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Sheela Gowda

Sheela Gowda, who was born in Bhadravati in India in 1957, chooses everyday materials for her works, and uses their surface structure, colour and smell to create atmospherically concentrated spaces with great metaphorical potential. Household objects such as needles and thread or rope, but also handcrafted wooden objects, gold leaf, or dyes, as they are used for religious ceremonies or for embellishing the body as is traditional in India, enter her work, but also more profane items such as dried cowpats, which are used in India as a domestic fuel and also as a building material. Cow dung also has a sacred significance for the Hindu majority of the Indian population. The practical uses and spirituality of the material are hence inseparably connected with each other. For the artist, this doubled quality was grounds to first use the natural material like a pigment in paintings and later in sculptural seeming arrangements in order to thus reflect the recent past of India. What triggered these works were the artist’s experiences in the course of the violent riots by fundamentalist Hindus in Mumbai in 1992 in particular, which caused the painter to turn away from conventional painterly means and to instead search more intensively for sculptural and installative forms of expression.

Gowda does, however, avoid freighting her works with unambiguous statements. Instead, a space for reflection, whose conceptual framework she provides, is opened up for the viewer. For her contribution to the documenta 12, “And Tell Him of My Pain, 1998/2001/2007”, the artist armed eighty-nine needles each with one hundred meters of thread, twisted the individual threads together with each other and fixed them with gum arabic so that a thick, long cord was fashioned and snaked as an autonomous, three-dimensional drawing from the ceiling through the room with the bundle of sewing needles at the tip. With the dying of the threads with aromatic, red turmeric, the artist makes reference to various aspects of the role of women in patriarchal Indian society. To this role belongs the spice culture between hearth and altar and declining domestic handicraft, but also the colonial history of the subcontinent. Until today, the effects of this consist not least in the invisible production of armies of female workers in the sweatshops of the textile industry, which delivers clothing for international fashion houses and their customers. Nevertheless, the work also shows the possibility for resistance, since although the individual threads are thin, when rolled together into a cord they seem virtually impossible to tear.

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