Artist Rekha Rodwittiya marks her 60th year with an introspective show

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‘I want to hear my voice echo the anthem of women’s empowerment’

Taking stock of one’s life experiences, the learning, living, falling, rising, the in-between, the lull; all of it culminates into a certain something that artist Rekha Rodwittiya explores in her new show ‘Rekha@Sixty: Transient Worlds of Belonging’. The Bengaluru-based artist’s imagery, celebrating her 60th birthday, delves into her subconscious, keeping her personal, political, and feminist values at the forefront. Excerpts from an interview:

What urged you to conceptualise the exhibition in this manner?

Every decade has been a marker for me; personalised from the manner in which I have viewed the sequencing of time and what it could offer to me as a graph of learning and discovery. For instance, I was on a residency in Stockholm when I turned 30, and had a solo show. I had a large charcoal work titled ‘A milestone,’ on a journey that indicated three decades of investigation. At 40, I had an exhibition at Studio Barbieri in Venice titled ‘Evocations,’ that marked the entry into this decade. In 2008, I exhibited Rekha@fifty as a celebration of the beginning of the half-way mark of my life. So, as 2018 heralds my 60th year, this exhibition is about the culmination of the myriad experiences culled from my life over the years. A decade is a significant passage of time within which one can observe many changes within social and political structures, in India and in other parts of the world. Six decades have passed; the insistence remains loud and clear, to hear my voice echo the anthem of women’s empowerment.

The show has two large paintings you present as the protagonist in photographic form.

I believe these works to be bookends of sorts. In the first, the photograph of me is very structured, that’s who I am. It was taken in London in 1984, as I completed my art education. The second was taken more recently by Divya, somebody who is very dear to me. They are both very important images of the self. Within the paintings, I wanted to create the theatre that is the stage of life. Life is about waiting, and wanting, knowing, and hoping. Me in the work, in turn, dissolves to become the work.

Over the years, I have always used the woman as a central motif, but it is only recently that I brought my own face to the image. For many years, people have asked me if these were autobiographical. They are, as much as they are about women. The paintings are containers of many hopes, beliefs, dreams. We’re in the midst of the Me Too movement, but we’ve articulated women’s strength since the Chipko movement.

One of Rodwittiya’s works from her Rekha@Sixty show.

One of Rodwittiya’s works from her Rekha@Sixty show.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Your exhibition note says “I have worn the crown of a female ancestry from early childhood.” Do you see a shift in the way people view gender?

Women in every field today are far more aware of their rights and their equal status in society. Both rural and urban women (perhaps because of the access to social media) are emboldened to voice their grievances and seek intervention. Education is percolating down. Today, we see the Supreme Court verdict upholding women’s right to enter Sabarimala overturned by male devotees. Traditionalists are setting the pitch for battle and elected politicians do nothing to protect the fundamental rights of women pilgrims due to vote bank politics. Therefore, it is not a clear case of linear progress when it comes to gender rights.

A lot of your paintings have animals either as central protagonists or hiding in plain sight. Why is that?

As an art student, I watched traditional theatre like Yakshagana and Theyyam. I saw the magic of Pat painters from West Bengal and of potters from Molela in Rajasthan. I listened to folk and tribal stories that spoke of nature. It is from all of this and more that my animal forms find their way into my vocabulary. The narratives in my works are never direct stories. I employ metaphor, allegory, myth and legend as pictorial devices.

Tell us about the space you work in? What lines the walls? And what is the ideal setting for your ideas to flow?

My studio holds many articles of sentimental value. I have many photographs of loved ones on what I call my ‘memory wall’. Only my close friends and family are allowed into my studio, as I consider it to be a space of personal dwelling. I have precious books that fill my library and hold a universe into which I wander at will. When I am starting a new work, I need complete silence for my mind to distil and filter an idea into the exactness of articulation I desire. Otherwise, I have the TV on, with crime stories to provide white noise that shuts out all distraction.

Animal forms often find their way to Rodwittiya’s vocabulary.

Animal forms often find their way to Rodwittiya’s vocabulary.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Can you touch upon the works ‘Postcards from the Journey’, and ‘The Burden of Love’. You’ve used Braille to describe words like discover, retrieve, alive, etc.

Travel has always been imperative to me. But in Postcards from the Journey, I’m talking about ‘journey’ as a larger metaphor. We live in monologues with ourselves. We hold expectations of others, of politics, governance, the environment, but we hold no standard for our own deliberation. The work explores the meanderings taken with your own ticket; where does it allow you to stop? Does the destination change? In The Burden of Love, it’s implicit that if you think of the purposefulness of life, it’s really about the desire. Therefore, it can translate to a simple word — love. When we’re looking at crises in West Asia, Northeast India, Kashmir, Germany, or Japan, we’re always looking back and thinking this can never happen again. But it does. It is human frailty to learn to believe that the transaction we call love is a possibility. But it requires that you hold it with responsibility.

The writer is interested in art, photography, culture and history. @ZahraAmiruddin

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