The Sub Urban Landscape Movement: A Moving Trend from Kerala
|( Transcendence in Transience by Mathai KT)|
You may call it retro style painting. Or cynics amongst you would qualify them as paintings nostalgic about the Baroda-centric narrative movement of 1980s. Some may go to the extent of saying that these artists are memory-mongers. But the truth that could be deduced from these artists is this: In Kerala, a new art movement is slowly in its making. Walking on its cat paws, silently and cautiously, I would call this movement, ‘sub-urban landscape movement’. As an art historian and critic, I am not quite sure whether this could be qualified as a ‘movement’ as yet. An art movement connotes an organized force of aesthetics facilitated by a set of like-minded artists with a sort of written/imagined manifesto well in place to substantiate their creative efforts. But in Kerala, these artists are not well-organized or not even thinking about organizing themselves as an art movement. They are disorganized, scattered and work from different locations of Kerala and elsewhere. But somehow they seem to be sharing a sensibility, not just in terms of repeating the linguistic charm of these retro looking paintings but also giving a personal edge to the same depending on the locations from which they are doing their art.
Landscape artists mainly function from within two ideological frameworks: One, they find the present landscapes around them quite oppressing therefore they go out to the imaginary virgin lands and paint them directly, the way the Barbizon School of painters did during the late 19th century in Europe. It is a reaction or an expression of dejection felt by the presence of a fast changing landscape around them on which they do not have any hold. So, their attempt is to turn their faces away from it and look for an ideal space elsewhere which in a way expresses their demand for the pure and uncorrupted ways of living or even showing a possibility of the existence of such pure areas of life/living. Two, as they find the present and fast changing landscapes oppressing or not charming enough, hollow and devoid of variety, or the homogenizing of territorial differences into chartered and planned locations for easily exercising power and control, they try to conjure up a landscape from memory that stands diametrically opposite to the present and the apparent. The latter is romantic but rebellious while the former is romantic and poetic. In the latter, the artists remain in the same place, without changing the locations and traces out the submerged and submerging landscapes within and without their minds, memories and imaginations. It is not necessary that they need to move out to ideal and pure locations, or different and alien areas in order to create an alternative. They keep countering the changes with a romantic fervour and rebellious spirit, often giving a huge presence to the landscape and diminishing human presence to its minute varieties/actions.
|(A Transparent Pact - Performance by Mathai K T )|
These new ‘sub-urban landscape’ artists are at once the chroniclers of displacement, of customs, traditions, life styles and ways of looking at nature. There is a tremendous sense of helplessness amongst them as they find it impossible to hold the changes under check, to curtail the pace of urbanisation and depletion of nature. They live within a reality of change, painfully aware of their constant succumbing to the pressures that this change causes, yet feel the need to document the traces left over or the memories attached. Look at the works of Mathai KT, Shijo Jacob or Saju Mannathur, one could see how these artists have romantically rebelled against the changes by becoming self styled chroniclers of the displaced people, events, memories and the very landscape itself. Perhaps, such a conscious attempt was started off by Mathai KT when he started painting the immediate surroundings in his village where miners were digging earth for filling land elsewhere in order to create new urban neighbourhoods. The landscape around him became gaping wounds and the greenery reminded him of a gangrene setting in slowly. But the life of the villagers was going on as if nothing had happened to them. In temples the rituals were taking place, in churches services were going on, in community halls marriages were conducted. Birth and death were simultaneously taking place in hospitals and houses. Amongst all these events, the land where they were living was changing, leaving them marooned in the islands of leftovers and memories of the un-pilfered surroundings.
Mathai KT, without being too conscious of his historical mission or social commitment or artistic ideology, painted these surroundings during 1990s, 2000s and today his landscapes have become quite magical. His strong reds and greens have given way to greys and shades of black. The shift in his world view or palette however is negative. He counterbalances the colours of the homogenising urbanisation that deprives a vast majority of people of their original surroundings and subsistence with something serene, deeply mourning and filled with piety. In a land where the powerful becomes jokers and fly around mocking the very existence of people, Mathai finds the daily ritual of life taking place within a deserted and deserting landscape. People, in his works, look like living within a dream, a dream that they seem to be dreaming in their wakeful moments. The predominance of landscape seen in his earlier works has given way to an all encompassing lack where only people could live their lives in willed dreams. When rebellion is customised and sold in the market, dream is the only way to live a natural life because dreams cannot be commodified. In Mathai’s landscapes one finds these new suburbs of existence. In fact suburbs are not formed at the periphery of urban locations, instead they are formed within, as urban locations surround the erstwhile ideal landscapes, against the wishful thinking of the revolutionaries that one day the villages would surround the cities and defeat them. Today Mathai understands the fact that urban locations are the containers into which the old villages are poured into, emptying its essence and leaving them hollow shells. And the artistic rebellion takes place in the form of painting the new ‘suburbs’ and its gnawed, vandalised and molested landscapes in a new imagination where all wounds are healed by the balm of memory/nostalgia/dream.
