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Bharti Kher: Silent Rhythms at Kunstmuseum

Bharti Kher's display at Kunstmuseum is a dynamic reverberation of revolution enmeshed within social tradition. Her emphasis on materiality and expression tests the frontiers of interpretation – art isn't just beauty, it must provoke reaction, writes Uma Nair.

Facing India at Kunstmuseum Germany has a few works by Bharti Kher which speak to us about the truths of women's vulnerability and the idea of a woman's body as memoir. They are not beautiful, they invite silence and thoughtfulness projected into the paradigms of patterns over years and months in the cultural conversations that hinge on gender. While frequently referencing Indian tradition and society, Kher emphasises its universal nature; the domestic and the everyday are windows onto broader issues of humanity and history. Her installations are born of research conducted in various fields, with different materials and become reflections in silent rhythms. This exhibition is witness to years of dedicated practice and unveils Kher as a tactile, tensile diarist.
In the many works, we see the pendulum that swings between human drama and contemporary life. Kher's practice echoes a sensitivity to the subtleties of language, as expressed in the evocative titles of her work. At once distinctive, powerful in imagery, and a reflection of the importance of physicality as well as tactility, she stands apart for the command she has on her materials and making.
While her works straddle real, representational, and surreal strands, it is her dual perspectives that come to the fore.
Cell II
Kher found an original and yet completely clichéd material for her art: the ready-made bindi. The bindi – a traditional social symbol, became her leitmotif. Kher adopted the bindi to invite ambivalent meanings oscillating between tradition and modernity.
An arcane symbol of fertility, the contemporary stick-on bindi, a popular cosmetic device in different shapes and colours, is an integral part of Kher's œuvre. Exploiting its cultural and aesthetic dualisms, Kher uses bindis as an epidermal filter to transform objects. As shimmering signs in the form of just circular forms, Kher's bindis mediate between codes and symbols and the ritual marking of time. Cell I, II and III is an example of symbolism meshed into anatomical cell theories. But it explores truths – that symbolism is subject to social change and challenges the role of the woman in a continent rooted in tradition. Above all, Kher wants to emphasise the bindi's traditional spiritual meaning of "the third eye", which goes beyond cliché and misinterpretation.
Portrait Manju
Kher gives form to the slightly strange and awkward encounters with the daily rituals of life. Portrait Manju made of sari, resin and concrete, dwells upon an elegiac yet wondrous vision, in which the banal and quotidian combine – the portrait on a concrete pillar is subversion. But, it is disturbing as it raises questions about social milieus. Kher's work repositions the viewer's relationship with people as well as objects, even as she reflects a quiet sensitivity to the marginalised.
In an interview in the catalogue, she says: "I don't have rules in my work. If I want to make the object carry the memory of that person, then it will. The other one won't. The reason I started using saris was because I was making sculpture and I needed to put clothes on it. I didn't know how to sculpt clothes, like a skirt. I wish I was Michelangelo and could carve marble to look like folds of skin. But I can't. So, I find ways that I can make something look like something else. Suggestion is very important, not reproduction. The construct is equally valid. Thus, when I started to think about how I needed to cast the clothes, I realised I needed more physical material. Six yards was a good length."
Six women
Six Women, shown at the 20th Biennale of Sydney in 2016, addresses the maltreated bodies of sex workers in Kolkata. Kher bursts the boundaries of the traditional image of women in India and allows women to take on multiple identities, preferably as the stronger sex even as she focuses on women who have been exploited.
For Six Women (2013–15), she sought the assistance of an NGO and visited sex workers in the red-light district of Sonagachi in Kolkata, portraying six of them by making casts of their bodies.
Deaf room
This work represents the wall of a house made of glass bricks, which was created to raise the memory and become a witness of the Gujarat riots of 2002. The work was inspired by an iconic image of a burnt house where a pile of bangles was visible too. The idea of the glass bricks made from crushed red glass bangles was developed from this memory.
The act of melting glass bangles into compact black bricks, thus creating a dark metaphor for the muted voices of countless women, becomes an agent of pathos and tragedy.
The Deaf Room deals with destruction and loss, but the bricks also offer a dynamism of design born out of the firmament of death. The bangles in the bricks become a subversion catalyst. Kher says: "The bangles form the spine of the building. The domestic social space is fraught with anxieties as well as social, political, and economic concerns; but in most domestic spaces, the spine and backbone is also the woman and her presence as a female energy. It is something to be remembered, recognised, and celebrated."
And all the while the benevolent slept
The headless female figure sits on a wooden base – she has a teacup and saucer in one hand and an ape's skull in the other hand. The figure has a graceful stance, even poise – she speaks of hybridity, takes a turn for the mythical, led by the fibreglass figure. And all the while the benevolent slept depicts Chhinnamasta, the headless goddess associated with self-sacrifice and sexual energy. Here, she's seen holding not her own detached head as per classic iconography, but rather the skull of an ape. Kher also muddled with the sheer passion of this most ferocious of goddesses, replacing her curved sword with an altogether more prosaic bone china teacup and saucer with straw like wires coming out of her neck.
Energies of materials
In an interview, she affirmed her process: "I like to string the work out; to drag it through my life so to speak. The women sculptures I see as a body of work, that goes on for a long period and all these women are connected to each other."
In the catalogue, Kher says: "I want to activate the material: clay, wood, plaster, metal. I believe that all materials have energies and that, as artists, we transform them to give them new potential."
At the Kunstmuseum, Kher stands a class apart for her silent questions of materials and composition – as an artist who works within the womb of silence to affirm the truth that art is more than mere beauty or superficial whims.
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