In Search of the Queer Divine
by Karen Frances Eng | October 13 2016
Sharmistha Ray is known for lush, vibrant abstract paintings that tackle queerness, identity and eroticism from within the strict gender-binary culture of India. Now her ideas have taken a leap off the canvas into installation work, sculpture, painting, photography and drawing in her sixth solo exhibition, we are all islands—which opened recently at Nine Fish Art Gallery in Mumbai.
“The deeper I get into painting, the longer the gestation period becomes — sometimes up to a year,” says Ray. “Along the way, the process gives rise to many other questions, conflicts and ambivalences. The works in we are all islands allowed me to throw myself open to other media that help me frame ideas in new ways — but they’re still an extension of my core painting practice.”
As the exhibition kicks off, we asked Ray to walk us through a few of the new works featured in this multi-sensory immersive environment.
1. In Search of Rainbows #2
In Search of Rainbows is a light installation alluding to the colors of the traditional rainbow spectrum of seven colors — as well as to the original gay pride flag, made up of six colors. The piece, comprising seven 7-foot-tall light boxes that lean haphazardly against the walls of a corridor, conjure up a disoriented rainbow.
“The piece mirrors the movement of queer journeys in the world,” says Ray. “The cubical columns of light are scattered, leaning skewed against the walls through the corridor, ‘out of order,’ so to speak. It’s my way of subverting the politics of orientation while foregrounding the politics of disorientation as a primary means to navigate the world.” Ray invites viewers to walk through the corridor of light, which requires people to move in a non-linear way. “That’s queering,” she says. “It operates on the notion that if the environment is out of balance with the body, the body has to adjust to adapt.”
“The gay pride flag is very important symbol of pride, unity and collective power in the queer community,” Ray says. “I wanted to intersect the light spectrum with the gay spectrum, because light is the material of transcendence in many faiths, while ‘coming out’ essentially entails revealing your true self. Both transcendence and coming out are intertwined with the search for meaning.”
2. the space that lives between us
This large, stainless steel wall-mounted sculpture is a lyrical mapping of Sharmistha’s thumbprint. Covered with a matte gold surface, this highly intimate marker of identity is transformed into a precious object.
“Our thumb impressions are completely unique to us, not only as a marker of intimacy through touch, and the way we touch, but as a marker of our biometric identity,” says Ray. “As someone who’s been a lifelong migrant, the thumbprint takes on significance on many levels: the longing that comes from the absence of touch of a loved one when you’re away for long periods, the impressions given in order to cross borders to go home. A thumbprint impression is also a map — its contour lines are called ridges and its floating ridges called islands.”
One of the show’s salient themes is the incongruities that exist between touch-mediated and digitally mediated worlds. While both are rich information channels, the latter is flat, and denies sensitization, says Ray. “Even though we’re hyper-connected through the internet, these connections lack real intimacy and genuine feeling,” she says. “As a painter, the ability to touch, sense and feel is incredibly important to me.”
3. Sanctum II (forget you I shan’t)
Walking through an archipelago of brightly colored structures, viewers approach a white, well-like structure that invites them to peer inside the cylindrical construction. Projected into the bottom of the well are digital projections of 108 original graphite drawings by Ray detailing the contours of a woman in erotic play. “Sanctum II is an exercise in deconstructing the way we see,” says Ray. “The presence of the erotic subject is a veil. I’ve created this deliberately liminal approach to eros, but the actual subject is how we are shaped by the things we look at as much as we shape the world through our eyes.” Meanwhile, the number 108 is equivalent to the number of beads of a japa mala used by Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists during meditative repetition of a mantra or a divine name, and signifies the number of transformation.
In keeping with the theme of spiritual transformation, the piece plays with two metaphors from one of Ray’s favorite novels: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. The first is the river, into which the title character is gazing when he gains enlightenment. “He sees his own reflection and in that moment, the image fragments into past, present, future — into a million images. He realizes for the first time that his existence is infinite and has been hidden behind the façade of his ego all along. In a way, the well reflects the viewer’s own splintered image, in 108 fragments.”
The second metaphor is the songbird. When Siddhartha leaves the spiritual path, he embraces materialism and excess. “He lives with a courtesan Kamala, whose name encompasses the word Kama—the Hindu deity of love and desire,” says Ray. “One night, Siddhartha has a vivid dream that the songbird Kamala keeps in a golden cage has died. He wakes up in the morning and leaves. When Kamala wakes to find Siddhartha gone, she realises what’s happened, opens the cage and frees the bird. In the story, the songbird represents Siddhartha’s spiritual life, but he has to choose between his desires and the spiritual path. In Sanctum II, desire merges with the spirit divine. The woman projected at the bottom of the well represents the songbird — spiritual freedom — and Kamala’s eros.”
we are all islands will be at Nine Fish Art Gallery in Mumbai through 6 November 2016.