PRINT May 2013


Sheela Gowda, Of All People (detail), 2010–11, wood, metal, enamel, oil paint, ink-jet print on paper. Installation view, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 2013. Photo: Peter Cox.

SHEELA GOWDA is always weighing her options: literally—insofar as her sculptural works are often suspended, their hanging substance demonstrating their heft—but also figuratively, as the found images she uses are assessed for potential content, both obvious and latent. “I find it impossible to look at anything around me without thinking about the processes behind it,” the artist has said.1

The material consciousness of a sustained sculptural practice does not commonly accompany the two-dimensional scrutiny of our image-obsessed culture, a scrutiny increasingly filtered through technological distance. Yet the Bangalore, India–based Gowda makes a case for the necessity of all dimensions to work in coexistence. Exploring the tactility and mutations of many media, Gowda’s art physically demonstrates how meaning circulates, breaks down, and re-forms: Her abstract sculptures and installations come close to divulging too much information, verging on a narrative reading, while her works on paper with appropriated, generally representational images remain obfuscatory. Vernacular materials are treated by the artist with great respect, while found images are never allowed to speak for themselves but require a disruptive revision—one that does not excavate so much as accentuate elusive signification.

GOWDA'S TRANSITION from figurative oil painting to sculpture in the early 1990s began with the introduction of unexpected materials into her two-dimensional work. (The artist continues to experiment with representational painting today using watercolor, in gnomic images suspended somewhere between referent and refusal of form.) An untitled piece from 1992–93 is a small-scale work on canvas, the “painted” surface—rough, textured, but delicately modulated abstract markings—achieved through the application of cow dung. A few strokes of charcoal on this mottled brown field effect a long central gash, and small collage elements of thorns and a torn scrap of flowered fabric collectively suggest a slowly coalescing scene of violence. The work has a quiet, even reclusive initial presence requiring close perusal; once identified, the unusual combination of materials leaves the impression of a trail of evidence placed in a formal composition.

Cow dung, in Gowda’s hands, comes to signify many things, at the same time that the artist demonstrates how many cultural meanings it already carries. There is nothing exotic for Gowda in her choice of material—dung is a common element of life in India, still widely used for fuel and to line the floors of rudimentary village homes (both traditions now gradually fading due to the impact of global economic development on this region). In part a rejection of the accepted materials of artmaking and an embrace of materials available on the street, Gowda’s use of dung was also a response to the coincident social and political changes sweeping through India. In 1992, the rise of Hindu nationalism led to sectarian violence—with riots in Mumbai resulting in many deaths—and tensions that continue to characterize local politics. Gowda responded to the co-optation of Hindu imagery and beliefs for political purposes by reappropriating dung for works that touched on the underlying violence of contemporary dogma. (The cow is of course a sacred animal in the Hindu religion; even its waste enjoys elevated status.) Gowda’s use of dung reconnects a potentially hallowed substance with its profane use-value rather than its symbolic potential, deliberately retaining an ambiguity of reference. In a 2006 interview with artist and filmmaker Ayisha Abraham, Gowda dwelled on the levels of meaning in her materials: “In a way the visual appearance is mere skin. But it is not something I want to throw at someone, in the face. It has to unravel slowly.”2

For the artist to begin using excrement first as a support for drawing and painting—including a large-scale triptych produced almost exclusively from dung (also untitled from 1992–93)—and then as sculpture was a logical step. Such works adopted a language of form that did not stray far from the context or shape in which Gowda observed dung’s local use: modeled into simple rectangular bricks suggesting a construction material, into piles of dried disks, or into potato-shaped balls. A series of round, flat forms with irregular surfaces showing the imprint of the artist’s hand are incorporated into a wall piece (also untitled from 1993), recalling the placement of cakes of dung on the sides of buildings to dry before being used as fuel. Here the dung is a support for Gowda’s delicate, sketchily rendered imagery in white paint: sometimes recognizable—a laundry line, for instance—and in other instances barely discernible tracings that seem to mimic a primitive type of mark-making (an impression enhanced by the rough support).

Sheela Gowda, Of All People (detail), 2010–11, wood, enamel, oil paint, ink-jet print on paper. Installation view, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 2013.

