sbcltr spoke to the women behind the stunning collaboration that re-imagined the legendary artist using photography, Indian textiles and friends.
One of India’s most renowned women painters of all time has been Amrita Sher-Gil, sometimes known as India’s Frida Kahlo. Born of a Sikh father and a Hungarian mother, her world veered between Europe and India, and in both countries, her artworks found a home. Over time, her signature style became a beautiful blend of the Western and Indian styles of painting, one that made her the ‘most expensive’ woman painter of India. But of all her paintings, it was her self portraits that brought her the most recognition, capturing herself in all her glory—pensive in some but always bold and beautiful in all.
Decades later, Sher-Gil’s arresting portraits continue to haunt art students and connoisseurs alike. An example of this is, Reprinting Amrita Sher-Gil: A Photo-performance Project, in which, 22-year-old illustrator, Pakhi Sen and 23-year-old, Samira Bose, a student at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, capture the lense of Sher-Gil’s beauty by recreating three paintings and three photographs of the legendary artist. Using photography, Indian textiles, themselves, and four friends as subjects, the results of this experiment gone right have us drooling. sbcltr spoke to the two artists in depth about the project.
What were the factors that led to this collaboration? Why did you pick Amrita Sher-Gil, the “Queen of Self Portraits” as Pakhi calls her?
We were just observing how much Frida Kahlo was embodied by various people on Facebook for a Halloween costume and deliberated on aspects of her that make her appealing for cultural consumption. In thinking about different (but related figures) in terms of bold female artists, we thought of Amrita Sher-Gil.
We have been exploring collaborative photo-projects since college, and even did a small experimental one called ‘The Sari Project’ earlier. A little while later, there was an encounter with a self-portrait print of Sher-Gil in the library at School of Arts and Aesthetics, which we performed in the project. We felt drawn to it at multiple levels and in a fit of inspiration, the decision to experiment with the photo-performance was made.
We suppose as a millennial generation rather heavily steeped in the selfie culture, we wanted to explore the way self-portraiture had worked in art history and focused on Sher-Gil because there’s something about her gaze and the way she looks out straight at you in many of her works. However, all the pictures in the series are not self-portraits, but also include photographs that were taken of her.
As individual artists, who were the contemporary influences that led to this manifestation?
We first engaged with the term ‘photo-performance’ through Pushpamala N’s work. Delving into Pushpamala’s work led to considerable contemplation on the artist as subject and object as also the representation of the female body through her “photo-romances”, as she calls them. While Pushpamala’s donning of various avatars explored popular culture references, the sheer variety in her work made aspects of her personality also appear varied.
In choosing the paintings and photographs we wished to recreate, we strove to see the different aspects of Sher-Gil’s personality that stood out. Pushpamala also pushes questions about the relations between feminism and femininity and in our masquerading attempt at impersonating Sher-Gil, were our actions also performative in perpetuating an appealing kind of femininity? These are some factors we thought about and want to question further in our future projects. In this context, the boldly feminine and blasé mannerisms that were conveyed to us from Sher-Gil’s personality aided us in embracing and attempting to find agency from within our construction of our own gender.
There’s a strong undercurrent of identity in the recreations. Was this project a process of self-discovery as well?
In terms of identity, the object of Sher-Gil was not at the centre of the project, as much as the process with which we tried to make the pictures. The decision to have an all-female group working on the project, and also using only objects we “found” in our home, was an attempt at creating art from within our surroundings. It was to make the creation of this ode less tedious and more spontaneous, where the use of our bodies and the camera lens flowed comfortably as we tilted our heads or clutched cloth in an angle that we felt reflected Sher-Gil’s stance.
In a “post-object” art period and space, there is also a complex interplay between photography and painting, where there are new mediums and opportunities to deconstruct identities. Thus in the inspiration drawn from a prominent figure in art history, there was a deconstruction of our own ideas from within and without, where the key part of the process was to find parallels between ourselves and the artist, as well as the fluidity in our performative “impersonation”.
Other than the selected artworks and photographs as direct references, were there other projects/recreations that inspired you?
Other recreations that inspired us are also contemporary influences. Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop has a project called Project Diaspora wherein he recreated representations of Africans in Europe in paintings from the 15th to 19th century. For Diop, Project Diaspora emerged out of a need to find out about these forgotten figures and to “celebrate their memory”. We were also inspired by Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi, who recently exhibited and spoke in New Delhi.
We notice that you’ve taken the liberty to alter details from the original – like adding a floral background or using a fabric with patchworks instead of the sombre red. Was it a conscious choice to add a personal touch?
