Bharti Kher: Matter, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2016 / Sarah Evans

Bharti Kher, Mother and Child, 2015. Mixed media, 148 x 61 x 180 cm; and Bharti Kher, Contents, 2010, Bindis on paper. In 21 parts, 100 x 65 cm each. Installation view of Bharti Kher: Matter, exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, July 9 to October 10, 2016. Photo: Maegan Hill-Carroll, Vancouver Art Gallery.

Bharti Kher: Matter, Vancouver Art Gallery, July 9 to October 10, 2016

Bharti Kher: Matter was the first North American museum exhibition of the heterogeneous oeuvre of an Indian artist who was born and educated in Britain but moved to Delhi in 1993. The show is long overdue if we consider Kher’s success in the global art-world with glorious “paintings” encrusted with hundreds of multi-colored mass-produced stick-on bindis in the traditional circular shape and in the (briefly trendy) guise of sperm. Produced in the dozens in Kher’s Gurgaon studio, the paintings have deservedly found homes in private and public collections worldwide. Materially, they charm us with a familiarly exuberant, colorful, and slightly cheeky Indianness. The abstract patterns, meanwhile, look custom-made for an exhibition about painting after the end of painting.

Curators Daina Augaitis and Diana Freundl decided not to adorn the Vancouver Art Gallery’s small space with Kher’s signature works. Instead, they chose to focus on the artist’s sculptures. Some of these are ingeniously concise, combining gorgeous saris with handsome wood furniture or simple concrete pedestals. Others flout contemporary standards of visual appeal and conceptual elegance. Kher’s suite of Urban Goddesses (2008 and 2012)—life-casts in fiberglass finished to resemble a variety of stones and metals—fill the first room of the exhibition, greeting the visitor with what look like typical postmodernist mélanges of nineteenth-century figurative sculpture and iconic elements from non-western and pre-modern cultures. And All the While the Benevolent Slept (2008) is a grotesque version of the Hindu goddess Chinnamasta, who has decapitated herself. She squats naked on a tree stump, holding a teeth-studded teacup in one hand and, in the other, in place of her own head, a sperm-bindi-stamped reproduction of the fossilized skull of “Lucy,” our 3.2 million-year-old ancestor. Kher departs from the myth and the most familiar representation of Chinnamasta by excluding from the scene the blood-hungry female attendants for whom the goddess slices open her throat. Kher thus eliminates the life-giving aspect of Chinnamasta, her nurturing, maternal side, leaving us with a vision of the goddess as destroyer.

Bharti Kher, And all the while the benevolent slept, 2008. Wood, fiberglass, porcelain, copper, 180 x 180 x 100 cm. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Perrotin.

Following Kher, who identifies herself and her figures with the hybrid, we could see the Urban Goddesses through Geeta Kapur’s eyes as “sensuous, mythologized” bodies.1 For Kapur—a leading Indian historian, critic, and curator—the figures’ hybridity would mark them as outmoded feminist critiques of representations of women and similarly dated negotiations of roughly subaltern identities. Kapur writes that South-Asian artists’ skeptical investigations of identity ended with the twentieth century and coincided with the abandonment of traditional Indian iconography.2 Like North American and European counterparts clamoring for vanguard art, Ranjit Hoskote—a noted poet and art critic—argues in favor of democratic “participatory” projects. Indeed, Hoskote could very well reject Kher’s work as “atelier” productions turned out to satisfy “the voracity of collectors” and fill “cavernous exhibition spaces.”3 Given Kapur’s and Hoskote’s positions, one has to wonder why Augaitis and Freundl not only gave the Urban Goddesses pride of place but doubled down on the theme of composite identity by hanging Hybrid (2004) in the passageway between rooms one and two. Hybrid is one of Kher’s least popular projects. The suite of six digitally manipulated photographs awkwardly combines feline and simian parts with (predominantly) female human bodies and Kher’s own eyes. These are not Haraway’s hybrids: the women in the photographs are all housewives, and two are mothers with children. They are outfitted implausibly for a variety of domestic services. One stands atop a flayed goat and clasps not a sharp, sizeable knife but a puny, red feather duster. Another woman, who is pregnant, poses with an infant next to the latest mod con, a dog crossbred with a vacuum cleaner, which presumably sucks up hair as soon as the animal sheds it. On its own, this series may seem dated. But in the context of Matter, the Hybrid figures look current because they address the domestic realm and affective labor. As the viewer progresses through the exhibition, it becomes clear that Kher’s works invite us to reflect on the global exploitation of women’s care work and of their sexuality and fertility.4

