Interview: Riyas Komu

Sculptor Riyas Komu: An argument about beautiful histories at risk

Print edition : September 27, 2019

Riyas Komu, self portrait.

"I think therefore I am", 2018, wood and bronze, 71” x 76.5”. The Dancing Girl, the artefact from the Indus Valley, juxtaposed against the Lutyens chair designed for the President of India. Photo: Vadehra Art Gallery

"Conspicuous Location". This sculpture of the Ramapurva Bull refers to Jawaharlal Nehru and his civilisational vision.

"The Buddha".

"Dandi Bridge", 2019, oil on canvas, 200 x 72 inches (diptych) Photo: Dheeraj Thakur, courtesy Artist

"My Sindhi cow", 2019.

"Foundan" (Malayalam language), 2019, glazed stoneware, life size. Photo: courtesy Artist

"Memory Store I", 2019, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches.

"Memory Store II", 2019, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches.

"Memory Store III", 2019, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches.

"Memory Store IV", 2019, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches.

"Song, unsung", 2019, iron and aluminum 24 x18 x 11 inches. Photo: Courtesy: Dheeraj Thakur

"Holy shiver", 1947. Photo: Photo Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery

"Holy shiver", 1984. Photo: Photo Credit: Vadehra Art Gallery

"Holy shiver", Bombay 1992. Photo: Photo Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery

"Holy shiver", Dadri 2015. Photo: Photo Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery

"Holy shiver", Village 2016. Photo: Photo Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery

"Holy shiver", 2017. Photo: Photo courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery

Woodcuts, 2019, etching, 52.5 x 37 cm (set of nine). Photo: courtesy: DHEERAJ-THAKUR

Woodcuts, 2019, etching, 52.5 x 37 cm (set of nine).

Woodcuts, 2019, etching, 52.5 x 37 cm (set of nine). Photo: DHEERAJ-THAKUR

Woodcuts, 2019, etching, 52.5 x 37 cm (set of nine).

Woodcuts, 2019, etching, 52.5 x 37 cm (set of nine).

Woodcuts, 2019, etching, 52.5 x 37 cm (set of nine).

Woodcuts, 2019, etching, 52.5 x 37 cm (set of nine).

Woodcuts, 2019, etching, 52.5 x 37 cm (set of nine).

Woodcuts, 2019, etching, 52.5 x 37 cm (set of nine).

An interview with the artist and sculptor Riyas Komu.

RIYAS KOMU’S solo exhibition titled “Out of Place”, which is on at Gallery Sumukha in Bengaluru from August 25 to September 23, showcases a series of works that forces us to pause and reflect upon ourselves as a people who share a certain history, and as a civilisation whose lineages are ancient and complex. Here, images and icons, memories and invocations from the past are transported out of their place in time and placed in the present in order to counter the civilisational myopia and amnesia that are looming over us.

The show brings together works on different mediums: stone, bronze, iron, aluminium, wood, ceramic, canvas, woodcut, etching, terracotta and video. In more ways than one, the diversity of the mediums also resonates in the thematic concerns of this body of work. National icons, bodily practices, traditional imageries and historic sites from our civilisation are juxtaposed to trigger conversations in and about the present; while some of them are directly political and belligerent in their intentions and intensity, others are deeply meditative and disquietingly oneiric.

Most of the works in the show work in and through memory, dissecting and interrogating historical time to open up other experiences of time as civilisational or mythical energies. These images and icons—the Dancing Girl, the Buddha, the Ramapurva Bull, the Asoka pillar, Dandi Bridge, the Gandhi stick, Cow and Calf, yogic postures, solitary cells, archival images—come from the far recesses of our memory and form part of our historical past. But here they are replicated, refigured and juxtaposed as reminders, warnings, forebodings or wake-up calls.

It is this sense of unsettling and the startling juxtapositions of the temporal and the spatial, the visceral and the symbolic, that Riyas Komu composes and elaborates in this show. Hence, the recurrence of the transient yet dynamic motifs, ambivalent yet enigmatic presences like that of the clouds, the steps, the broken icons and recycled symbols.

For the past few years, Riyas Komu has worked intensely with certain themes and certain sets of imageries, iconographies and symbols that are deeply embedded in and linked to instances of global unrest and the national imaginary. If his Berlin solo show in 2008, “Related List”, argued against occupation and cleansing of civilisation, his Kochi show in 2015, “On International Workers’ Day, Gandhi from Kochi”, foregrounded the figure of Gandhi, juxtaposing his images with panchsheel ideals, invocation of red colour and the star. Placed adjacently were a set of lithograph blocks—which was also a homage to Raja Ravivarma—titled “Stoned Goddesses”, that carried “inscriptions” about the traumatic incidents and moments from the post-Independence period that haunt the collective Indian psyche.

