WOMEN THAT PACK A PUNCH
At exhibitions, there is often the kind of art that puts you to sleep and then there’s the kind that shakes up each cell in your body, changing the alchemy of your very existence.
As you enter the exhibition hall at Park Gallery, the thing you may notice first is how the women in Umesh Shah’s latest solo exhibition titled Invention in Tradition—their standing, seated, reclining bodies splayed in the most unflattering of poses—disregard you.
Whether it be in the distinct sharpness of their two-dimensional eyes that stare unfalteringly at the world, or in the expressions evoked through the uninhibited turn of their lips, the women are striking, bold, unbeatable. It looks like every woman in this collection of 31 paintings is smirking at the world, and by extension, at you, the audience. “We don’t give a hoot about you,” they seem to casually proclaim.
There is also a certain masculinity to their poise, an almost transvestite quality to these peculiarly long nosed women who seem to reveal all that is beautiful in them as well as that which is ugly. Hips curve, breasts jut out of chest unperturbed, hands move, hold, possess. Together, the collection seems to be saying that nothing could be more attractive than a woman who—in her attitude, poise and expressions—conquers the manly space of confidence and self-assuredness while still preserving her femininity. Naturally, they have a flair that is missing in our cultural understanding of women where they are still expected to be beautiful in a demure, dainty way. Shyness may be considered a virtue, politeness a quality still very much desired in and demanded of women, but they only serve to limit what being a woman means. Petulant, moody, unafraid of expressing themselves, the figurines in this collection are not even remotely shy. Clever, mischievous, they entice, opening up limitless possibilities in the tiny space of an art gallery.
Shah predominantly works in blues and greens; the turquoise colour itself feels like an overarching theme, and seems to represent moonlight. Even though the paintings are oil/acrylic on canvas, they carry a rustic feel, creating the impression of Maithili art that has aged on village walls for years, causing some of the paint to peel or chip away. The brightness of the colour combination coupled with the uneven texture brings the paintings to life. On top of that, everything in Shah’s paintings is injected with personality, whether it’s the women themselves, or the mirror one of them holds in a painting, or the barely visible cat in the background in another.
At a juncture in human history such as this, we often look upon traditions as cumbersome barriers to individual freedom and liberty. Yet, with the increasing legitimacy that individuality has gained, humanity has also come to face an existential crisis where isolated individuals have hit upon a dearth of meaning.
Perhaps traditions did serve a role to make life meaningful, even though in their appearance they seemed to confine. Perhaps there is something in them to preserve, maintain, recreate. Shah’s collection pushes forth this idea, reclaiming the traditional space of Maithili art with an unabashed celebration of women that wander through the night, mingling with darkness and indulging in their sensuality.
In re-inventing traditions, Shah inevitably subverts them, provoking the orthodox eye, but also providing scope for modern, fragmented lives to find a home, feel native, start belonging again.
Art is ultimately philosophy, and in its essence, this collection gestures towards an inner freedom that neither tradition nor modernity can take away from us.
At first glance, Invention in Tradition is a collection of contemporary paintings that draw a strong influence from traditional Maithili art. A closer look reveals that it is, in fact, a story strung together through rustic and visually seductive images. Spend an hour surrounded by these paintings, and you’ll find that it may have changed the alchemy of your existence.
Invention in Tradition is on exhibition at Park Gallery in Patan until April 23.