Matter speaks most directly to this pressing issue when it pairs the found-object sculpture Mother and Child (2015) with Contents (2010), a framed 21-panel presentation of poster-size pages from an illustrated British mid-century midwifery manual. Although they are obscured by pretty bursts of glittering sperm bindi, the pages show that the manual consists of illustrations of complications of childbirth, as well as physical interventions for problems like breach birth. But there are no written instructions. Presumably the midwife has to call in the male doctor if something goes too horribly wrong. Mother and Child is similarly focused on maternal peril, staging a confrontation in which a small, folksy carved-wood child raises a baton to attack his mother. Make that mothers: a damaged cast of a naked, florid 1970s manikin and her twin, which is finished to mimic stone. While the manikin raises a stiff outstretched arm to pat the child’s head, the figure behind her inserts her delicate hand into a large cavity neatly cut into the manikin’s back. Like the illustration of breach birth in Contents, Mother and Child depicts a creepy intrusion into a hole in the mother’s body.

The dialogue between Contents and Mother and Child invites us to reconsider And All the While the Benevolent Slept. If we survey the peculiarities of the goddess’s naked body, we see a bony broad chest giving way to a stomach neatly furrowed with unnatural-looking rolls of flesh. Legs spread as she squats atop a tree trunk, she flashes viewers with her genitals. Chinnamasta is usually depicted standing on a copulating twosome. Kher references an alternate vision of the goddess sitting atop Vishnu and taking his erect cylindrical penis into her vagina. In the absence of Vishnu, the penis looks like a rod rammed into Chinnamasta’s vagina. The threat in Mother and Child of penetration with the baton is here realized and disavowed. Disavowed in that the presence of the rod could be justified as a traditional motif. Disavowed again, because the rod could also be explained away as armature for the sculpture. Realized because Kher could have driven supports into the figure’s feet, where they would be hidden from view. Choosing not to depict Chinnamasta’s recumbent partner, and thus effacing her sexual assertiveness, means choosing to graphically represent a violation of the female body.5

Taken together, Contents and Mother and Child allude to India’s neoliberal patriarchal medicalization and manipulation of reproduction. As of this writing, the Surrogacy Regulation Bill is making its way through the Indian parliament. In theory, it responds to outrage over wealthy westerners’ and residents’ exploitation of Indian women who are paid a pittance to work as commercial gestational surrogates. Although the surrogacy industry is worth millions per year, the bill proposes to allow commercial surrogacy only when the surrogate is an altruistic—that is, unpaid—close relative of an infertile couple. Some feminists have welcomed this bid to protect women from the “rent-a-womb” business. However, the plan to limit commercial surrogacy to Indian married couples excludes gay men and women, singles, and couples who are not married, all of whom were able to hire a surrogate until 2012. Anyone who does not conform to the nation’s ethos of heteronormative marriage and reproduction is eliminated from the gene pool.6 Feminist sociologist Amrita Pande, author of Wombs in Labor, advocates for reform and regulation of the industry rather than restriction.7 Even underpaid surrogates earn more for a pregnancy than they would in four years working a typical job. And this money may be earmarked for building a home or educating children. Pande argues that commercial surrogacy should be classed as another type of informal labor, all of which should be regulated to establish women’s rights as workers. Equally important would be the recognition of the surrogates’ emotional labor and the removal of stigma against surrogates, who are often equated with prostitutes. Pande points out that the surrogates she interviewed made efforts to redeem their “spoiled” identities. In one example, they invoke the life of the blue-skinned Hindu god Krishna, who had a biological mother but was raised by another woman.