In the Delhi show in 2018, titled “Holy Shiver”, the focus was on Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar and the osmotic synergies their portraits invoke. The show also presented Nandalal Bose’s illustrated pages of the Indian Constitution. Facing them were a series of iconic images of violence perpetrated on citizens in the post-Independence decades. The stark black-and-white portraits of the shehnai exponent Bismillah Khan, the towering sculpture of Ambedkar, and the enigmatic presence of the Dancing Girl formed part of the show, provoking possibilities of conversation and invocations of hope. Earlier this year, Riyas Komu installed the statue of Ambedkar titled “Fourth World” at the Nirox Foundation’s Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in Johannesburg, South Africa, which is again an invitation and provocation across time and space. The installation of Ambedkar in Gandhi’s South Africa was, in a way, an attempt to widen the scope of the political and philosophical engagement between the two.

Excerpts from a conversation with Riyas Komu:

In the past few decades, you seem to have been grappling with independent India’s psyche by invoking iconic figures and foregrounding events that scarred its history and shaped your identity. I think the present show, “Out of Place”, extends these themes further in terms of its subversive use of national iconography, imageries and imaginaries. Why this title and what is its broader context in terms of art history and contemporary politics?

Through “Out of Place”, I am entering into troubled terrain, into a site of fear. The time when I came into art practice, the early 1990s, was a traumatic period in our political history, and it provoked me deeply due to the unsettling impact it had on human relations and political imagination. As a student, it resulted in my focus shifting from textile design to art-making, and I opted for painting as my specialisation. From then on, the effort was to find and explore a language that was capable of responding to my times and to build its archive.

So when I look back, right from my going to Mumbai from Kerala to pursue art education, the traumatic experiences of the 1992-93 riots that I was witness to, and the art practice I am engaged in now, everything is connected. They all get connected as an argument for a space of freedom and a secular life, which has been the anchoring spirit behind my practice.

In a way, “Out of Place” is a continuation of “Holy Shiver”, the show I did last year at Vadhera Art Gallery, Delhi, which focussed on the celebration of India’s diversity in the Indian Constitution, the text of which was illustrated by Nandalal Bose. The show juxtaposed the images of Gandhi, Ambedkar and the traumatic events of violence in post-Independence India.

One motif that ran through all the works was the need for conversation, which was stressed in the work “Dhamma Swaraj”, in which the image of Gandhi morphs into that of Ambedkar, which was juxtaposed with diminishing images of the Preamble and those of violence and fear, in the contemporary context where the Constitution itself is under threat. I also wanted to foreground the contribution of art in the making of the Indian Constitution; where it brings through art the civilisational depth and diversity of the nation, marking certain icons, landmark events and turning points in its history. The same concerns led me to this show, which in fact includes some works from “Holy Shiver”, too.

“Out of Place” in one sense is an argument about beautiful histories at risk. We are witnessing systematic attempts at obliterating certain pasts and building new regimes of meaning. So, as an artist, I thought it would be a fascinating plot where we can invoke certain memories through objects from the past, repaint and remake them, and give them back their intimate meaning and reconjure their significance.

In this show, concerns and issues of nationalism, identity and citizenship that I was pursuing earlier get reflected, sometimes directly, but mostly obliquely and tangentially. In a way, these works are placed against each other to build an argument. For instance, the installation of the Buddha image brings in and retrieves certain memories, thoughts and historic trails around the idea of Dharma. This is a possibility that certain icons offer to us; the moment you put it in a different site, the story changes.

You can also navigate through this show following a historical trajectory that starts with the Harappan girl, followed by the Buddha and the Asoka Pillar, then the Dandi Bridge and the various painful moments in the pre- and post-Independence history of our country. My idea was to create a site of experience as the visitor moved around.

One finds five sets of works in different mediums: there are paintings of Dandi Bridge and Memory Cloud, glazed stoneware, terracotta and other sculptural figures, a woodcut series titled “Contortionist”, assemblages such as the “Dancing Girl” and the iron mask and the mike, and a video work titled “My Grave” featuring Nasirudeen Shah. Are they conceived as parallel trajectories that explore the theme of enforced amnesia that seems to have gripped the national psyche? How do they converse, converge and engage with each other?

As I mentioned, a show can create a certain experience for people through a disruptive yet related narrative. When I do a show, I think about juxtapositions and the possibilities they open up to create fresh conversations. There are definite historical references to most of the works here. For instance, the sculpture of the Ramapurva bull titled “Conspicuous Location” refers to Jawaharlal Nehru and his civilisational vision. It was he who intervened after a lot of debates with archaeologists and historians to place this figure of Nandi in front of Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Its title also draws directly from Nehru’s words. So, it draws upon a certain collective historical memory and sincerity towards a land of wisdom.

Similarly, the cow in our times is an image that is employed to disrupt social harmony and, so, tough to use. But I used it here to remember the depth of time and the history of human settlement. During my childhood, the Sindhi cow was famous, and I am placing it here as a kind of counter-reference that resonates with another kind of civilisational memory, livelihood practice and exchange. It is also juxtaposed with Gandhi’s walking stick in glazed stoneware. The video titled “My Grave” made in 2010 in collaboration with Nasirudeen Shah expresses the pain and the unsettling sensation of our times.