|(A work by Shijo Jacob titled Predakshina Vazhiyil)|
Though Mathai KT could be cited as the artist who has initiated this genre of sub urban landscape paintings, there are a few contemporary artists who without connecting directly with him have come to a similar way of thinking. Shijo Jacob and Saju Mannathur are two such painters. In one of the latest works, Shijo Jacob fills in the pictorial frame with the colourful effects of a tremendous firework that takes place as a part of the celebration below. At the bottom of the painting, occupying less than ten percent of the total space there is a strip that shows the events of the village that stretches from a church to a toddy shop to a cinema hall. All aspects and varieties of a village life and its celebrations happen within that ten percent of space and the landscape painted there looks absolutely a willed landscape. It does not exist in reality; perhaps it exists in the mental reality of the artist. From his memory, he conjures up the images from his lived past and creates a carnival or various religious beliefs, secular lifestyles and practices. They come together out in the street without conflict and the landscape in which this drama takes place becomes the ‘ideal’ one for him as it does not exist anymore. The carnivals have become another commodity exercise and there are no longer different tongues which speak different languages and yet make sense. Today all the tongues speak the same language. Shijo’s painting is a counter carnival that takes place in a counter landscape; a landscape caught within the urban locations, a reality that even the artist cannot physically avoid.
|(A work by Saju Mannathur)|
Another artist that I would like to discuss briefly on this occasion is Saju Mannathur. In his paintings and drawings the human drama is minimized to maximum. They are just happenings against a looming landscape, which is definitely sanguine by the various shades of red; green patches connote trees and forests. In these paintings, one could find a different layout of a village, seen from a bird’s perspective but this composite village is somehow emptied out. One may naturally wonder where all the people have gone. But a closer look reveals the presence of people. They are no longer the ruling entities of this landscape or village scape. They are just there, going on with their daily activities, exceptionally mundane in routine, but performing them with a sense of sincerity and vigour. As I have argued earlier, the people of these landscapes or villages are poured into the urban peripheries, leaving the villages in the centre lonely and deserted. But from the artist’s point of view, this counter suburb looks more alluring as it is still capable of giving peace and harmony. Saju’s paintings are the narratives from where narrations are erased. His effort is to create a new narrative, a lonely story; perhaps a humble history in the form of a remembered myth or an insignificant myth recounted in the style of a lofty history. By doing this, the artist does not claim anything for himself; but he does claim a landscape for all those who have left the place and rendered it meaningless. This is how Saju’s paintings stand in opposition to the Baroda narrative school of paintings. The idea of Baroda school was to create a deliberate narrative, logically possible and skilfully complex. But in Saju’s work the logic itself is drained out; what is left is disjointed events and actions as if they were taking place on a film set abandoned by the film makers, where the characters shed by the actors still roam around like ghosts.
The Sub Urban Landscape Movement in Kerala has not found its full force or historical acknowledgment yet. This article is an attempt to invite the attention of the art lovers and historians to something that has been taking place in the zone of visual aesthetic production in Kerala. When large scale installations and spectacular art projects occupy the urban and rural imaginations through celebrations and contestations, people tend to forget the humble dreaming of artists who have been caught up in villages surrounded by homogenizing urban taste. These are the rebellious settlers of a land from where their imaginations are forcefully evicted, but they keep reclaiming it by being there unmoving. This is a silent movement, but a strong one. Identifying more and more artists working in the same imaginary and ideological framework would consolidate this nascent phenomenon into a full-fledged movement. The responsibility of recognizing it should be left to other art historians and art critics.
Post Script: Shibu Natesan is one artist who works between studio and landscape. His search is for a pure landscape, the ideal one therefore a meaningful one. Unlike the Sub Urban Landscape artists, he completely moves out of the imagined and real suburbs, and creates his landscape paintings the way the Barbizon artists used to do. A body of Shibu’s landscape paintings is also expected to be dealt in detail with the changing ideas about landscape as the defining locations of life.
AIFACS Annual Show
On display are paintings, drawings graphics and sculptures by various artists. Eminent artist, painter and muralist Jatin Das inaugurated the exhibition and gave away the awards to the winners.
MK Research Art, Italy presents a solo show of artist Vibha Galhotra titled ,‘Alter’.The show is curated by Lucie Fontaine and the show focuses on Vibha’s research on alterations that are ever more influencing the notions of time, spaces, relations and emotions. Deeply connected to nature, her practice addresses the idea of trans-culture within the dichotomy global versus local and its specificity in relationship to the concepts of displacement, nostalgia, identity, existence, construction and/or deconstruction; furthermore it analyzes the cultural condition in which we negotiate our position of human beings living in urban and natural environment that are constantly changing.
The show commences on 14th December 2013 and will be on view till 18th January 2014.
The works in this series, unlike her earlier series on the cosmos, are more on the lines of spiritual elements. Titled, ‘Matrix - Demystified’ the works are an attempt at addressing the various interpretations and complexities of spiritualism and life itself when seen as a matrix.
The show is on view till 15th December 2013.
|(work by Dr Pramila Salian)|
Artists’ Centre, Mumbai presents a solo show of paintings by artist Dr Pramila Salian. This is the artist’s fourth solo show. Pramila works in oil and acrylic medium and her works usually depict the spiritual and religious bent of life as a whole.
The show is on view till 15th December 2013.
(News reports by Sushma Sabnis)