These transitional works are given prominence at the artist’s first major survey exhibition, titled “Open Eye Policy,” organized by curator Annie Fletcher with Grant Watson, and up through the end of this month at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. They clearly released her from the confines of traditional art materials and opened up her process to more specific observation and experimentation. Engaging the elegant, skylighted series of galleries in the museum’s original building, the meticulously installed works make evident the clarity of Gowda’s thinking between two and three dimensions: the objective nature of materials opposed to the manipulative potential of pictures. Each space revisits the complications of this dichotomy, as every room is forced to resolve the tensions between flatness and bulk, between image and object, which ultimately forces the visitor to contend with multiple registers of seeing.

For instance, a small space is devoted to two early works: the aforementioned untitled painting in dung with charcoal and collage elements and the floor-based sculpture Mortar Line, 1996, which consists of a curved double line of dung bricks with the red pigment kumkum (the substance used for bindi and to dye the central hair parting) acting as a form of cement to hold the spinal progression together. The form and floor placement recall Carl Andre’s “Equivalent” series using bricks and bring to mind the subsequent feminist subversions of Minimalism by Gowda’s contemporaries such as Janine Antoni and Mona Hatoum. Both works in this space require intimacy to be fully apprehended, and yet it is only from a distance that one notices each work features a violent gash, hinting at some interior. Seen together, these works hold a spirited exchange about organic curvature and the corporeal liminality of a slit, which makes it difficult to imagine encountering them outside this intense dialogue.

The movement between different scales, the near and the distant view, is a trope repeated throughout Gowda’s art, particularly in her use of found media images. Despite her emphasis on close observation, in her work an enlarged image does not always offer more information. In fact, the artist has deliberately used the blow-up to obfuscate the original context or to make evident the impossibility of deciphering meaning from found images.

Take Sanjaya Narrates, 2004, a dissection of a photograph, culled from a newspaper, of a Palestinian family immediately following an attack; a man and a woman hold a mortally wounded child, and two other women are seen crying out. The work’s title alludes to a passage of the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata: Sanjaya, charioteer and adviser to King Dhritarashtra, reports to the blind ruler on events from the battlefield where his children are killing one another.

Gowda does not show the complete photographic image but instead divides it, zooming in on certain sections that become distorted via magnification. These fragments she in turn translates into fourteen watercolor drawings, a process that suggests both abstraction (insofar as the technique reduces the detail enabled by the lens) and a transfer from the mechanistic to the handmade. The drawings metonymically include the original figures: blurred faces, bare feet, hands, and a duplicated image of the male mourner. His anguished face is shown in full and in two repeated, cropped shots, as if the quick shutter of the camera had caught this same partial image twice in movement—a sly “fake” reference to the speed and distortion of the photographic process and the death itself. Other drawn images capture abstracted, partial details—cloth, a truck’s headlight—such that the sequence never allows the eye to settle comfortably. Every drawing except one is in color; the single sheet where the dead child appears is drained of all but sepia tone.

Without text or commentary, Gowda makes baldly apparent the complexities of our exposure to representations of violence and atrocity: on the one hand, the need to retain and expose the reproduction’s distance through a personal approach; on the other, our lack of any real capacity to truly understand its information or surrounding context. Giving mythical magnitude to the tragically common disasters of contemporary conflict, Gowda also makes madness of any narrative sense by displaying the fourteen sections in sequence, like frames in a strip of film, though the images in fact represent a single moment rather than a chronological progression.

Such part-for-whole relations are taken to the extreme in Gowda’s oeuvre. The proliferation of images means that any viewer—even the one who will “get” most of the cultural referents—is overwhelmed by an excess of signification. This is the case in a large diptych from 2006, 2/7, Agneepath, that pairs two watercolor paintings with very different subjects. 2/7 is derived from a photograph of students demonstrating in Kerala, India, transferred into watercolor on ink-jet print. Gowda begins by enlarging this digital image and then erasing information, replacing it with her own painted forms. As in Sanjaya Narrates, this process foregrounds the artist’s decisions about what to manipulate, and thus highlight, in the image. For example, her removal of the ground between the demonstrators and the police exaggerates the divide between the two groups—the police appear to float in empty space while the demonstrators are sucked back onto the earth. In turn, her use of watercolor creates a blurred suggestion of ghostly movement, as if the police batons were perpetually moving forward and the protesters were perpetually falling back in response. This image’s pendant, Agneepath, is a watercolor version of a still from the cult 1990 Bollywood film of the same name, also enlarged, that captures the last moments of a renegade son (played by the famous Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan), collapsing, bloodied, on his mother as she remains impassive, turning away (a motif that belies her embrace of him in the final scenes of the film).

