Hema Upadhyay in her studio in Mumbai, 2009. Photo: Anne Maniglier.

THE PHOTO BY WHICH I REMEMBER Hema Upadhyay shows her alongside The Great Game, the work she created for the Iranian pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, where Mazdak Faiznia and I had invited her to participate: a glass cabinet, jam-packed with little multicolored clay birds, each holding a message or a fragment of a story in its beak to be brought to the far corners of the earth, flying beyond any border. Thinking now about how Upadhyay’s life (she was born in Vadodara, India, in 1972) has been brutally cut short in Mumbai, in a crime whose reasons are still obscure, provokes a sorrow that is difficult to comprehend, for it is as if someone showed no hesitation about ruining and destroying, in addition to her individual existence, the human talent that this artist exemplified at the highest level.

For Upadhyay had so much talent, and, in my opinion, she demonstrated it most conspicuously through works of great simplicity. As is often the case with artists from formerly “exotic” nations, impelled to describe an identity that moves beyond stereotypes, her initial subject was her own daily landscape and horizon, which she wanted to communicate to those who don’t know or were curious about it. This was the genesis of works that brought her worldwide renown—at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, for example, in the 2011 exhibition “Paris-Delhi-Bombay”; or at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, in the 2009 exhibition “Chalo! India: A New Era of Indian Art”—and that summarize in an image the sense of human precariousness: a multitude forever hovering at the edge, always on the move to survive. Indian Highway, 2009, her most effective piece, was an installation in which a gigantic backhoe shovel—a sort of monstrous mechanical T. Rex—threatens thousands and thousands of little papier-mâché houses, like the expanse of shanties that greets travelers to Mumbai even before they land, as their planes fly over the slums that besiege the Indian airport. Where the Bees Suck, There Suck I, 2008, is a moving image because it swiftly gets to the heart of the problem, providing an infinity of stratified and coexistent meanings: overpopulation, urbanization, the political and economic perils that loom over the weakest, fear of the future, humanity’s fate . . . all at a single glance composed of both emotion and reflection.

Hema Upadhyay, Where the Bees Suck, There Suck I, 2008, fiberglass and painted aluminum, dimensions variable. Installation view, MACRO Museum, Rome. Photo: Art Fundamental/Wikicommons.

This compositional reality and, above all, this ability to summarize a complex feeling in a simple and “popular” form, were Upadhyay’s most distinctive traits, and they endure in all her works, including the most recent, some of which were planned for “Megacities Asia” opening in April at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her works always focused on the theme of freedom.

In keeping with the folk wisdom that birds in flight know no borders and thus are a symbol of freedom, Upadhyay had begun to construct hundreds of brightly colored clay birds. Some were intended to fly, hung from a wire; others—most of them—to rest on a shelf, with little strips of printed paper in their beaks. This piece of a story was impossible to recompose but full of pathos by the very fact that the birds were dispersed throughout the world. And so just one of these birds would have signified “everything,” because it would have presupposed all the others, an entire flock that transports words, that is, ideas. And it matters little that one doesn’t know the narrative to which they relate. For what is truly important is that the words are transported everywhere, implying that, in fact, it is not possible to stop all birds, all ideas.

Hema was stopped today (what a tragic and unbearable waste!), but her words continue to fly.

Marco Meneguzzo is an independent curator and teacher at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.