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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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Ashis: Ye khirkee walk mein kya karenge?

Pem: I think we will walk around and explore the neighbourhood.

Ashis: Huh? Labour class?

Pem: (bursting into laughter) nooo, neighbourhooood, neighbourhood!

I think that as we speak, Ashis and I can be taken as perfect examples of two practitioners within the art space, living this particular language question out within our residency at Khoj, where we also happen to be roommates.

He told me that in the beginning he was nervous about having me as a roommate because he felt self conscious of his style of living and was worried about what I would think of it. This statement landed with a great deal of poignancy for me. Without trying to draw too exact a parallel between his experiences and mine, I still felt that I understood where he was coming from.

And I think that this contextualisation is important. I am a tribal Tangkhul girl from Manipur and Ashis is from Puri in Orissa; born into a social structure that comes packaged within brahmanical ideology where he falls into the category identified as the OBC. For us, the inhabiting of various forms of marginality in India engenders a number of challenges then, to try to exist within spaces located in the centre that is Delhi, and within specific institutions within that centre, like Khoj.

Our “mis-communications” are often playful and marked by a certain experience of joy. There is openness and genuine interest in communicating our points of view to each other. I think it’s safe to say that we’re vibing. We have been able to create momentary pockets of safety conducive for the holding and exchange of vulnerable energies. I suspect that this sense of connection goes beyond something that even having a common spoken language could create.


We’re at Mohinga. I have invited Ashis specifically to Humayunpur because I want him to experience the energy of this special place that is charged by the existence of what I usually collectively refer to as “people from back home”. I’m not quite sure if it comes out of a genuine sense of solidarity I feel towards this abstract collective or if it’s simply a matter of convenience.

But anyway, we are seated at a table inside, waiting for the Chicken and Buff Ramyun order placed on a friend’s recommendation. This is where I think the scene would probably be described in a book along the lines of- some action over the din of cutlery and conversations in a space packed with people.

I’m still laughing to myself over what Ashis had said to me as we walked through an affluent Safdarjung neighbourhood on our way to Humayunpur; and yet the pathos of that statement is not lost on me:

Ye area ko humare area mein kya bolta hai pata hai?


Mummy Daddy area.

Sohorpem: I want to begin with this question. I feel like you have a lot of charisma and personality in general. Do you think that an artist’s personality in relation to the artwork is important?

Ashis: Yes. But more in terms of the artist as a socially conscious and engaged person. At the end of the day when the art object assumes its total form, in some way or the other you will be able to glean the personality of the artist from their work and in that sense, image making is itself a form of personality. A question to keep in mind is, where does the work come from? How does an artistic idea take seed? From his environment and social experience. There is a very specific process. Like when you had pointed out to me when I took off my slippers to slap the clay into place, that is also a very significant manifestation of my social experience. Or why do I choose to work with clay?

Because it’s representative of your reality? You have stated in your artist statement here and I quote:

“Because I believe that soil is the identity of the most marginalized. According to the tenets of Brahmanism, soil has been conceptualised as the symbol of pollution thus dominant castes avoid working with mud. It is largely people of downtrodden groups that work in mud; thus, I believe, it has very symbolic meaning. In my works, the medium becomes a visual manifestation of marginalized groups be it landless labourers who toil in mud but don’t own any piece of land or Dalit women who work tirelessly on the field for sustenance. Usually I put many layers of mud over my objects because I believe that one layer of soil speaks more than many volumes of history books.”

Material is very important to me. During my academic training, my choice of material which was mud tended to be rejected because they wanted me to prioritise longevity. So I used to work a lot with paper pulp, cow dung, glue, etc. But when it comes to my site specific works now, longevity is no longer a concern. The concern becomes so much more about how well the audience will be able to interact with the environment that I’ve created.


Ashis has just completed work on the face of his male drummer figure. He proceeds to spray the clay model with water out of a Colin spray bottle. This makes the muscles on the figure gleam and catches my attention. I am seated on the only white plastic chair in the room. Ashis moves on to working on the fingers now. This is my window to squeeze in another round of interviews with him. It’s the concluding week of the residency and we’re all racing against time to finish up work.

I want to go back to your point about creating an immersive experience. In your mind, while you’re at work, are you thinking about which experience you want to highlight in terms of prioritising certain sensory experiences over the other?

There is no prioritisation as such.

In practice, how do you imagine that interface between the materiality of your artwork and the sensory experiences of the viewers being activated?

