Jhaveri Contemporary is pleased to present Considering Collage, an exhibition surveying approaches to collage-making in India post-1947 right up to the present day, from artists working within a tradition of political and cultural critique to practitioners questioning the conceptual limits of the photograph. The exhibition includes artists from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and a wider South Asian diaspora, and highlights the enduring relevance of collage – as souvenir, intervention, sketch, object – across a range of creative practices.
The word collage derives from the French ‘coller’, or to glue, a term coined by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the beginning of the 20th century when collage became a distinctive part of modern art. In India, collage was widely used in the colonial period when prints of European landscapes and scenery were mimicked by local artists and overlaid by figures cut from popular prints depicting religious or nationalist subjects, often reconfiguring the images and their meaning.
In the period after Independence, Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) utilized scrap paper to create various animal and human figures set against a plain background. These classic paper collages in small format were made with inexpensive brown paper, typically used to cover children’s schoolbooks, or wastepaper, both of which were carefully torn, pasted, and overlaid with drawing and commentary in Bengali. Descriptive titles such as Modern Grandmother and Old Fashioned Man from 1954 become aphorisms such as Straighten Your Back – Pakistan, 1954.
Nandalal Bose’s student Benode Behari Mukherjee (1904-1980) practiced ‘decoupage’, a form of collage that lent itself to a less realistic and more abstract style. Part of a handicraft tradition that traveled from Asia to Europe, this technique involved cutting out shapes and pasting them with glue. Among the best-known works made in this tradition is Henri Mattise’s Blue Nude II (1952). Mukherjee’s colourful and abstract collages, made once his eyesight failed him after 1957, are experiments with form, rhythm, and space.
KG Subramanyan’s (1924-) Grey Studio belongs to a group of collages made while the artist was in New York in 1966, a time when Abstraction and Pop held sway. Oil paint and vibrant colour were far from favour in Santiniketan where Subramnayan studied under Bose and Mukherjee. In his canvas collages, Subramanyan contends with the traditions of painting and the primacy of the easel format. He creates polyptychs (panel paintings divided into two, four, six, eight sections) in oil, onto which he pastes pieces of canvas. The casual brushstrokes and the curvilinear forms challenge the grid of Modernism. The hint of a woman’s leg might suggest an interior scene, but the image is camouflaged within an overall pattern.
In The Sun and the Sea (1966), Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928-1985) arranges the sawn off, unpainted legs of chairs, varying in diameter and height, to create an abstract landscape in wood collage. An important modernist artist from Pakistan, Shemza represents a generation of artists who emerged in the wake of the decolonization of Asia. From the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, he became associated with a group of young artists who veered towards Modernism and Abstraction, going on to study at the Slade School of Art in London between 1956 and 1959 and showing alongside FN Souza and Avinash Chandra. In The Sun and the Sea, Shemza explores the formal qualities of wood – depth, natural colour, texture – to explore the British landscape.
Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002) combines ink, gouache, and photography in his series of collages from 1967, the year he moved to New York. A successful painter in London, he arrived in New York with few possessions and even less money when he created Couple on the Beach, Nude by the Pool, and Three Nudes Seated on a Sofa. Finding a natural resistance to his brand of Expressionism, Souza began to experiment by cutting and pasting photographs and painting his own images around them. He is known at the time to have associated with groups that specialized in printing and distributing erotic images – and this accounts for the sexually explicit nature of many of his images.
A contemporary of the modernists, Dashrath Patel (1927-2010) worked across the disciplines of art and design. Included in this exhibition is a ceramic collage made in 1960, while he was studying under the celebrated Czech master ceramist, Professor Eckert, in Prague. While training in industrial ceramics for mass production, Patel started playing with the medium, adding metal and glass to his creations. He became enchanted with the quality of surprise: “If you don’t make things for your own surprise you become a baker, everyday making the same round bread to sell.”
Through the 1990s, Patel experimented with photomontage and made interactive works using simple wooden toys and mirror. His instinctive understanding of the conditions of light, colour, and space in India are best expressed in his paper collages on wood, an example of which is included in this exhibition. By adding gold and silver leaf to his abstract compositions, Patel achieved a radiant luminosity. From ceramics and photography to painting and found sculpture, he arrived at unique painterly expressions though his consistent engagement with collage.
Bhupen Khakhar’s (1934-2003) earliest works such as Wall of a Small Hindu Temple (1966), though abstract in appearance, incorporate a wide range of popular imagery from film posters, advertising, and images of gods and goddesses from oleographs and calendars. His carefully arranged images were carelessly painted over in bright and gaudy colours of the marketplace. Khakhar’s formative years coincided with the appearance of Pop and his use of kitsch in art was novel. He was among the first Indian artists to make creative use of India’s hybrid visual culture and challenge the dominant trends of painting and pure abstraction.
Among the generation of artists who came of age in the subcontinent in the 1990s, CK Rajan (1960-) stands apart for his commitment to collage as a form. In his miniature-scaled works, Rajan juxtaposes newspaper images of man-made landscapes or buildings with close-up details from glamorous fashion magazines. Half-dismembered bodies float within and sometimes form the landscapes in his abrupt but apposite juxtapositions. Delicate but politically charged, the series responds to the surreal, social, and cultural contradictions of rapid economic modernization.
It is difficult to imagine the world of collage and assemblage without the National Geographic magazine. Simryn Gill (1959-) and Muhanned Cader (1966-) use images from the periodical, whose trademark is the aesthetic representation of a certain kind of reality. While Cader fashions laboriously made fragments of the magazine into imaginary landscapes, Gill subjects individual pages and images to a range of processes, including tearing, erasing, and painting to reveal buried narratives and form new relationships. With a few deft strokes of a paintbrush, Gill obliterates the intention of the story to her own purposes. The heads of Buddhist monks at prayer explode in flames, as do barrels of oil from an offshore drilling operation in the Arctic.
For Cader, an artist from Sri Lanka, the visual shapes from books and comics also serve as framing devices for his landscape paintings. Classic seascapes of northern Sri Lanka are contained in shapes reminiscent of a speech bubble: “This is why I remove the rectangular frame that surrounds the landscape in my drawings. It is similar to asking what surrounds our understanding or do we only ever know part of the truth? This for me is true politics, where one never sees the real or whole picture.”
Collage is at the core of Yamini Nayar’s (1975-) practice. She builds ephemeral sculptural tableaux from bits of waste – paper, foil, string, and other detritus – that she finds in the streets around her studio before photographing them from different angles. Untitled 1,2 (Malleable Structures) continue Nayar’s interests in memory and the built environment. One architectural installation was documented in its many incarnations, through construction, staged events, deconstruction, reconstruction. The collages further fragment the built spaces and represent architectures that are simultaneously public and private and both contain and expose their histories. The superimposition of various moments dislocates us in time and tests the limits of our memory and the photographic document.
The delicate and surreal collages of Apnavi Thacker (1976-) draw from the experience of observing nature in its microcosmic detail and, more broadly, from the literary works of Emerson, Thoreau, and Beston. Collage for the artist is a conceptual form that "provides for a layering of material that bridges the gap between observation and recording."
Pakistani artist Mahbub Shah (1978-) explores the language and imagery of print media and advertising, referencing the pixel in his large-scale canvases as well as his smaller works on paper. His source material includes covers from magazines, sport action shots or advertisements. In a series of skillfully executed paper collages, Mahbub disturbs the composition of everyday images by cutting, rotating, and finally repositioning a series of immaculately scored circles on his surfaces. The effect of these collages is both teasing and unsettling, confronting the viewer with a strange unfamiliarity in quotidian imagery.