“I am intrigued by how we look, register, remember and what we see—in the gaps and fractures between the image, eye and the invisible nerve endings which retain and transform it over time. I am interested in visibility and invisibility; notions of reality, truth and definitions; in sound, silence and silencing and in the possibilities of listening.” In her own words this is indeed the inspiration for Shilpa Gupta. As an Indian artist of international repute, she has been a significant part of the Art movement in the UAE, an enabler in the confluence of South Asian & Middle Eastern Art. She will keep inspiring the younger generations in the times to come.
As an art collector, her works and her practice has inspired my thinking at various levels. From multiple forms to deep rooted psychology and the intersection of various materials, her works are provocative in thinking and inspiring at a human level.
Her first presence in the UAE backdates to 2009 with the ‘Don’t See, Don’t Hear, Don’t Speak Performance’ in public spaces which was supported by Art Asia Pacific. Ever since Shilpa has been regularly featuring across galleries, institutions in the UAE. In 2021, she was featured at the Jameel Arts Centre for a show titled ‘The Distance from Here’ and curated by Dawn Ross. She has done shows in 2016, 2019, 2021 and 2023. Her work in the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019 was hugely appreciated by both Indian and international collectors.
When I asked Shilpa what makes the UAE so special, she reminiscences about the Sharjah Biennale in 2013. “I remember participating at the Sharjah biennale in 2013. It was curated by Japanese curator Yuko Hasegawa and till date, it has been one of the most memorable, sensitive and very powerful things exhibitions I had the opportunity to experience! Then the next major experience has been a two person show with Zarina at Ishara Art Foundation curated by Nada Raza. Again, a very considerate, delicate and thoughtful show, impeccably installed.”
Shilpa has recently returned to Abu Dhabi Manar in November 2023 with an outdoor project where a light installation is on view. Shilpa says “It has been a great pleasure working with Reem Fadda and her brilliant team and I am amazed at how the installation has been handled with such great deft and vision. Coming from South Asia where we have a very long road ahead in terms of infrastructure and showing work in public institutions and outdoor spaces, it has been wonderful to see how UAE has created robust spaces for practitioners across the region.” In her words the responses from viewers have been very ‘heart-warming’. This is the inherent emotion of her practice which makes her works very special, very meaningful and very deep.
With the ever changing social and cultural environment, Shilpa’s practice draws inspiration from the micro moments in our social surroundings. As Shilpa says “It is the shifts in how meaning-making, which recurs in my practice. We make sense of the space we occupy by stories we are told about it. This is a highly mediated space where many forces are at play. The stories we grow up with at home, which is our immediate first-hand knowledge, intermingle with the ones transmitted to us from, sometimes via great distances, which we don’t directly experience but might feel close, often exaggerated via echo chambers, suspend notions around truth and reality.
As a Mumbai girl, Shilpa experiences the progression and shifts in a rather huge megapolis. Similar progressions and shifts have been seen in her practice as well. Shilpa comments “I wonder what can ever escape markings by time and location. I grew up in a city of migrants which dreamt of itself as cosmopolitan. I am part of the generation that sat on the fence. We grew up with black and white TV and VHS, and experienced the early 1990’s liberalisation bring 30 TV channels literally overnight. We have seen sectarian riots rupture into the social fabric of the city and then spread it all over. Being interested in how things get defined, I saw shifts in my works. For me shifts have been marked by experiences. While early work looked at body and gender, with the changing post-riot atmosphere in my city and travels to the border regions, the works started looking at religion and notions of the state. I remember applying for a residency in south of France to produce an interactive sound work in 2000. The proposal which I had written in Mumbai, was based on whispered slurs one experiences on streets in my city. However in the process of moving from Mumbai to Aix en Provence, it got transformed. Now alongside sexual comments, were etched racist slurs on brass plates in the work.”
In addition to these shifts, Shilpa has also experienced changes in medium where internet and touchscreens have been explored, even large scale walking interactive video projections have been seen as mediums in Shilpa’s works. She says “while earlier works often featured myself as a protagonist, it moved to my shadows, then to the viewers shadows, both visible and deformed. Then the body disappeared and these days I find myself working mainly with sound, knowing well that this might also change! These aspects I see less as turning points and more as responses to experiments within my practice, where one thing leads to another.”
According to Shilpa, the biggest challenge in the art industry is to connect and draw the audience beyond the art world. This challenge is for the community at large, where a strong social movement is required for the larger populace to experience & connect deeply with art.
As my own story, I wake up every day looking at Shilpa’s balloon series which reads ‘I want to live with no fear’. This is now my life inspiration, my belief system and my narrative to my young children for the times to come. We are yet to see how times will evolve but for now we pause, absorb & feel the depth of Shilpa Gupta’s beautiful practice.
Rakesh Kumar has heading various global organizations and has travelled to more than 96 countries. He has been a witness to the evolution of the art scene in the UAE for more than a decade.