REVIEW: TELLING TALES | DEBJANI BHARDWAJ
By Maha Alsharif
Debjani Bhardwaj, "Nocturnal Games", 2018, Wood, fabricated iron sheet, and digital print on paper, 51.2 (H) x 60 (Diameter) cm.
Returning with her second solo exhibition at Tashkeel, artist Debjani Bhardwaj presents “Telling Tales”, a seemingly obscure presentation that unfolds layers from Emirati and Omani heritage. Developed over the past months with the support of Tashkeel’s Critical Practice Program, the exhibition presents the artist’s take on the rarely articulated, yet dense, subject of Arabian folktales. The project was realised through experimentation with various paper-cutting techniques, conceptual research and guidance, and an intuitive fascination with organic material, playfulness and storytelling. Bhardwaj then simply lets the audience enter a multi-sensory open-ended narrative that is activated through curiosity, engagement and play.
Storytelling and narrative are a major influence on Bhardwaj’s creative process and practice. Not only is it an important traditional element from both her country of origin (India) and country of residence (Oman), but also an element embedded within her making process, as she allows the material to unravel new stories, possibilities, and meanings. The artist says “my work has always been about storytelling. As far as I can remember. I’m either telling stories of myself, experiences that I have had, my fears, my dreams, my nightmares… Always looking at the world through my eyes, and changing it a bit. It’s a reflection of how I perceive things”. For instance, In her 2011 exhibition “Spindle Shuttle Needle”, she presented illustrations of personal experiences inspired by the phrase spinning yarn, which implies telling fabricated stories that are part truth part fiction, and so blurring the line between imagination and reality; as well as lines between the artist, the artwork, and the viewer.
Detail: Debjani Bhardwaj, “The Boy Who Left Home to Trick Them Al”l, 2018, Fabricated wood, acrylic, laser cut PET, plastic, LED lights, 200 x 120 cm. Image © Tashkeel.
Bhardwaj enjoys laborious processes with organic media, like paper, clay, light and shadow, that through manual manipulation reveal narratives and produce unexpected visual impacts. Prior to setting the theme, she naturally turned to exploring different paper cutting and folding techniques, like origami, in addition to mechanical toys that would create a 3-dimensional stage appearance and movement and facilitate audience interaction with the final works. During that process, she stumbled upon a book of Omani folktales ‘Halimah and the Snake’, which was gifted to her son years ago on his birthday. She says “I opened the book and it was so interesting, I was very hooked on the stories and I thought this is so beautiful and then I started researching”. As the stories are passed on through oral retelling and only documented to a small degree and not easily accessible, the artist sought the chance to present a modern visual interpretation inspired by the sixty stories she had found in secondary research and provide a platform for further work to preserve these epic tales.
Installation view: "Telling Tales" by Debjani Bhardwaj at Tashkeel, 2018.
With the mentorship of the acclaimed Omani artist and curator Hassan Al Meer and artist and senior lecturer Les Bicknell, Bhardwaj opted to achieve a balance between the concept, selected methods, and her artistic point of view.
There are three types of stories: the first deals with the supernatural, or magic, or jjins in this instance; the second type is about bravery; and the third relates to being good and virtuous, where the tides against the protagonist turn by being an honest and a good human being. The artist explains that the stories transcend borders and time as similar characteristics and morals exist in stories from different cultures. In our conversation, she compares the ruthlessness of Umm Al Duwais, a jjin woman with a sword for a right hand and donkey legs who wields revenge on people in the wrong, to the Hindu goddess Kali, who has a sword and wears a necklace made of skulls of men’s heads and similarly kills evil men. She also mentions the resemblance between Rumpelstiltskin by Brothers Grimm and The Talking Tree from the book ‘Halimah and the Snake’, where a woman named Najla believes in the superstition that should she bear a daughter, she would make a sacrifice by marrying her to a particular majestic palm tree in the village. Her daughter is born and when she comes of age, she hears the palm tree speaking to her, urging her to fulfil her promise. the mother marries her daughter Aisha to a date palm tree as promised. However, it turns out that a rich merchant was hiding behind the tree and speaking to Najla. The merchant marries Aisha and they live happily ever after. Contemporary scholars and theorists have criticised fairytales from feminist, psychological and sociological angles, however Bhardwaj notes that we must keep in mind these stories originate from a much simpler time, pre-industrialisation and literacy. The characters had simple jobs in villages, were naive and superstitious, did not question the patriarchy of society, and had to be afraid. She believes the stories remain relatable because they still evoke emotion from their reader as they carry morals and storylines that can be translated into any age.
Installation view: "Telling Tales" by Debjani Bhardwaj at Tashkeel, 2018.
It is perhaps the reason that, through the artist’s modern lens, the characters seem uncannily relatable, unlike in historical or religious paintings seen at a museum or a church. Bhardwaj applies a take that is very fit for a contemporary gallery space, a take that literally starts with white cubes. Inside the cubes, appear the stories told in tunnel book form; layers of paper cut with the utmost precision. The artist explains that in her portrayal of the characters, she took reference from her own illustrations, where the characters do not necessarily prescribe to a particular region or culture (i.e by the way they dress or act) but are people you may see anywhere. She elaborates: “I took those which are very vivid, where a very strong image came to my mind. I read about 60 stories and I developed only 10-12 characters from the 25 that I chose. Those are the ones which seemed the most exciting to me. For instance Umm Al Duwais is a very vicious jjin, but I have portrayed her to be very gentle and beautiful. I think for me I am interested in what appears on the surface and what is really there. There might be a jjin who is walking amongst us who appears very normal but might be a jjin in reality. So I’m interested in that dichotomy in people, they are not necessarily what they appear”.
Headphones hanging on the wall surround the tunnel books. The voices of Tashkeel personnel and members narrate summaries of the stories in the books. On the adjacent wall, the viewer sees peep holes that our human voyeuristic nature is incapable of resisting. There, the artist presents theatre-like scenes from the stories in layers of cut paper. Inspired by the analogue toy, stereoscope, the artist adds “it is now an antique vintage toy, it’s not easily available, maybe on eBay. It’s like a box and you look, and you see inside a 3d image, coming from a reel which moves each time you click. It is just a photograph, similar to watching reality but it’s not moving. But you are filled with curiosity and excitement generally because you really don’t know which image is in the box”.
Installation view: Debjani Bhardwaj, "Killing Them Softly", 2018, Hand-cut paper, wooden box, MDF, and LED, 45 x 61 x 16 cm.
Installation view: Debjani Bhardwaj, "Aliens, Tricksters, and Shapeshifters", 2018, Wooden blocks, pen and ink,colour pencils on wood, and iron rod , 60 x 20 x 20 cm.
It is from here that we identify with her playful side, and notice that while keeping true to her creative style, she has selected an alternative to the one sided screen presentation, and instead initiated an interactive dialogue around the tales, using toys as her medium. The toy medium extends throughout the exhibition, including a praxinoscope with an animation device showing the artist playing with Umm Al Duwais; a working Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse) showcasing the artist’s fascination with hybrid characters in epic tales and imagination; and a Jacob’s Ladder capturing the metaphor of the tongue and heart in the story Luqman The Wise.
Bhardwaj has scratched the surface on the topic of Arabian folktales and has provided a glimpse of her favourite stories. She believes there are infinite possibilities to preserve the art form of storytelling and the folktales alike, and that through her journey, she hopes the audience takes an active role both in the exhibition and outside. In a way, she introduces the theme with her own tale of the making process and asks visitors to write the final chapter and possibly, a sequel.