Kerala artist gets Swiss patronage

by Navneet Mendiratta
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In times when talent gets lost for the want of right direction or paucity of funds, in a first-of-its-kind patronage in the Indian art world courtesy avid collectors Richard and Adrienne Blum of Zug, an emerging artist Unnikrishnan C. is all set to showcase his works at a solo exhibition in Switzerland in March 2018.
Twenty-six-year-old Unnikrishnan comes from a family of daily wage earners from a quaint little town of Pezhumpara in Kerala. Since his parents worked in the stone quarry, the environment around him generated his interest in painting on bricks and stones at a very early age.
As he says: “My interest in art began at a young age, from seeing rituals and practices that my family observed to the heavily decorated temples, deities and ritual dancers that I saw at festivals – art was all around me! There was nothing else that I really want to do.”
A senior schoolteacher (who had been to art school) trained and encouraged him to study art and consider it as a career option. There on, he made up his mind to pursue his studies at the Thrissur School of Art. His only motivation to study at school was to clear his examinations, so he could finally apply for a BFA course. Unnikrishnan paid for his schooling by doing menial jobs in Thrissur, throughout the three years that was in the Arts college.
While at the art school, he started painting on terracotta bricks on walls of his home, creating one painting a day as if making entries in a visual diary. These recordings reveal the artist’s urge to archive objects and ways of living that face extinction in an invisible wave of crisis unleashed in rural Kerala by the collapse of traditional economies centred on activities such as weaving; abruptly rendering useless once valued skills and implements. The Brick Wall installation, as it stands today, is a free-standing wall composed of more than 300 bricks.
He first exhibited his signature work – The Brick Wall — at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014, that was curated by Jitish Kallat. A version of it was shown at the Sharjah Biennale and was later added to the Foundation collection. In late 2015, it was exhibited at GallerySKE in Delhi from where the Blums acquired it.
Moved by the depth in Unnikrishnan’s work and his passion to make art against the greatest odds, Blums offered to support Unnikrishnan for two years to create a body of work. This body of work is what would be showcased at a solo exhibition in Switzerland. The three-day exhibition in Zug would showcase 12 of his works, including paintings, installations and video works. The exhibition has been curated by Reha Sodhi and Preema John.
Unnikrishnan will also get a chance to present his work to curators, directors of leading galleries, museums and auction houses, apart from noted art collectors from Switzerland and Germany. It is to be a by-invitation-only event.
Sharing more about his art journey, Unnikrishnan said: “My practice draws upon idiomatic cultural artefacts and hyperlocal textual references, such as visual metaphors culled from stories told by my grandmother”.
“My works document events and images from rapidly changing surroundings, and taken together, they offer not only a personal archive but also a critical description of possible encounters among tradition, belief systems and modernity,” he added.
These interventions, he explained, can be as subtle as the choice of materials (for example, the transposition of images and materials originally associated with the family trade of basket weaving onto carvings and paintings on terracotta bricks), or choice of training in traditional techniques threatened with obsolescence by changes in technology. “Thus when I learn the technique of weaving with pine leaves from my mother I both retrieve a form of local knowledge and contribute to a re-description of emerging relationships between culture and development,” he shared.
As the countdown begins to Unnikrishnan’s fairytale journey, we wish him luck and hope more patrons like Blums come forward to support deserving talent.

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