Sheela Gowda, Behold, 2009, human hair, steel. Installation view, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 2013. Photo: Peter Cox.

Seen as a whole, the diptych is part cliché—public violence and personal tragedy—but Gowda’s conflation of documentary nonfiction (with no clear identification of subject) and fictional film (here represented to misleading effect) alerts us to the process of artificial staging behind both scenes. The work’s large scale suggests a type of history painting, as Gowda has mentioned.3 And yet its precise meaning—in direct contradiction to that genre—is not transparent, but seems to dwell in the transpositions of surface and source.

Elsewhere, Gowda transforms a group of leaping soccer players from a newspaper clipping into what look like protesting demonstrators. Similar cloudy watercolor images of family photographs, wherein the figures appear to be dematerializing or engulfed in smoke, are incorporated into the larger installation Still, 2006, shown that same year at Bose Pacia Gallery, New York. Further distancing the images from their original state, Gowda made printed scans of the watercolors, exhibiting these reproductions of drawings of reproductions on tables alongside incense formed into shapes suggestive of leaves and organic debris. These shapes were burned prior to the exhibition opening and remained as ashen ghosts of the forms they once occupied—vulnerable to touch or wind—such that both picture and material appeared to exist in some kind of “monochrome” half-state.

Gowda’s open-eye policy here seems less about a gaze revealing meaning through careful attention than about an awareness of the unfixed nature of images, despite their profuse application in the documentation of daily events and their proliferation as evidence: Like incense, or almost any material in the artist’s hands, they are one thing and then they are another.

Gowda revisited this transubstantial use of incense in the work Collateral, 2007, shown by London’s Iniva at Rivington Place in 2011. There, she made incense paste with charcoal, water, and tree-bark powder, molding it into abstracted forms presented elegantly on mesh-screen tables. Once burned, the forms assumed the impression of a model-scale city—blocks of charred incense with fissures that appeared like roads, the fuse linking the irregular elements acting as interconnecting routes on a map that seemed at once a view from space and a close-up of the cracked, dry earth.

Recently, Gowda has turned to large-scale installation, assemblages of materials that forcefully engage the viewer inside an entire space through freestanding sculptural forms as well as suspended elements perilously hanging from ceilings and walls. Exhibited in different iterations depending on the architectural context, these works refuse to give a full picture and, much like Gowda’s reused news images, resist easy consumption.

To experience the installation Margins, shown at the artist’s Gallery SKE, in Bangalore, and the related Of All People, shown at Rivington Place, both from 2011, is akin to walking through a collage that has leaped into an expansive surround—a sensation that implicates the viewer as an alien presence. Of All People’s brightly painted found doors and doorjambs, barred pink window frames, standing columns, and salvaged wood spread throughout the main gallery space of Rivington Place, which is characterized by massive floor-to-ceiling glass frontage that divides the space from a busy London street.

At the Van Abbemuseum, the installation occupies a smaller room, which echoed the original domestic scale of the dismantled architectural elements. While the suspended limbs of the wooden jambs evoke their original architectural proportions, Gowda has included thousands of finger-size basic wooden figures (produced by hand in India for commercial sale) to replicate the scalar oscillations that characterize so many of her other works. These miniature “figures”—articulated by simple notches in the red sandalwood—suggest singular posturing (perched atop a tall pillar) as well as mass gatherings, as in the jumble, hard to differentiate, piled on top of an upturned table. Placed along the upper ledge of the room’s recessed lintel and appearing to look down on visitors from above, these figures also suggest a reversal of the viewing subject. Here Gowda’s work seems to be turning an open eye toward us.

EVERY INSTALLATION BY GOWDA wraps material surprise in historical reference. This is nowhere more evident than in the visceral Behold, 2009, in which Gowda uses ropes of human hair—bought in strands and laboriously woven together into thicker cords—to suspend metal car bumpers from the wall. The bumpers dangle irregularly, a little like collapsing musical bars. The hair ropes are dark and uneven and—in contrast to the shiny metallic surface of the bumpers—are scatological or intestinal in their appearance, while the clumps or knots of hair that rest on the floor suggest oversize heads, referring back to the origin of the material.