So I do feel the limitations of working within this particular studio space that right now. In creating an environment, the process of ideating happens in very specific ways. Having boundaries will affect that process. So for instance working within this specific studio space of Khoj, it’s a gallery. This limits the possibility of interactivity in ways that are different from when I’m doing site specific works. With my site specific projects, there is a great deal of interaction that takes place even in the process of making. There is direct, constant communication with the people and the artwork taking place over the course of me making the artwork.

So it’s constantly changing right?

Exactly. In that sense, the concept of what it means to be interactive within a site specific installation is very different from an installation housed within a gallery space.

So the nature of interactivity changes completely within a gallery space?

It changes completely because people become very conscious within a space like this. This is a much more formal set up. I want for people to be able to enter into the space of my work to interact, travel, and lose themselves in it, to get a sense of the environment that I’ve created. So people become a very important part of my work and the imagined presence of my target audience is very much built into the work.

Whenever I’m making an installation, I always have a target audience in mind. It’s not like I get an idea instantly of an image and say to myself “this is what I’m going to make”. Rather, I am translating the experience of my social existence into a visual language that people can come and experience in its visuality. And I want that language to be straightforward, simple. For me I’m always thinking about how to make the image as simple as it needs to be and how easily communicable it can be.

But also doesn’t symbolic representation play an important role within your work? Can symbolic representation and simplifying visual language coexist?

Yes, symbolic and metaphorical language are very important in my work. And it can coexist with simple visual language. The point is to make the image comprehensible, that’s all. To use a visual language that my target audience understands. But to be clear, the people that share my perspective, those that come from similar life experiences and acquaintance with a particular visual language as me will interact with and interpret my work in a completely different way than say someone from the United States, culturally uninformed, looking at my artwork and admiring it for its form or colour. And that is when the perspective of the artist falls into the danger of being negated. But that’s the nature of artistic language. You cannot strive for universality at the cost of diluting the specificity of your expression. So this is where the artist’s statement becomes important in conjunction with the artwork. And the role of the curator becomes crucial. The curator has two primary roles to play here. One is to get an accurate understanding of the artist’s point of view. Then to be able to find ways to facilitate universal connection with that point of view.

That happens through translation right?


Within this act, when do you think that the role of the critic comes into play then?

Why don’t you tell me what your understanding of the role of a critic is?

I think that the critic’s primary role is to raise questions. Whereas say something like translating the perspective of the artist falls within the realm of a different type of writing. It’s not criticism.

Yes exactly. This is a pertinent point. Within criticism, along with the artist even the environment needs to be implicated in criticism.


The room is a place where we convene at the end of the day. I usually come back from a long day of reading or writing at some hipster central coffee shop, where you can be sure I’m downing copious amounts of hot Americano to keep momentum going. I always look forward to coming back to the room and catching up with Ashis. I usually find him unwinding after a long day at the studio watching a cricket match on his tablet.

In relation to the idea of a target audience that you speak of, because caste is such an important concern that permeates your artistic ideas or motivations as a direct result of your everyday experience, that is not only very much built into the form, material, methods of the work that you do, but also in the overt symbolism of your visual language, what happens when you work within certain institutional parameters and spaces, knowing that it is going to come into confrontation with a particular kind of audience that might be beneficiaries of a social structure that works against your identity and values? Are you, for instance, coming from a particular critical point of view that consciously implicates the upper caste subject in that criticism?

Definitely. That’s really where the inspiration for my work comes from. My visual language is meant to challenge them.

Then who exactly is your target audience?

Both the victim and the oppressor.

How do you think your art simultaneously speaks the two languages in that sense? In a manner that speaks to the victim at the same time that it implicates the oppressor in its criticism? Although I feel as though in verbalising the question,  it’s being simultaneously answered.

That’s actually a good question. The environment that I’m creating in my artwork is for the both of them. It is a neutral site in a certain sense. The image I present holds true for both. It is the site where it meets the gaze of both and then multiperspectival dialogue is generated.

Here is my last question. Although many artists work with site specific installations, which began with the idea of liberating the artwork from the diktats of the art market system, this liberation has not really been realised. In that sense, how do you reconcile this impulse to be site specific as a particular form of resistance but at the same time, grapple with the reality of its inability to still fully liberate the artwork from being entangled with the art market?

Here’s what I know about the art market, and I will leave you with this anecdote. If you were to properly follow the art market, there used to be this bias- that artworks that dealt with themes of darkness were not generally desired. But an artist by the name of Damien Hirst came along. He recreated the human skull out of diamonds that suddenly everyone wanted. Using diamonds as material. Think about it then. Where does the value lie there? In the material or the idea?