London

View of “Bharti Kher,” 2012. Foreground: The skin speaks a language not its own, 2006. Background, from left: From the beginning to the end, 2012; Solarum Series I, 2007/2010.

View of “Bharti Kher,” 2012. Foreground: The skin speaks a language not its own, 2006. Background, from left: From the beginning to the end, 2012; Solarum Series I, 2007/2010.

Bharti Kher

Parasol unit

View of “Bharti Kher,” 2012. Foreground: The skin speaks a language not its own, 2006. Background, from left: From the beginning to the end, 2012; Solarum Series I, 2007/2010.

Baubles, bangles, and bindis came out to play at New Delhiite Bharti Kher’s recent solo show. Waiting for visitors in the middle of the gallery was the work Kher has become more than a little famous for: The skin speaks a language not its own, 2006, a life-size white fiberglass elephant stretched out on the floor. Covered with velvety, sperm-shaped white bindis (the tiny dots that married Indian women wear on their foreheads as signs of fertility), it looked rather sad. Was the elephant asleep? Or dying? Its dramatic scale, and the ugly-beautiful delicacy of its “skin,” gave viewers pause—for a while.

Most of Kher’s iconic works were on parade along with the bindi-smothered beast. Unfortunately, not all wielded that work’s power to floor us: Some would have benefited from more local context than they were given at this survey of the brightest and most beguiling of Kher’s works, seemingly decorative but possessing slyly encoded meanings. For example, The Deaf Room, 2002–11, is a large enclosure made of bricks. Stepping inside, one felt imprisoned and alone, as though in a confessional. The bricks were fashioned from melted dark-red glass bangles, such as those adored by desi (i.e., Indian) women. There are lots of superstitions attached to bangles in India; it’s said, for instance, that if a woman breaks one, her husband is in danger. But without understanding such cultural nuances—which aren’t necessarily evident in the exhibition as presented—viewers might miss the subtlety of Kher’s work. Further, The Deaf Room simulates a structure near the Best Bakery building, which was burned during the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat. Kher’s bricked-up enclosure is actually one of three “cubicle” works that deal with the seductions of violence and would have functioned better if one of the others (for instance Confess, 2010) had been included too.

Exploring the darker side of desire is one of Kher’s favorite pursuits. In Home Maker, 2011, pink-and-gilt china teacups, chipped and tangled up in spangly strands of crocheted wool (is this a feminist allusion to crocheting as “women’s work”?), were piled higgledy-piggledy, referencing domesticity—and something else, with the crimson wool suggestive of entrails. Nearby, a pale-skinned, life-size fiberglass woman walked on the wild side as Warrior with Cloak and Shield, 2008. This is one of the many “hybrid” sculptures for which Kher is known—in which hints of demure domesticity mingle with references to virile masculinity. Here, phallic, curling antlers grow out of the head of a goddesslike damsel—one horn carrying what resembles a freshly laundered shirt. Kher’s penchant for mixed-up dames is often read as a sign of her cross-cultural roots. Born in London, she studied in Newcastle, UK, and moved to Delhi after her marriage. Her sculptural crossbreeds certainly share similarities with those of her diasporic brothers and sisters: Think of New York–based Bengali Rina Banerjee’s vivid sculptures, with their deities sporting horns, frilled skirts, and feathers, or London-based Kashmiri Raqib Shaw’s Swarovski crystal–encrusted paintings of semimythical creatures. For all of these artists, dazzlingly decorated hybrids symbolize the shifting self. “The idea is that you don’t or can’t place them,” Kher explains in the catalogue to the show.

Perhaps the cleverest leitmotif in Kher’s oeuvre is not the bindi itself but the merging of sex, death, and movement within her appliquéd concoctions. In the four-panel painting From the beginning to the end, 2012, sperm-shaped bindis form patterns that recall shoals of migrating fish. The colored dots vibrate sensuously, with Op-arty glee. Sometimes they look like periods—connoting the end of the journey? If so, perhaps Kher should take the hint herself: Her repetitive use of bindis—however smart their symbolism—is becoming a tad predictable.

Zehra Jumabhoy