We have always been attracted to textiles and the way that different prints mesh and intersect. Our mothers work with textiles and thus we have access to various kinds of fabric and designs. We dappled with prints in a way that attempted to invert what is conceived as “clashing” by finding a union in the clash itself, or using a print both in the costume and in the background to create an effect of mergence and emergence.
We were very conscious that we did not want this to be a sepia-toned ode to a bygone era or anything like that. We wanted to express our own perspective that is constructed by hi-definition media. Again, this is related to Diop’s work who actually also experiments very well with textiles and a hi-definition aesthetic.
Malian photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, though photographing in black and white, also worked with clashing prints and exaggerated studio stances and their aesthetic of portraiture impacted our framing of contrasting shadow and light through bright colours.
Take us through the day of the shoot and how did it all come together.
It was a very organic process, in the sense that we really went with our instinctive choices. Since we have been friends since school, we also are able to communicate effectively about our aesthetic choices, and agreements and disagreements were resolved rather quickly.
After making the decision to do the photo-project, we began to look at her paintings and photographs of her online and would Whatsapp message each other the ones that appealed to us and screenshots of works that inspired us. After we narrowed down to six, we invited our friends requesting them to join us on a particular date, and they were extremely cooperative and enthusiastic. We both picked out clothes from our closet, including bedsheets and curtain material, pieces of fabric from our mothers’ boutiques and our friends brought along some saris and articles of clothing.
The process took one afternoon. Our friends were lovely: they oiled their hair to attain the “glossy sheen” of Sher-Gil’s hairstyles and held up bedsheets with us until our arms hurt. We both clicked pictures interchangeably and consulted the other to see whether each look was working or not. We wanted to convey the inherently constructive nature of this medium by looking out at the spectator in a manner similar to Sher-Gil in almost all our photographs. We also tried to be conscious of the camera presence in the process.
In terms of post-processing, by allowing the folds and creases in the bed-sheets and skirts to show, we wanted to allow the disorderly flow of the process to come through. We also used Photoshop sparingly for just the lighting.
Did you create a certain mood in the space though?
It’s interesting because Pakhi’s living room space actually played its own part in our teenage years, particularly in terms of the amount of light that it gets. The space is full of different artworks and plants. We played some music in order to calm the harried manner in which we did costumes and makeup but at the core of it really was our shock at how similar we looked to Sher-Gil! We would just look at each other and say, “Oh my god, that looks exactly like her!” That weird inexplicable situation really picked up the mood. When we had selected which friends would do what portraits, we tried to match them via their personalities and “looks”. We don’t know how it worked out that well, to be honest. I suppose our friends really took it upon themselves as well to do the part.
How did it feel capturing such a strong and beautiful woman?
We were attracted to her beauty, as well as her strength. There is a lot of defiance in the letters that she wrote to her parents when she was our age, and we were drawn to this rebellion, apart from the way that she pushed certain boundaries through her art. We were attracted to the boldness but were also definitely in awe of her glamour. We know that her image is also attractive because of her aristocratic class background and Indo-European heritage. So while our feelings sprung from a certain kind of romanticism, we tried to be conscious of where the inspiration came from within us.
You’ve already received a lot of praise for this stunning collaboration. But personally, what’s been the biggest takeaway from this project?
We are so overwhelmed by the response! It’s encouraging and is really motivating us to create more work in the future, as also to push boundaries. The way that it’s been received was actually beyond our dreams of the end goal, which was to mess around and see what comes out of the experiment. Now, however, we are interested in the possibilities of exhibiting this work along with others that we have been working on.
Our biggest takeaway would definitely be the confidence that the response has given us, especially because our inputs had come initially for the sake of experimentation. We realize that if we visualize a project, we need to just be active and see it through and watch how it flows. While we initiated the project, it also happened to us and we want to nose dive into such opportunities in the future.
Talking about the future, what’s next?
In terms of collaborating together, we just finished photographing a project wherein we recreated paintings of Gustav Klimt for a sculptural jewelry initiative called Manifest Design. We wanted to explore the way Klimt worked with dimensionality through our tool of Photoshop. We hope to exhibit that along with our Sher-Gil photo-performance soon. We are also thinking of pursuing recreation photo-projects that range in inspiration from Bombay cinema posters to certain schools of painting.
We both are going to be students of art/aesthetics/design for another year at least (Samira at School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU and Pakhi at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology) and we want to find ways of combining our theoretical explorations with our practice. We have shared a lot of dreams with each other since we were 15. We hope we can see them through.
Text by Rohini Kejriwal