“I am expressing things that affect me personally [as] … a way … to deal with what’s going on. I don’t claim to make social commentary but if that’s what it does, one cannot help it. I don’t create work to attack the government, I do it in the spirit of solidarity and empathy.”
Sameer Kulavoor is a visual artist living and working in Mumbai, India. His work lies at the intersection of art, graphic design & contemporary illustration and has taken the form of paintings, murals, books, zines, prints and objects. He is interested in why things look the way they do; constantly exploring and understanding the impact that time, culture, politics and socio-economic conditions have on our visible and invisible surroundings. In this age of visual overload, his work involves filtering, dissecting, documenting and defamiliarising commonly seen subjects through the act of drawing, painting and design.
Kulavoor has been working on a number of large scale public art projects and paintings which are on view in Auckland (New Zealand), Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi and Chennai. A Man of the Crowd (2018) was Kulavoor’s first solo presentation at TARQ. Two of his new works were showcased at the TARQ booth group show at India Art Fair in 2019. Most recently, his drawings and paintings were part of The Shifting City – Mumbai pavilion of ‘Making Heimat – Arrival City’ at the Goethe Institut Max Mueller Bhavan curated by Kaiwan Mehta.
john ros / Your work is so rooted in place. As your pieces and projects move through space there always seems to be a respect for your neighbor — an awareness of the humanity around you. Where does this come from and has this always been present in the work?
Sameer Kulavoor / Speaking of neighbour, when I was 6-7 I had a neighbour called Sujatha Bangera — she was an art teacher at a school called Childrens Academy in Kandivali (in suburban Mumbai) — I vividly remember being fascinated by her sketchbooks and landscape paintings/drawings. She was kind enough to occasionally give me demos and encourage me. She was around for a few months I think and then she moved — gave me a diary as a parting gift and asked me to draw/paint and fill it up. I did that and never stopped. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to reconnect with her (lost her contact); haven’t got a chance to thank her for the huge impact that she had early on. In a way my neighbour was responsible for whatever I am doing in life at present.
Also my parents had an inter-religious (Hindu-Muslim) love marriage back in the late 70s. I was born in 1983 into a fairly progressive family that treated people from all communities/faiths as equal – grateful to my parents for this. We kids were taken to churches, mosques and temples. I grew up to be an atheist but these early experiences I believe can really shape your idea of empathy and your understanding of humanity.
In the early 90s, India went through economic reforms and liberalisation. That caused a lot of changes in my immediate surroundings in suburban Mumbai. One could see new roads and infrastructure projects being developed, real estate boom, foreign brands coming in, aspirations and lifestyle changes in the urban middle class, etc. – in a matter of a few years. As a kid one couldn’t understand why these irreversible changes were taking place but they were very striking. I remember being sensitive and keenly observing this transition of spaces/places. I understood the cause and effects of these changes much later — they have also shaped my work.
jr / I love the idea that religion in some way brought you to atheism. There is poetry in that. So often (in the US) we associate morals to religion, but empathy is really such an important part of learning to be moral. I also love the idea of a progressive upbringing leading to the treatment of all communities/faiths as equal — often seen as a Christian tenant, but so rarely manifested on larger strokes under the guise of “religion”. In the US, atheism is often a bad word. What is your experience with it in India? Would you say in some ways that it has allowed you to become more aware? More alert to your surroundings by way of empathy?
SK / Being able to access all places of worship did help me understand that all communities are equal — I would say that it did help me become more aware compared to someone who hadn’t seen different communities closely. But as a kid I had also seen/felt the 1992 riots of Bombay/Mumbai closely. Too many people lost lives and somewhere I began distancing myself from the idea of religion. The 2002 Gujarat riots sealed it for me. Religion was increasingly being used as a political weapon in India and around the world and it didn’t make sense to me any more. Islamophobia is problematic. In India I feel that there is a comparatively small atheist population – most people follow religion in varying degrees of intensity here and I haven’t faced any problem being an atheist here. I don’t have an issue with people following any religion, I feel it should be a matter of choice and not something you have to follow because you are born into it. Recently there were huge protests in India against the (anti-muslim) CAA (Citizenships Amendment Act) which makes religion a key factor for Indian citizenship and that is against our own constitution. The protests saw participation from people of all religions and walks of life. Unfortunately the COVID19 pandemic brought the protests to a standstill.
jr / The protests against the Citizenships Amendment Act made it to our independent media outlets. It seemed alarming, but also not so far away from some of the proclamations our current US Administration is making to obtain more authoritarian power. The current pandemic crisis has changed life for so many, especially the poorest and most marginalized in our societies. Even though in-person protests have been halted, have you seen any successful actions of solidarity in your communities? How are people coming together? Are you able to participate?
