Amita Bhatt On Themes Of Socio-Political Violence, Desire, And Dislocation In Her Art
- IWB Post
- June 20, 2019
“I offer no solution,” says Amita Bhatt, a renowned artist, as she insists that her artwork is essentially reflective. However, before you interpret it to be a ricocheting interplay of themes and merely just that I’d ask you to stop. Because there is more. Her reflections on things and themes are based on a very expansive and deep understanding of life and philosophy. If you pay attention, her artwork speaks more of the human psyche than words can.
Amita displays a very strong hold of all that she transcribes on the canvas. The workings of the deep recesses of our mind, that we keeping losing hold of whenever we attempt to fathom them, play to the rhythm of her art. She presents it to you, ready made, on the easel but disguised as a jigsaw. If you dare to play along you are sure to exclaim there is something about the precepts of human nature that she has understood, there is something that her art has mastered! And with understanding comes solution, right?
If you are intuitive enough to get to the semiotic depth of her art, then be sure of getting a glimpse of the contemporary human predicament where hyper reality is the new reality, probably the only one. From that context, her art is synonymous with life, both wreathed together by Amita in a careful symphony of chaos.
Amita’s theoretic influences came from her study of Tantric philosophy in art school. She shares, “As a young student my art history teacher – Professor Deepak Kannal – opened up a treasure trove for me when he introduced me to Tantra. The celebration of “womanness” in Tantra had great appeal to me given our patriarchal society and my own dismal experiences.”
She adds, “It was against this backdrop of Tantra and my own close encounters during the Babri Masjid riots of Mumbai in 1992-93 that I tried to find answers to questions of ideology, identity politics, sacrifice, heroism, betrayal, resilience and the human spirit.”
The themes have remained the core concern of her artwork throughout her career span. Amita posits, “My work illustrates my philosophical explorations within the realm of political violence and fuses Hindu mythology with Western thought as I examine the universal crises of conflict, desire, struggle, domination, and transcendence. I have personalized the mythology and the imagery remains unrestricted.”
Thus she mingles mythology with Western thought into a confluence of myriad albeit vital themes, all of them charged with a primal energy. It is probably the vitality, the charge, the undercurrent of unresolved energy that imparts her artwork with its virtuosic finesse.
Here are excerpts from a conversation that I had with Amita:
How have your political and social experiences as a woman shaped you as an artist?
Gender is obviously a very defining part of one’s identity. I can’t say it hasn’t played a role in my work. More so, when one is born into a society such as ours, one is bound to have experienced patriarchy. But we are also raised on stories of Kali and Durga and their fierce abilities.
As a young Indian woman in the 90s, I saw everyone from quacks to registered doctors practicing female infanticide under the guise of a test (which was actually designed to detect genetic diseases) called Amniocentesis. There was money involved. Everyone was making a killing! (Pun intended). In my undergrad days, I designed a powerful ad campaign against the use of amniocentesis for gender detection and faced great resistance by doctors. I needed information about the pros and cons of this test. It was finally one brave female doctor who secretly gave me the information I wanted. Also, in the professional world of the 90s, divorced women were still stigmatized albeit in very cloaked ways. Sexual expectations by colleagues and bosses were tedious and oppressive. All these experiences stay with you and although my art practice does not deal with women’s issues, (except in the context of political violence), one’s experiences do get layered into the work.
In the backdrop of the current landscape (with the emergence of emancipating moments like #MeToo, #TimesUp etc, where women have finally become the flag bearers of their own empowerment) how do you reflect on women’s identity in political power?
Women, globally, are certainly moving in the right direction. We need to persevere and continue our push towards empowerment. We are far from being equals. There are certainly not enough female political voices the world over. Besides other things, the “MeToo” campaign was very effective in killing the stigma attached to the female victim, where often times, one saw the female being shamed or blamed for being violated. Congratulations to all the strong women who showed so much courage. But along with women, it’s the men who need to be educated. Men are the biggest part of the problem. The best education for men will come from mothers, sisters, friends, and daughters. The human race is far from being evolved. It’s tiresome to think how backward we still are as a race.
Dislocation is a recurrent theme in your artwork and also an ever-persistent world condition since the times of the exodus. With all the current immigrant issues, both in India and the US, how are you imparting the problem with a mythological angle?
There are popular stories about Aeneas’s flight from Troy, the Pandavas’ exile, etc. Sadly dislocation is an age-old problem. Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” (the context is quite ironical) and Picasso’s very famous- “Guernica” come to mind. Ai Wei Wei’s work on the refugee crisis is also very poignant.
Dislocation is not just about the physical. A very large part of it is mental, cultural and emotional. Often memories become twisted and the brain goes into a complex survival and sustenance mode. I have taught children of dislocated families. Some of them had endured unspeakable trauma in crossing over into the United States. The one thing I have drawn from all these stories- real or mythological- is the absolute resilience of the human being to fight and to overcome.
