Bharti Kher’s Surreal World Of Cyborgs Bindis And White Elephants

Review – Bharti Kher’s is one of India’s best-known contemporary artists. Collections of Her work has attracted the attention of important collectors such as François Pinault, Charles Saatchi and Frank Cohen. To name a few.  Although the artist was born and bred in England, she settled in India permanently in 1992 after meeting her future husband there, the Indian artist Subodh Gupta.  As the daughter of first generation Indian immigrants to the UK, Kher’s work explores themes of identity and belonging, of being of Indian descent but of not quite being Indian, of being raised in Great Britain but not being quite British either.

Kher’s world is a place where all metanarratives have broken down.  Her work collages an uneasy mix of socio-cultural memes together.  As an Indian insider-outsider, Bharti Kher questions cultural and social rules through her art.  Taking her own disjointed identity as a starting point, Kher’s work walks the tightrope between ancient Indian customs juxtaposed with modern Western values.  Outside of the narrow frame of Asian art, her work serves more broadly as a metaphor of the multiple meanings that can be ascribed to an object or a situation, depending on its context.  

For example, Kher often uses the bindi as a central motif in her work.  (The bindi is a dot on the forehead traditionally made with red pigment and worn by Hindus).  Historically, the bindi represented the ‘third eye’ and also signified the wearer’s marital status.  However, in the contemporary urban world, stick-on vinyl bindis are now manufactured commercially, in a variety of colours, to match the outfits of the women who wear them as secular fashion accessories.  In the Western world, the bindi has been popularised by celebrities such as Gwen Stefani, Cyrus, Alicia Keys, Katy Perry and Madonna.  According to the artist, “bindis are a total cliché and yet so often misinterpreted, at home and abroad.  And a lot of my work is about misinterpretation – how two people from the same place can see things so differently.”

Somewhat confusingly, Kher’s bindis often take on added socio-cultural meanings, depending on the different contexts in which she deploys them in a specific work of art.

In her Contents series, featured in the exhibition, the artist stuck hundreds of sperm-shaped bindis (here, signifying reproduction rather than fashion or religious practice) onto old British medical charts.  In turn, the charts describe the stages of pregnancy and labour in women, and expound on what can go wrong during an abnormal childbearing and childbirth cycle.

In another piece entitled, The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own (2006), a life-sized rendition of a grey elephant lies contorted on the ground dead, dying or sleeping, depending on the viewer’s interpretation.  The animal’s grey skin is clearly visible under a layer of white bindis, which suggests a second layer of meaning, which mirror Kher’s own sense of ‘inbetween-ness’.  While in Buddhist and Hindu mythology the white elephant is sacred, in the West, it is a metaphor for something frivolous and useless.  In Thailand the King of Siam used to gift white elephant to the person he wanted to destroy.  Incidentally, Sotheby’s sold this sculpture for $1.4 million in 2010, a career record for the artist.

Hybrids of humans animals, cyborgs – the stuff of pure fantasy – are also recurring themes in Kher’s work.  The bronze, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholy, sanguine (2009-2010), features a double-headed figure with several pairs of arms that transform into serpents and which also recall multi-limbed Hindu deities, although not obviously so. For, whilst Kher delves into her ethnicity for imagery, she does not do so exclusively, preferring an approaching that is more culturally ambiguous.  Says the artist, “The figures I make always resist all classifications of class, race, time – they could be anybody at any time.”

Words: Carla Raffinetti © Artlyst    * * * * (4 stars)
Image: The skin speaks a language not its own (2006) (bindis on fibreglass), Bartholomew / Netphotograph © Bharti Kher