SK / Due to strict COVID19 lockdown measures no one is allowed to gather. In fact the government at the centre has been even more aggressively going after ‘dissenters’ since gatherings/protests are not allowed. Post the recent Delhi riots, some of the key figures and student leaders who had been part of ‘pro-constitutional’ protests in Dec 2019 – JANUARY 2020 have been charged under a draconian anti-terror law (UAPA). FIRs (First Information Reports) have been registered by the UP (a north Indian state) police against Independent news agencies/publications like The Wire. More than 4000 authors, artists, scholars, jurists signed a statement condemning these charges. That’s how a section of people are coming together in solidarity through these troubled times of COVID19. There’s so much for the government to worry about in these times and it is unfortunate that they have other priorities.
jr / You say that, “I understood the cause and effects of these changes much later – they have also shaped my work.” … Can you embellish here a bit. How have the changes manifested in your work? Is social alertness and/or commentary tilted with critique of the institution or government? If so, how do you balance these ideas in the work (if balance is even necessary)? I guess I use the word “balance” because it feels as though the work is not overtly political, but one can pick up on underlying tones throughout.
SK / The 90s brought a sense of aspiration to the huge middle class of India. It impacted the lifestyle, choice of clothing, the way spaces are designed, infrastructural developments — I am attentive to these details that reflect the aspirations of my subjects. For example in A Man of the Crowd, I had excluded all location specific elements of the metropolis and instead used their attire/outfits to give a sense of the city. The works had all kinds of figures who populate the cityscape minus the city itself. I figured that there was no need to have architectural/infrastructural elements of the city in the works if I can express a sense of the city just by showing the actions of the people and the kind of clothes they are wearing — they became markers of time and space.
Re: Politics — I am expressing things that affect me personally so it is only a way for me to deal with what’s going on. I don’t claim to make social commentary but if that’s what it does, one cannot help it. I don’t create work to attack the government, I do it in the spirit of solidarity and empathy.
jr / Excess presents itself in a variety of ways in your work. How do you see these accumulations play out through life? Do they present themselves in other ways in your practice or day-to-day?
SK / Interesting that you use the term Excess. Perhaps it is because I have always lived in a metropolis where so many stories are being played out simultaneously — all stories being equally interesting to me in different ways? One wants to be completely involved and immersed in one’s surroundings, constantly making connections between these multiple narratives and finding patterns to make sense of how it all works. What does one do with an obsessive habit of observing and processing these observations — consciously or subconsciously? Also how do you look at the same thing from different perspectives (literally and laterally)?
For example, In Cafe (2018-19) which was part of The Shifting City show at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai, May 2019 — does the focus seem to be on a man who is working on his laptop? What about the others in the cafe who seem to be busy in their own individual bubbles? Or is it about the space itself with user-friendly rounded corner tables and industrial stackable chairs? Is it about this standardisation of food courts and other such public spaces? Almost like a wallpaper pattern that can extend in all directions? Is it about virtual connectivity in a physically lonely world? Could the piece express all that one is trying to express if it weren’t for all the other elements playing their roles? Is this EXCESS?
jr / Your prompts on Cafe (2018-19) are so good. I am of the belief that good work often fails to answer the questions it sought, but rather unveils a whole new set of questions — for the artist and for the viewer.
Here you have exposed so much in a seemingly simple view. Among them, today’s obsession with convenience, which we are told can be found in the screen facing us. We also believe in the importance of the on-screen audience. There are obviously important things to say through the screen, but unless it is simply made to be viewed through a phone, art possesses so much more power. Do you see these as opposing forces, or are you able to make this seeming contradiction work for you?
SK / I began working in design and illustration for the first decade of my career which was a fast-paced life. I started focusing on my art practice and painting only 5-7 years ago. Part of the reason was that it was therapeutic and it gave me a chance to slow down, enjoy the physical/analog process and spend less time in front of the screen. Painting is considered to be a ‘traditional’ medium but my subjects and themes are rooted in contemporary society. So in that way I feel I am at ease with this contradiction — in fact I thrive on it!
jr / A Man of the Crowd (2018) is particularly interesting because of the way people come together — there is a spacing but also a connectivity. I imagine this is also felt in your experiences of the city. How it becomes an organism. A living, breathing entity unto itself.