Bharti Kher, Angel, 2004. Digital c-print, 76.2 x 114.3 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Matter prompts us to reconsider the import of Hybrid, and of one photograph in particular, Angel. Angel depicts a shirtless pregnant woman, whose middle-class status is illustrated through the subtle details of tasteful jewelry, including engagement and wedding rings. She is crossed with a modish commodity, a motorcycle helmet, rather than animal parts. She is not quite comfortable holding a girl-child who could not resemble her less. In addition to wings, the child boasts blue skin, which identifies her with the foster-child Krishna.8 I see in this image a well-off woman who has had a first child by a surrogate but is now expecting to give birth herself. The sight of a natural-looking human pregnant belly invites us to expect that this baby will be “normal”—homogeneously healthy and fit to become a mother herself, rather than heterogeneous and sterile. But there is no evidence in Hybrid, or in Kher’s other works, that any figure, any creature, is safely singular and fertile. Even the sperm in Kher’s bindi paintings move in tight, typically spiral, formation, neglecting to pursue their natural goal, neglecting, that is, to act in accordance with India’s heteronormative ethos.

Bharti Kher, Six Women, 2014-15. Plaster of paris, wood, metal. In six parts, approximately 123 x 61 x 95.5 cm each. Installation view of Bharti Kher: Matter, exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, July 9 to October 10, 2016. Photo: Maegan Hill-Carroll, Vancouver Art Gallery.

Although Matter was distinguished by the inclusion of several of Kher’s very latest abstract works, Augaitis and Freundl closed the show with Six Women (2014-2015), the slightly older grouping of plaster of paris life-casts of sex workers whom Kher hired from Kolkata’s Sonagachi district. Deftly concluding their exploration of Kher’s concern with affective labor, the curators installed the six seated women opposite Matter (2013), an imposing four-panel work of bindis on shattered mirrors. It looks as though both projects are unfinished, if not abandoned. The last of the cracked panels is only partly covered in bindis. The casually posed naked figures aren’t clothed in the saris and bindis that would mark them as South Asian, or as sex workers, or as parts of a vibrant, complex artwork.9 They are not for that universal. Nor are they stereotypical representations of women who sit and contemplate distortions of their identities in the mirrors of Matter. (Their bodies are real lumpy bodies that confound standards of beauty. Their faces featured on six different covers for the catalogue.) This reading is tempting, especially to art professionals. Here I include those of us who enjoy the investigation of marginalized identities partly because it allows us to dwell on the mechanics of representation, as well as those of us who enjoy descrying eternal truths in concrete works. The excellent exhibition catalogue features excerpts from Kher’s diary about the process of making Six Women: she wonders if she is just another paying client, and whether her gender or her aesthetic purpose mitigates the power she does not want to exercise over the sex workers.10 Although the catalogue essays do not address this directly, the exhibition effectively points to the gendered economic injustice that Six Women’s sex workers embody. There is no way to pretend that Kher did not buy these women’s affective bodily labor when she paid them wages to be cast in plaster. Likewise, there is no way to pretend that the difference between the sex workers’ and gestational surrogates’ earnings and the money that an artist stands to make from her atypically productive affective labor is not grotesque. This is not a fact that Kher and the curators chose to ignore. In their Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition, Augaitis and Freundl defied the trend to mount surveys of representative Indian artists and also resisted the temptation to uncritically celebrate a female artist’s global renown, creating instead an opportunity to struggle with works that could, at first glance, seem both too incongruous and too familiar to matter.