I discuss the idea of dislocation in a very physical way. My characters are sometimes dismembered and the overall narrative is fractured. Some of my characters alter their identities in order to induce ambiguous mindscapes where the viewer cannot distinguish fact from fiction.
In a patriarchal world, women are consistently conditioned to suppress their carnal desires. How are you internalizing the woman’s experience in your work while exploring the theme of desire?
When I talk about desire it is specifically about the desire to perform violent acts.
According to Slavoj Zizek- “The Desire for violent acts rests on deep set perversions of phantasy.” We know that perversion is inverted fantasy and that idealism or truths or belief systems can be twisted to serve whatever purpose one deems fit. I play with that but always within the purview of political violence.
You will notice that my women are always portrayed as strong, muscular characters full of potential to sustain life or take it away. They are confident about their sexuality and their powers.
However in answering your question ‘outside’ the context of my own work: Women and their sexuality is a modern-day problem. Sex is about personal choice. In Greek mythology fertility and eroticism were basic and one sees references of cross-dressing and self-pleasuring in classical Greek art. Evidence shows that Tantric rituals consisted of sexual acts where women were central and in positions of power and reverence. Architecturally speaking, our ancient temples termed the inner shrine as –“ garbha griha” or the womb. Hindu art has a rich tradition of being inclusive and also covered major areas of LGBTQ issues.
Would you like to ponder upon one internal conflict that fuels your work?
Oh, I am a bag full of conflicts. I struggle every day with my fear (of the current state of affairs), my own place in the global zeitgeist, my place within my own work, fear of the unknown, fear of my own limitations as an artist hoping for social/political change and the fear of appearing too naïve when I say I want world peace. The list is endless. But if I had to narrow it down to any one single thing, I’d say it is my constant struggle with ideas of justice and morality. What is right? Whose right is right? I struggle with philosophical theories such as utilitarianism that states– “the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the measure of right and wrong.”
Artistically speaking, I question how I can turn mental dilemmas into form? How do I control the paradoxes? How do I resolve the “circular” nature of certain philosophical theories? How do I map all my thoughts into a single whole?
From what I gathered while attempting to assimilate your expansive work, it looks like you have rendered violence a more human angle. Let’s further explore that angle. In your work, is violence gendered, ethnic, religious, all of these or something else altogether?
The violence in my work is strictly socio-political and identity-based. In that context, it covers gender, ethnicity, religious ideologies, skin colour, etc. You see, violence and destruction are not new phenomena. They have existed since man started roaming the planet. Many ancient creation myths discuss that Earth was born out of Chaos and disorder and that destruction had to occur before creation could take place.
Philosophers cannot agree on whether man is born good or whether evilness is learnt behavior.
My work is strictly a philosophical and psychological exploration of human nature and the social/political violence we affect. It is about the violence humans inflict of each other over political borders, over the alien “other.” Having said that, I acknowledge that some of our world’s problems are highly complex and difficult to resolve. I offer no solutions. My work merely reflects and/or questions.
While fusing your exploration of mythology with Western thought, what are the conflicts that arise from the creative process that you find an immediate need to resolve?
None what-so-ever. I do not feel the need to “resolve” anything. They are what they are and I mine whatever I need from each of them. I don’t think there’s any defined “meeting point” between let’s say Tantra and Slavoj Zizek. Where Hindu philosophy might offer relief in its wisdom, Zizek brings forward the psychological twists that might occur in the modern psyche. Both bring necessary and valuable points of view.
Symbolically speaking, however, there are possibilities of dual “readings” which I actually enjoy. For example, Hindu myths have references of the snake being a symbol of wisdom while Christians consider the snake evil. It adds another layer of ambiguity to my work.
While the themes like loss, hope, death, violence, conflict, dislocation overlap in your work, the characters you create appear to be powerful, quite “undeterred” by it all. (Borrowing from your website: “My characters, meanwhile, continue to float undeterred as they embrace the precariousness of their unpredictable lives while oscillating between spaces sacred and profane.”) What is the source of power that keeps them charged and on an unyielding pursuit of the eventual transcendence?
The fact that everything including life and death, and creation and destruction are cyclical gives them the power to carry on. Also, my protagonists are very aware of their power to create or annihilate. They know they often walk on slippery ground and may succumb to their own darker energies. But carry on they must.
As all of us must!
Your artwork brings together utopias/dystopias or the sacred and profane together. There is both dominance and subversion. How do you maintain the aesthetic balance between the two worlds?
My work is full of irony, humor, fear, ambiguity, and paradox. It is a reflection of my worldview and the condition of man. There are no clearly defined utopias or dystopias. The characters are capable of both, good and evil.
In “A Fantastic Collision of The Three Worlds” # 9, on the left, we see two characters merging into one. The patterned character (full of hope, positivity, and all things good) emerges out of a simple stark character. They are representative of our powers of both benevolence as well as brutality. They are two sides of the same coin.
What is the political message of your art to the modern interpreter?
There is no message. Only questions. And reflections.
Artist’s image credit: Zahaan Khan
Artwork Courtesy: Amita Bhatt
First published on Jul 23, 2018.