Mithu Sen’s Black Candy gives one a lot to chew on. The exhibition comprises an installation of 7ft-high works mounted on sliding panels, an audio track, and a bag of candy. The show opened in Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road in February and was chosen as one of the three finalists for the inaugural edition of the Skoda Prize for Indian Contemporary Art announced last week.
We met as Sen supervised the installation of her works at Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi for the finalists’ show. If it was a tense moment for her, that didn’t come across. The 40-yearold is always one to greet with a broad, lasting smile. Art world insiders believe Black Candy to be her most critically sound show till date, a culmination of her 14-year career spanning drawing, sculpture, collage and installation.
Sen and the city: Sen at Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi for the installation of her show Black Candy.
While the show builds on her ongoing concerns with identity, gender and sexuality, in this she turns her gaze to the male psyche. The show’s tag line, iforgotmypenisathome, implies that maleness can be “put on” or “put off”.
The act of sex, central to the show, is handled with a playful perversion. Twist your Pelvis, Scratch Where it Itches, for instance, looks into the limitations of masturbation for a hybridized man with a bird’s beak.
The paintings in Black Candy are rife with sinews and blood but it is easy enough to figure out that Sen isn’t a sadist.
There is an irreverence to her work, a quirky aesthetic that combines the grotesque with baby pink watercolours on soft, translucent paper. In the end it all looks quite delicate, like Japanese cherry blossoms.
Identity is so much a part of what she does that it spills over to her concerns about gender, and hence, sexual identity.
Playing with these notions, she has recorded the audio component of the show in her own voice, digitally altering it to sound “male”. Right from one of her earliest solo shows called I Hate Pink in 2003, where she critiqued the clichéd feminine associations of the colour, she has rooted her art practice firmly in her personal concerns. In I Hate Pink, strands of silk hung from the ceiling, interweaving light and dark pinks with two individual tresses of black material.
This colour detail was important: Sen’s dark skin was the reason for much chagrin while growing up in a middle-class Indian milieu.
Born in Bengal, and brought up in small towns across the state because of her father’s transferable job as a manager with Voltas, Sen finally found solid ground as an art student in Santiniketan, where she stayed for seven years, acquiring a master’s degree in painting.
She moved to Delhi after her boyfriend Samit Das, a senior student at art school, did (she is now married to him). Coming from a vernacular background, with a poor hold on languages other than Bengali, adjusting to life in the Capital was the first of many events to spur Sen’s adult concerns with identity. She worked as an art teacher in schools to support herself, stopping only in 2005.
Things changed dramatically for the better when Sen won a one-year British Council fellowship to study at the Glasgow School of Art in 2000. The residency was capped by a show in Glasgow. This was the first time she had travelled abroad. She has worked and exhibited overseas extensively since, across Asia, Europe and the US. “Now I feel uneasy if I don’t travel at least two times a year...for work of course,” she says, biting into a German lemon cake, betraying no trace of the lost-girl-in-the-big city she was all those years ago.
The nature of her art education at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan has played a significant role in shaping her sensibility.
Sen recalls whole weeks spent outside the classroom, visiting the Santhal villages that surrounded the idyllic university, and learning “from life”. Her teacher, the artist Jogen Chowdhury, was a particularly strong influence. He is almost a parental figure to her today, as he is to many of his students. Sen recalls how he wanted to buy her a room heater when she first moved to Delhi. “He’s not the sort to give my name to a gallery or recommend me for an art award but he regularly inquires about my health and if I’m really happy—things he considers most important,” she says.
Ironically, despite the critical acclaim for Black Candy, works from the show haven’t found buyers. Only two of the 14 paintings have sold. Girish Shahane, art critic and head of advisory committee for the Skoda Prize, believes this is a good thing. “The best artworks are often unsold. Maybe because they’re too layered or difficult to consume, but it’s the way the art mart has been working for many years.”
Sen has had several prestigious shows in the past few years, including Half Full Part 1 and 2 in Bose Pacia, New York, and Nature Morte in New Delhi. She has the support of prestigious Indian galleries, such as Chemould and Nature Morte, as well as Krinzinger from Vienna. There is room to wonder why she is still included in almost every “emerging artist” list drawn up. The Black Candy works are priced at Rs10 lakh, far above the Rs1-4 lakh that works by emerging artists fetch. Sen exudes an almost childlike excitement for ideas and objects, and even her own art, that makes her seem younger than she is.
She is constantly stretching her artistic voice. In a 2006 site- and time-specific project called It’s Good to Be Queen in New York, she allowed viewers to enter the space in which she was living and independently look at and touch drawings, fabricated objects and ready-made household items. Her recent Free Mithu project with Khoj involved giving away over 100 artworks in return for letters that people wrote to her. On the cards next month is a project with the luxury brand Louis Vuitton in Taiwan.
Sen is also a poet and has published three books of poetry. It is her house with its curious furnishings, her six cats with the strangest Bengali names, such as Gholate and Shojaru, that make Shireen Gandhy, director of Chemould, declare that Sen is the sort of person who could be nothing but an artist. “I can say that for many artists I know but for Mithu it’s especially true.
The way she sees the world, the way she lives her life, I can’t think of anything else she could be,” says Gandhy. One concern for those following Sen’s career has been her overly biographical stance. Shahane, who has known her for 12 years, doesn’t believe it is necessarily harmful because she transmutes her personal concerns to something larger. “That’s far better than the impersonal takes that several contemporary artists have taken to these days,” he says.
Sen’s art is anything but impersonal. Black Candy, the eponymous piece of the show, consists of a bouquet of chillies that appears distinctly phallic. The chillies vary in size, texture and colour with one that appears to have been upholstered in fabric. And that one black chilli has been singled out among the lot.
This issue went to press before the winner of the Skoda Prize 2010 was announced. The other finalists were artists Kiran Subbaiah and Alwar Balasubramaniam.