Letter from London
The discovery of Le Douanier Rousseau by Picasso in Paris, and the naïve fisherman-artist Alfred Wallis by the British modernist Ben Nicholson in Cornwall, provided inspiration for new approaches to making art. What opened their eyes was a freedom of material, expression, and mostly of composition that worked purely within the terms of the frame. It seems to me that folk art offers another avenue to appreciate contemporary art today: that of story-making or narrative and, more importantly, a sense of intensity. At present the appreciation of certain aspects of craftsmanship seems less pertinent; instead, vigour and passion—which abound in outsider art—are more celebrated. The appeal of an artist like Tal R, whose work revels in a certain materiality and the intensity of repetitive touch, would be a good example of what I mean.
The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India’s Great Epic
The British Library, London
May 14–September 14, 2008
One of the less noticed, but nonetheless spectacular and ambitious exhibitions on display this summer comes from the collection of the British Library. Dating from the first millennium in its current form, the Ramayana, together with the Mahabharata, are the first poems in Sanskrit. Attributed to the sage Valmiki (ca 400 BCE), the epic poem follows the adventures of the man-god, Rama, from birth till death. It is a tale that involves evil stepmothers, heroes proving themselves, exile, demons, sleepy giants, bloody battles and even an army of monkeys. Half of this would be enough for Hollywood. This version, The Mewar Ramayana, stems from the 17th Century and was commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar and largely painted by Sahib Din and his studio.
The Ramayana (Rama’s journey) recalls Rama’s adventures from his birth as an earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu, to proving his worth by stringing the bow of the god, Shiva, and marrying his beloved Sita. Through the conniving of his stepmother, the couple are sent into exile for 14 years together with his loyal brother, Laksmana. In this far-away land, Sita was later kidnapped by the multi-headed and many-limbed demon king of Lanka, Ravana. Our blue-skinned hero, Rama, finds himself joining forces with the monkey king to rescue her. With Hanuman, the general of the monkeys, and his army, Rama is eventually victorious following a sequence of great battles. This victory brings him back from exile to lead his kingdom. It is a tale of filial loyalty, sacrifice, brotherly love, and innocence, but ultimately this is a tale about a sense of duty.
On display are 125 pages from a supposed total of 400. Each gouache is rich and beautiful in itself, trule gems, which makes wandering through the exhibition very slow given the amount on display. They are at once decorative and full of colour and detail, with the scale (approximately 19 × 35 cm) only accentuating these qualities. Like medieval painting, the artists use different techniques to move the eye around the composition and tell the story. Often three or four sequences of narrative are portrayed in each image. Hence there is a stacked ordering of space and repetition of character. Were they the comic books of their day?
What is striking here is the difference between works that are treated as Art and artwork that is displayed with another intention—in this case, as a story and book. This particular exhibition was designed by theatrical set designers, and the idea seemed to be that of creating a scene or set akin to that portrayed in the pictures. The result is a messy, stagey effect that detracts from the intensity of the artwork. In order to follow the narrative, we are led around a chaotic display by numbered footprints. In addition, there are ten pages to each frame, and texts at the bottom to accompany the image; the latter being a very necessary part of the Ramayana. Although we are drawn into each little world, the exhibition would be far stronger if it had been designed to highlight the majesty of each work. The display surrounding the Mewar Ramayana on the other hand is far more successful. It includes other versions of the text in their bound form, as well as paintings of the characters. What is wonderful to see is the way the text has taken different forms over time, from tapestries to wooden travelling cases and scrolls. Having said all this, I believe the text is now reaching a much broader audience than perhaps the Rana of Mewar had originally intended.
The Kingdom of the Blind
September 3–October 20, 2008
Much in contrast to the theatre of the Ramayana’s display is the white cube that INIVA’s galleries offered to Hew Locke’s latest exhibition, The Kingdom of the Blind. Akin to the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Institute of International Visual Arts was created in 1994 with a remit to represent a much broader range of artists and subjects, ranging from historical to contemporary exhibits, and thus reach out to a more diverse audience.
Born in Edinburgh and partly raised in Guyana, the London-based sculptor Hew Locke certainly fits this internationalist bill. More importantly, his work in general has taken inspiration from his personal and political background. Like most post-colonial countries, this South American nation and former British colony has a multicultural demographic that is a hodgepodge of natives and the offspring of migrant labourers and slaves. For some time now Locke has been making large-scale reliefs from toys, plastic plants and other plastic objects. He has captured the public imagination by using political motifs, most notably the head of the Queen, in an on-going series entitled The House of Windsor. The images of royalty and coats of arms were icons of rule in the former colony, but for Locke, these “portraits” fall into a tradition of portraits created by local craftsmen that were then presented to the royals: a sort of votive or kitsch.
In The Kingdom of the Blind, it is not quite obvious that the one-eyed man is king; rather one is not quite sure if the figures represented in this larger-than-life and somewhat eerie frieze of thirteen warriors and their victims can see at all. Like his other works, this group is also constructed from plastic parts: toys, brown doll limbs, beads and necklaces, plants and animals. It is as if Aliens vs Predator had been designed by Versace at his bling-bling height. They are intended to be the “fictional collection of an imaginary ruler,” depicting victorious scenes from the ruler’s rise to power. With the amount of plastic foliage and dangling beads, it feels as if they are from a jungle kingdom abandoned. Some of these figures represent victims, hanging on the chains of their conquerors, as well as female warriors. In one, a halo or cowl behind a warrior’s head is made from the tails of large toy lizards. With the hundreds of doll heads and limbs, one can only imagine what a looter breaking into Locke’s studio might think.Over the past few years, Locke has been moving away from the overtly political; there have been more flights of fantasy, as this work obviously displays. But it would seem that if you put a plastic Kalashnikov into any artwork, you are immediately entering into a certain political discussion. This group immediately recalls any number of African dictators gone awry, and perhaps that’s just Locke’s intention. From the Ramayana to Locke’s imaginary Kingdom, it would seem that our stories are still similar, but perhaps the demons have fewer heads today, and are less reliant upon sleepy giants.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.