Endnotes

  1. Geeta Kapur, “SubTerrain: Artworks in the Cityfold,” Third Text 21.3 (May 2007): 290.
  2. Kapur, 290. Scholars working in multiple fields have critiqued the concept of hybridity. Among the less well-known articles, see John Hutnyk, “Hybridity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies (January 2005) 28.1: 79-102; Jan Nederveen Pieterse, “Hybridity, So What? The Anti-hybridity Backlash and the Riddles of Recognition,” Theory, Culture and Society 18.2-3 (2001): 219-245; and Marwan M. Kraidy, “Hybridity in Cultural Globalization,” Communication Theory (August 2002) 12.3: 316-339. For critiques of crass hybridization in contemporary art, see Gabriela Cala-Lesina, “Orlan’s Self-Hybridizations: Collective Utopia or Twenty-First-Century Primitivism?” Third Text 25.2 (March 2011): 177-189; and Niru Ratnam, “Chris Ofili and the Limits of Hybridity,” New Left Review 235 (1999): 153-159. For a more sympathetic discussion of hybridity in art, see Nikos Papastergiadis, “Hybridity and Ambivalence: Places and Flows in Contemporary Art and Culture,” Theory Culture and Society (2005) 22.4: 39-64.
  3. Ranjit Hoskote, “Signposting the Indian Highway,” Unikcolors, posted Jan 28, 2013, accessed December 20, 2016, http://unikcolors.blogspot.com/2013/01/ranjit-hoskote-signposting-indian.html. Kher does not fit Hoskote’s bill for art that is political in form and content. This does not count Kher out. See Ranjit Hoskote, “The Pursuit of Extreme Propositions,” Bharti Kher (New York: Jack Shainman Gallery, 2007), 7-17.
  4. The popularity of the paperback Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (New York: Holt, 2004), edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild, demonstrates that accounts of the exploitation of affective labor are not exclusive to scholarly literature.
  5. And All the While the Benevolent Slept predates the 2012 assault of Jyoti Singh Pandey, who was brutally gang-raped on a private Delhi bus. The perpetrators violated her with an iron rod and Pandey died of internal injuries. The incident provoked large protests demanding action to prevent and redress widespread violence against women in India. Mother and Child postdates the assault. Four of the attackers were sentenced to death. In an unusual decision, the Indian Supreme Court upheld that ruling. Ellen Barry,In Rare Move, Death Sentence in Delhi Gang Rape Case Is Upheld,” New York Times, May 5, 2017, accessed August 25, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/05/world/asia/death-sentence-delhi-gang-rape.html?mcubz=3.
  6. Amrita Pande, “Surrogates are workers, not wombs,” The Hindu, October 1, 2016, accessed August 25, 2017, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Surrogates-are-workers-not-wombs/article14594820.ece.
  7. Amrita Pande, Wombs in Labor: Transnational Commercial Surrogacy in India (New York: Columbia UP, 2014). The Committee appointed to review the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill likewise recommends regulation, payment for the surrogate’s labor and long-term health insurance, among other things, for “compensated surrogacy.” The report also recommends extending the availability of surrogacy beyond married resident Indian citizens to live-in couples, divorced or widowed women, and three categories of non-resident Indians. It excludes foreigners, but is silent about never-married women, single men (whether previously or never married), and LGBT singles and couples. See Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee On Health And Family Welfare, The One Hundred Second Report On The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016 (New Delhi: Rajya Sabha Secretariat, August 10, 2017). Accessed September 29, 2017, http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Surrogacy/SCR-%20Surrogacy%20Bill,%202016.pdf.
  8. Kher writes, “Your baby is also blue. She will be worshipped … as the great seductress and lover like Krishna? No, most likely she won’t be worshipped like this …” Bharti Kher, “The Hybrids,” accessed June 5, 2017, http://www.india-seminar.com/2014/659/659_bharti_kher.htm.
  9. Sonagachi has been the site of initiatives to empower sex workers as well as the subject or setting of documentary and fiction films. We can see the minimalism of Kher’s Six Women as a rejoinder to spectacular representations of Indian sex workers that “serve to maintain the status quo within . . . discourses of purity, morality, and bodily integrity.” Svati P. Shah, “Producing The Spectacle of Kamathipura: The Politics of Red Light Visibility in Mumbai,” Cultural Dynamics (2006) 18:3: 281.
  10. See Prerna Singh, “A Journey in Energy,” Bharti Kher: Matter, Daina Augaitis and Diana Freundl, eds.  (Vancouver and London: Vancouver Art Gallery and Black Dog Publishing, 2016), 125.
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans is associate professor of the history of contemporary art at Northern Illinois University. She earned her Ph.D. from University of California at Berkeley and held postdoctoral fellowships in Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science and at Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities. Evans is the author of “There’s No Place Like Hallwalls: Alternative-Space Installations in an Artists’ Community,” Oxford Art Journal, 2009. This review draws on two essays she is writing about Bharti Kher’s work in relation to reproductive labor and biotechnology in India.