Artist Mithu Sen, in 2006, had literally turned a gallery space into a private room with her drawings that celebrated human body, as much they celebrated sexuality. The walls of the white cube space were decorated with paintings that represented tongues, a penis, hair and cut-out pictures of women – all in a grotesque manner. This works ‘The Drawing Room’ succeeded in bringing out the taboo topic of sexuality and acknowledged her as a crucial feminist voice of contemporary art in India, whose works were layered with the undercurrents of irony and humor. A decade later, the Delhi-based artist is best known for conveying uncomfortable messages with an acerbic wit, hoping to lead the viewer to contemplate over deeper meanings.
Her latest work ‘Phantom Pain, supported by Nature Morte, which will be showcased at the upcoming India Art Fair, is a continuation of her explorations into language, poetics, drawing and installations. And since her ideas and concerns coexist with each other, she says that this work can be “thought of as an instrument to channelise hidden desires and fears, at the same time talking about the absence of something”.
Since the representation of sexuality in a grotesque manner has been an insignia of her draftsmanship, Sen believes that presenting sexuality in contexts helps to engage the viewer. “I feel it is the easiest way to enter the psyche,” she says.
“What most fail to understand is that I aim for a gaze beyond the obvious sexual innuendos. By normalizing sexuality, I try to comfort and confront the viewer simultaneously. Moving from an act of moral deviance and uncivil behavior, it becomes open to discussion. Sexuality in my works also becomes the charge that repels the same viewer, making him/her to contemplate over deeper meanings,” she adds.
The medium of dental prostheses gave Sen the freedom to talk about body and its associated pain and suffering in a symbolic way. For instance, for her first solo museum exhibition at Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in the US, she created a monumental, site-specific installation ‘Border Unseen’ – a false teeth and dental polymer sculpture that spanned 80 feet and was suspended from the ceiling to the gallery floor. The human spine-like installation, with fleshy-pink hue, was aimed to elicit strong reactions from viewers.
Elaborating on the usage of artificial teeth, Sen says “they speak of biting incarcerations, of warped sexuality and bleeding violence. They are like crawling life through bleak ruins”.
While she may be viewed by art critics as a feminist artist, the recipient of Skoda Prize for Contemporary Indian Art (2010) for her series of large-scale drawings ‘Black Candy’, which explore homoerotic narratives of masculinity, has always conceived the body as an androgynous identity. For her, feminism isn’t about an inversion of male-female power equations, and definitely not about closed groups. Her representations of the body are a way of doing away with traditional structures of power and focus more on an individual’s freedom of self-expression.
Through her grammar of expression, she has constantly been trying to push viewers to accept sexuality as normal as breathing. However, with conservatism deeply rooted into our subconscious, she too was burdened by regressive scrutiny, with her works being turned down, or refused to be exhibited at certain places. Without changing the idiom of her language, she started finding newer ways of engagement to articulate her thoughts and concerns. “Pressure has always been a factor that pushes me to find new routes to express myself. It is constantly present and I am aware of it. My engagement becomes all the more important in this scenario. Constant subversion is my challenge to suppression of any form,” she says.
“So when at times my works are turned down, or are refused to be exhibited in certain places, I take it on as the next challenge. I feel everyone has an individual struggle against the societal pressures to conform,” she adds.