An exhibition of works by Mumbai-based artist Manish Nai premiered at Kavi Gupta Gallery, June 5, with a panel discussion co-hosted by the Eye on India Festival. Nai’s conversation with independent curator and specialist of Asian art June Yap from Singapore was moderated and amply commented upon by local independent curator of contemporary Indian art Betty Seid.
Nai explained how, from initial sketches and studies in watercolor, he experimented with discarded materials from his father’s jute mill only to discover the difficulty of painting on rough jute. Aiming to understand the medium, he compressed the fibers in a cubic mold with unforeseeable results. Experiments continued with dyed burlap and wood, corrugated cardboard, etc., the focus being eco-friendly reuse. He has also worked on Mumbai’s construction landscape, e.g., depicting empty billboards, gathering trash from hotels and airports for recycling into a “non-sentimental no-waste system.”
Compressing used clothes into cubes of fabric amounts to creating an abstract intriguing ‘portrait’ of a middle class family. Their ‘Indian-ness’ becomes more evident when newspapers in 19 vernaculars, capturing the cacophonic diversity of the subcontinent, are mashed together instead with bits of the script still showing on the garbled surface. Another theme was unobtrusive art, for example, enclosing a pillar or etched on a wall to become ‘invisible.’ The “process” behind Nai’s art is “more important than the visible end-result.”
Following and conversing with his work for the past two years, Yap had been flown in to speak “On the aesthetics of Manish Nai’s art,” to show how contemporary Indian art, while being part of a transnational movement, remains distinctive. Juxtaposing his works to those of his peers (Zarina Hashmi, VS Gaitonde, Murad Khan Mumtaz, Abhishek Hazra, etc.), she argued for its not being entirely minimalist and abstract in the Western sense.
Comparing with Jane Lee’s productions, she characterized Nai’s ‘sculpture’ as constrained by flat presentation, neither architectural nor monumental, though retaining a level of monumentality and spatiality. Nai’s ‘abstraction’ through compression does not lead to complete loss, for the object disappears through his reduction only to reappear wholly transformed. The ‘minimalism’ appears in the geometry that modularizes his work, which does not evoke high technology: ordinary materials acquire new and hitherto unsuspected power.
Seid’s intervention focused on the three elements of minimalism, process art and Indianness. “The addition of (implicit) narrative is a distinguishing feature and process is central to Nai’s art,” defined by an industrious no-waste attitude. The liberated threads cannot be discarded but are stored in boxes to assume their shapes as if exemplifying notions of reincarnation and karma. The family ‘portraits’ through compressed clothes illustrate that in India “more (not less) is more.” His newspaper cubes, which exemplify the rapid disposability of information, conform to process art where the end result, though retaining some qualities of the original, is less important. “I can only understand what I can put my hands on,” she cited from a Nai interview. Her comparisons were drawn mostly from contemporary American artists (Tara Donovan, Jessica Drenk, Marcie Miller Gross, Guerra de la Paz, but also Vivan Sundaram).
Seid’s philosophical musings also took an anthropological turn. As a caste-name, “Nai” invokes the barber, as if the profession of removing the ‘fibers’ proliferating on the human body had become the artistic vocation of manipulating the discarded ‘hairs’ of jute sprouting from the earth, against the backdrop of the cyclical nature of things and especially of time (yuga). But whereas Seid sees such ‘barber art’ as “quintessentially Indian,” Yap contended instead that “nationalism is a construction…his art is shifting boundaries.” She cited Nai’s (self-) affirmation, from her recently curated award-winning “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia” exhibition at the Guggenheim that “I am not an Indian artist.”
An auditor pointed out that the barber played a ubiquitous and obligatory role in Indian life-cycle ceremonies: the ritual homology between human hair and natural fibers was presupposed by the tradition in its meticulous (rules for) handling of “left-overs,” an indeed quintessentially Indian fascination.