In a statement about this work you mention influence from, “the impact of politics, economy … development and smart cities…” as well as “a feeling of disillusionment, insignificance, futility and skeptical optimism about life in a metropolis.” These forces about social interaction and broader ideas of identity and self determination seem opposing, but are obviously tethered. How do some of these ideas and thoughts unfold in the studio? And though it seems you are drawing directly from lived physical and digital experiences, practically speaking, where do you go for source material? How do you collect it? Do you archive it for later use? If so, how?
SK / I worked on A Man of the Crowd through 2017 and early 2018. Through that time I would make notes of things that I was seeing on a daily basis and work from them. For example I would spot very mundane things like someone dropping their phone on the sidewalk and bending down to pick it up; or a security guard frisking someone at the entrance of a mall; or a street scuffle. I would go back to the studio and remember these instances and make small thumbnail drawings before painting them onto the canvas. Sometimes I would take quick phone pictures of a scene or an encounter in order to keep a record. There would be a certain chronology in the paintings because I wouldn’t plan the whole painting before I begin working on it. So the canvas would fill up every day bit by bit as these experiences accumulate. There were also some significant events that triggered some pieces — like the stampede in one of the busiest railway stations (Parel) that occurred on the 29th of September 2017, the cause being a really poorly planned exit route from the station, sudden rainfall and the impatience of the people. This accident was a starting point of one of the 6-piece horizontal work — not a literal depiction of the accident but more like an exploration of density and space — zooming in and out. One of the works has a leopard tail which I included because there was news of a leopard entering a housing society compound — we have a National Park in the heart of Mumbai where as many as 41 leopards live in the open!
So my archive material was in the form of keywords — notes — quick drawings on sketchbooks, phone pictures, bookmarked news events — all scattered everywhere in the studio and my devices.
jr / There is a beautiful illustrative quality to your work. And though the pace from your first ten years may have changed, I am sure your foundation in design and illustration continues to influence your more fine-art focused painter-self. Maybe this is more evident in your books or public projects? — though I feel like there is a mindful designers-lense threaded through all the work. How has illustration or design made themselves most known in your studio practice? When is the insistence welcomed? Do you find yourself conflicted about these processes at times and feel the need to push them away? Or are they always welcomed?
SK / Design or illustration is usually based on a client, a brief or a problem. In art, YOU are the problem! You deal with your own feelings, thoughts, issues, ideas, philosophy, etc. There are examples of overlaps for sure. Some of the conceptual work we see uses design thinking as an approach. The boundaries are blurred in some cases. In my own case, I came to a point where I felt a burnout and there was a need to only express my own ideas. Self-publishing became a starting point around 2009-10 and now in the last 5 years I have decided to devote all my energy into my own art practice. The transition of work approach took me about 6-7 years and it has given me a new lease on life. Some of the forms, shapes, compositions in my current work does come from my understanding of graphic design / illustration and I welcome that as long as I stay true to my approach.
jr / I love how you say, “In art, YOU are the problem!” — a statement that can emerge complete with heavy expectations and crushing disappointment. Though that is part of the studio process, it is also something that is learned over time. How have you dealt with balancing the expectations and disappointments in the studio — and/or things related to the studio — like dealing with exhibiting, galleries, collectors, etc.?
SK / Having a strong support system and keeping things simple has helped me. My sister, Zeenat Kulavoor (who is the creative director at Bombay Duck Designs and has her own practice), is a big part of whatever I do. We help each other with all kinds of things — studio workings, invoicing or general feedback about what we are doing. Our studio manager, Dnyanesh Patale, is the man behind the scenes sorting small issues, deliveries, courier, logistics — which can sometimes be the most bothersome aspect. In late 2018 I got myself a separate space (close to where Zee works — Bombay Duck Designs) where I work solo to focus on my practice and that helped to clear my mind and work better. I am represented in India by TARQ since 2017 and the founder Hena Kapadia has been hugely helpful in dealing with exhibiting, galleries and collectors for me. Over the last few years I have tried to cut down on expenses, overhead and things that I don’t really need and that has helped reduce additional pressure. I don’t think I have found the perfect balance yet but if I did, life would get terribly boring!
“One thing I know for sure is that we artists ARE making new work with whatever limited resources we have and it is going to be interesting to actually see what is being made now at some point in the future.”
jr / Your work is socially connected and you have expressed the need to stay aware and informed to your immediate environment, including the needs of your community and politics. Specifically in your statement for, A Man Of The Crowd (2018) you state, “The works have been informed directly or indirectly by elements from my surroundings, travels, everyday occurrences and tragedies, memory, news, social media noise, friends and family (and self in some cases). The impact of politics, economy, idea of development and smart cities — themes I have been dealing with over the last 2 years — have found their way into these works. A feeling of disillusionment, insignificance, futility and skeptical optimism about life in a metropolis.” The notion of skeptical optimism feels right for our times.
