How do you define ‘womantime’ and are we in it?
It’s not yet womantime. And I don’t know if we’re going to make it to the next century without ‘womantime’. Masculine and feminine exist as abstract ideas, but under the aegis of patriarchy, we have been veering only towards masculinity. It’s about time the balance is addressed. We need to wake up.
How did the highlight of your show, the installation The Tables Have Turned, take shape?
This is the first time I’m showing this work in India; it was shown at the Sydney Biennale. It was something I conceived while working in theatre. Painted cylinders rotate like Buddhist prayer wheels and the lights around the cylinders highlight the shadows on the wall. The shadows tell a story, one of imminent disaster with skeletons and dead trees. The form is playful, but the message is political.
Sita, Radha, Medea, Cassandra, you have chosen women from mythology to comment on contemporary issues…
I’m interested in revising old stories, retelling them. Stories that you know as well as I do, so we can communicate directly. I like to see how these universal truths are evident in contemporary life. I identify with Cassandra, just as she was not believed, we don’t believe our own prophesies. I wish we would heed that inner voice.
Your 1998 video Remembering Toba Tek Singh is a seminal work. What made you switch to multimedia?
I studied in Paris. When I returned, painting made me feel guilty. With a video camera I could work in a slum colony, get into the social fabric. In India, cinema is a language everybody understands. The 1998 nuclear tests made me very angry. I was born in Karachi; as a refugee, I understood the pain of partition, so I made Toba Tek Singh. I’m not a cineaste or a film director, I’m a painter who uses video, who paints with light.
Your technique, reverse painting, is not very common with artists…
Reverse painting was not considered high art. I experimented with it in the ’80s, using glass, but now I use acrylic and mylar. Chinese traders brought these small glass paintings to India around the 18th century. They were highly erotic, like dirty postcards. Tanjore artists used that technique and changed the erotic into the sacred. I like that play between the sacred and the profane. With this technique, it’s very subtle, deceptive, now you see it, now you don’t.
Like you, your contemporaries Arpita Singh, Nilima Sheikh and Madhvi Parekh have often foregrounded female figures. Do you accept the tag, ‘woman artist’?
When I was 20, a senior artist came up to me and said, “Beta, yeh sab toh theek hai, but I think you ought to become a housewife soon.” There were hardly any women artists then. People like tags: “You’re a woman artist as you deal with women’s issues.” I deal with human issues; you cannot segregate men from women. I am a human artist.
Womantime is on till 15 March at Art Musings, Mumbai