Sheela Gowda, Protest, My Son, 2011, ink-jet print on wallpaper, watercolor and ink-jet print on paper, horn, fur, glass, 12' 8" x 8' 63

Gowda’s decision to combine these materials derived from her observation of daily life in southern India, where it is common for people to tie human hair around their bumpers to ward off danger and accidents. As always, technology remains untrustworthy. In conversation, Gowda has said she finds amusing empathy in this need to return to a human material for protection, despite the metal hulk expressly designed for this purpose.4 In a further twist, the material itself represents a large industry in India: Hair is donated by pilgrims to temples, where it is given as an offering in a process of ritual cleansing; the temples then sell long pieces to Western companies for wigs and hair extensions, while shorter pieces are sold for the superstitious purpose evoked by Behold.

Whether through the obvious labor involved in fabrication or through references to productivity and work, Gowda’s oeuvre frequently returns to the methods by which people cope with—and struggle against—their environment, and the inevitable anthropomorphization of the materials and process as a result. This narrative of the social and economic underlies even apparently abstract works such as Kagebangara, 2007, a large installation constructed out of yellow and blue tarps and tar barrels, some flattened, configured in abstract compositions. The bold, painterly impression of the piece, which expands to industrial-scale dimensions that loom over the viewer, is placed in contrast to its details. Evidence of habitation is suggested by the lids of tar drums hammered into bowls partially hidden inside a cubic space constructed out of the flattened barrels: Gowda here alludes to the origin of the tar containers recycled by itinerant road workers in India to create shelters to live in as they travel along the road they are building. An admiration for the efficiency and adaptability of the laborers is evident in Kagebangara’s formal elegance. But so, too, are the otherwise invisible living conditions that are one local by-product of industrial development.

GOWDA DOES NOT REGARD her work as activism and is clear about her position vis-à-vis the people with whom she works: one of observation and experience but not collaboration.5 In a wall-based piece using found images, Protest, My Son, 2011, Gowda uses a light touch to explore the relation between the artist and her subjects. The work consists of a startling, life-size image of a group of gesticulating, semiclad figures adorned with face paint, beads, and feathers, one of them clutching a massive bow and arrow. At the Van Abbemuseum, the piece is framed by the larger white expanse of the space and bordered underneath by painted gray and white stripes that bring to mind cautionary curb markings, or a truncated Daniel Buren. The proximity and the scale of the figures in the image give the impression that they explode through the wall. Closer inspection reveals a smaller duplicate version of the image installed on top of the larger version. This image within an image has been painted on; a process of “spot the difference” shows that Gowda has further embellished the figures in the smaller scene by adding tattoos, headdresses, body paint, and other details that further exoticize those represented, with a clichéd hybrid of Maori, American Indian, and African dress.

Shown protesting for their land rights, the depicted figures are in fact members of the Hakki Pikki of southern India, a group that has developed a successful trade in fake animals. (A string of faux tiger claws hangs from the image.) The tribe holds an unusual international trade position: Many have passports and travel frequently to major markets to sell their goods. Gowda was drawn to the scene for the way in which the Hakki Pikki perform their tribal status by donning clothing and decoration atypical of the group—a form of self-tribalization that echoes the fake animal products they sell.

Gowda’s work alerts us to observe the same open-eye policy that she maintains in its making. But Protest, My Son can also be read as a wry lesson in the way we evaluate images in every cultural dimension. Narration gets arrested or redrawn somewhere between a form’s original context and its reception. Perhaps what is most highlighted in Gowda’s economic manipulation of materials is the resulting tension between registers of visibility: If today we are confronted with a surfeit of images, Gowda presents the physical weight of this overload, on the one hand, and its suspension of meaning, on the other.

Jessica Morgan is the Daskalopoulos curator, international art, at Tate Modern in London.


1. Ayisha Abraham and Sheela Gowda, “A Certain Language,” in Sheela Gowda (New York: Steidl, 2007), 148.

2. Ibid., 145.

3. Trevor Smith, “A Conversation with Sheela Gowda, Bangalore, July 2006,” in Sheela Gowda, 136.

4. Sheela Gowda, interview with the author, February 26, 2013.

5. Ibid.