Logistically, in and out of the studio, how do politics and art intertwine in your daily practice? What sources do you rely on to give you information in art and politics? And how do these things manifest throughout the art community in Mumbai?
SK / My sources are what I see around me in the metropolis.
Eg 1, Post 1992 Bombay riots, a lot of minorities moved to ghettos and started living with people strictly in their own community and religion – they felt safer. There are societies and complexes in Bombay where minorities are not allowed to buy or rent houses – some very close to my current studio so I pass by them very often. Other communities do not buy or rent in these ghettos. It is illegal but works like an unspoken rule. These ghettos are often very congested and have lower levels of hygiene and the politicians haven’t done much to improve their conditions, no improvement in infrastructure either.
Eg 2, The completion of the Mumbai Monorail construction was delayed by 6-7 years and was riddled with controversy. They didn’t even launch it after completion. I know this because there was a newly constructed defunct station close to my home for years. Eventually just before the elections one part of the line was opened with much fanfare and credit to the ruling political party. Months after its launch the Monorail was found to be a failure with uncertain frequency and technical issues. It is still running but parts of it are barely useful to the city.
Eg 3. I mentioned the Parel station bridge stampede incident earlier. The station is very close to my home and I have walked that bridge myself several times.
One comes across so many examples of apathy on a daily basis – some very close to you geographically (and some happening in other parts of the country and world) in the news and/or social media. Occasionally I take pictures and notes of these instances. I see and read reports about them (on select news platforms that I trust) to understand the cause and effects and the links between politics, development and identity.
They make way into my work in some form or another.
jr / It’s hard to fully understand the impact the health and economic crisis will have, but what are you seeing as far as dialog coming from arts organizations and community leaders? Do you think this will be a new era for art and culture? Or will gaps in funding help destroy arts organizations and communities?
SK / There have been plenty of initiatives online where artists and smaller organisations have come out in financial support of other artists — by creating a buying chain for instance. Artists and arts organisations have become more open to sharing and interacting with a wider ‘digital’ audience by way of doing webinars, talks, conversations, live sessions, demonstrations, etc. I hope to see this openness become a permanent part of the way the ‘arts industry’ works even after the pandemic is over, whenever that would be. Funding gaps will have its effects but people in arts organisations are going to have to adapt to new situations and I see it with optimism. One thing I know for sure is that we artists ARE making new work with whatever limited resources we have and it is going to be interesting to actually see what is being made now at some point in the future.
Six questions asked of all our guests.
What are you currently watching?
The pandemic has brought us a number of Insta-live sessions — one recent interview of B V Doshi by Dayanita Singh on Architecture Digest India where they talk about light and architecture. I don’t enjoy sci-fi but I am finally watching the Star Wars movies and Mandalorian series on a friend’s insistence and I can’t say I am hating it. Especially the early movies where a lot of things/effects looked so DIY and analog.
What was the last meal you made?
A Bombay-street-style Paneer sandwich…
Can you share a recipe?
Just paneer + spring onion + onion + capsicum + coriander + black salt + pepper — all put together and toast.
Whose studio have you visited recently that really excited you?
Late last year I got a chance to visit T Venkanna and Soghra Khurasani’s studio on a trip to Baroda — both incredible artists. TV is a painter and Soghra is a print-maker and it was so inspiring to see such vastly different practices and spaces up close.
What have you seen recently (either art; performance; film, music; stage; etc.) that had a significant impact on you and your work?
That’s a big one. What hasn’t had an influence? The peaceful protest by the Women of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi was an experience I cannot forget. It went on for 100 days, till COVID-19 ended it abruptly. It brought together all of this — art; performance; film, music; stage — all unified by spirit of resistance.
A sincere thanks to Sameer from john ros and studioELL — thank you for the generosity you’ve shown in sharing your studio practice with us.
john ros is a Brooklyn-based, multi-disciplinary artist, professor and curator. They obtained an MFA from Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and a BFA from the State University of New York at Binghamton. john is the founder of studioELL where they currently serve as director and professor. They have over 15 years experience in higher education and 22 years experience curating exhibitions and developing community programming.
This interview was conducted over a series of emails which started with a few initial questions and led to a responsive conversation. The text has been edited slightly for this publication, including a slight shift in the order questions are presented.
The studioVISIT Program will take a break through September and will resume on a bi-monthly basis in October 2020 during studioELL’s Autumn Term.