Your works strongly invoke certain presences and conjure up certain absences. There are images that emerge from the past in the form of icons and symbols and there are also certain poignant absences that seem to haunt the spaces within your work: for instance, in the Memory Cloud series or in Dandi Bridge. Here, linear, historical time seems to be set loose; time becomes fluid and begins to flow into the crevices and fractures of the present.

In the case of Dandi Bridge, it is about a crucial site that sent tremors across the coloniser’s mind, with the message that things are going to change and this man, Gandhi, is capable of mobilising people’s power to upset an oppressive regime. Once, maybe [for the] first time in his life, witnessing the spontaneous uprising of moral power of people in Champaran, Gandhi said, “I saw God” and it was a realisation of people’s power. Here is the bridge through which we walked into the future, fighting the coloniser. So, Dandi Bridge is not just a metaphor from the past but one that has resonances in the present. This work also opens up the possibility to look at other such locations that offer an opportunity to tell a story with a historical site as a reference not just as a landscape. It is about how certain locations come into painting as a cultural or historic memory to engage with the present.

Works like “Foundan” are also an attempt at invoking art history to communicate with the present. If in most other images the connect is with Indian art and political history, here it is European modern art that is evoked.

One artist who has always attracted me is Marcel Duchamp. Many artists have reacted and related to his unsettling ideas about “art”. I admire him because he is still a disruptive presence in art history. Duchamp has proved that materials can trigger historic disruptions. In “Foundan”, I tweak the English word fountain to make it sound like a Malayalam word. I use the same material which Duchamp used in one of the most famous works where he placed a urinal in the gallery and called it “Fountain”. But I was more fascinated by the material of the urinal: glazed stoneware. A sense of disruptive swatchatha rings alarms in my head when I see this material and the new pawn moves made by the regime, and here a human figure, blind, deaf and dumb, plays the role.

There is an element of archaeological imagination persisting in your recent works, where you are using images of iconic personalities and figures from history and culture. These images also seem to function as mnemonic triggers that provoke memory to reignite their original or foundational energies.

Yes, if one takes the work “I Think Therefore I Am”, for instance, it can be seen as an attempt to invoke civilisational depths where the famous Dancing Girl is juxtaposed against the iconic seat of power.

I think it is especially relevant today when new genealogies are being propagated. The Dancing Girl is also one of the oldest archival artefacts from the Indus Valley and is considered the first art object or sculpture found in India. Juxtaposed against it is the famed Lutyens chair designed for the President. It is an attempt to trigger aesthetic, historical as well as political questions, to play with words, materials and ideas.

The woodcut series titled “Contortionist” plays with human figures in various poses of contortion. On the one hand, they immediately invoke the Indian farmer who has to squeeze himself and his body according to the dictates of the system; on the other, as a series they hint ominously at yoga postures. While one is the struggle to keep the body and soul together, the other is the invocation of the mind to transcend the body.

This yoga series is another attempt to bring back an image from a regimented elitist space to a space where one can contemplate upon it in a different manner and poise; it actually embodies a certain kind of representative image, employed as a metaphor to evoke many other things, like for instance, the state of a lonely farmer. There are two series of yoga postures that mirror each other. I also consider it a kind of cultural acupuncture.

The four paintings titled “Memory Store” play with this presence/absence enigma. There you find an empty cell that is full of foreboding. Is the cell waiting for the prisoner who is yet to arrive? Or has he/she been taken away for execution?

Yes, in these paintings, invocations of the presence and absence work in another way. In digital times, the idea of the cloud has a different meaning, a virtual space where you store everything and forget it. Forgetting is in vogue. Apart from that, cloud also carries the idea of climate and also that of the messenger. The cloud reference is there in my earlier Gandhi series titled “Get a Dark Cloud Free”. I experienced another kind of climate change in 1992 in Mumbai, when everything around you underwent terrible changes, transforming human behaviour and your intimate surroundings. The home you came from was not the same home any more. Beliefs, ideologies, practices, everything changed.

There is another provocation for doing this series. Early this year, after a gap of 10 years, I went again to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. It was a profound experience that stayed with me. I felt it was about the phenomenal sacrifices that a generation made, whose fruits we are enjoying now. But even before another generation begins to enjoy them, we find it being threatened and taken away, be it in South Africa or in India.

This idea and memory of sacrifice easily gets buried in our social space and no one remembers. Things have gone to such an extent that you are not even a memory. These small paintings depict congested spaces of the solitary prison cells that are designed to create psychic fear and physical restraint. But even when confined to such spaces, they could think of human expanses and fight for freedom. Now, even memories about them are being buried or smoked out. I was grappling with the question of how to represent that frustration, that condition or state of mind.

One always says that the state tries to erase certain legacies, manipulating history and changing certain icons, but my question is, how do I as an artist represent that absence or erasure? That was why I went back to these solitary cells that await new arrivals.

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