational possibilities. It licensed a new kind of freedom for the way we experience color. Color for me is very empirical, and the way I use it has a coded language of its own. Color is highly symbolic, it has the power to invoke its own relationships, images and associations. The color and application of paint has to be balanced with image, composition and meaning, whiile carrying its own sentience. In that sense, there are parallel worlds happening in my paintings, each layered with their own meanings and trajectories, but hopefully inextricably woven.