Sheela Gowda began her career as a figurative painter, but as with many artists, an epiphanic crisis in her life and work brought about an entirely new mode of production. After receiving a master’s degree in painting from the Royal College of Art in London, Gowda returned to her hometown of Bangalore, India, where she was living when the 1989 Bombay and 1990 Hyderabad riots broke out. What she saw as a threat to the social fabric caused by burgeoning Hindu fundamentalism led her to question the form and content of her work: “I felt a sense of inadequacy as an artist. I felt very deeply about the things that were happening around me, but the question was how to bring it into my own artistic language without being illustrative or superficial. On the other hand, it was also an extension of the concerns in my earlier paintings that were dealing with violence and its relation to sensuality.”1 As a result, Gowda’s work evolved into a type of figurative abstraction that, while in dialogue with Western modernism, was able to carry the specific political and bodily fragmentation she was seeking to articulate.
This formal solution also led her to explore elemental materials associated with the daily domestic labor of Indian women, such as cow dung, which is used in religious rituals and as a fuel. According to the artist, “It had potential, being sacred on the one hand and on the other being shit… . I wanted to subvert its traditional meanings.”2 Gowda also used kumkum, a vermilion pigment customarily used by married Hindu women to adorn their foreheads between the brows with a dot or bindi. Gowda was able to capitalize on the feminine connotations of this material, with its ceremonial and cosmetic uses and blood-red hue, in her most monumental and labor-intensive installation to date, And Tell Him of My Pain (1998/2001), in the Walker Art Center’s collection.3
The piece is composed of two discrete, sinuous cords that Gowda created by threading the entire length (750 feet) of a ball of red thread onto a needle, which was then placed at the halfway point just as one would do in preparation for hand-sewing. After repeating this process one hundred eight times, with that number of needles and lengths of thread, she gathered the strands together and “anointed” them with a mixture of wood glue and kumkum, except for the bunch of needles at one end (which the artist calls the head) and the last five to ten inches on the other (the tail). Gowda has described this performative process as a strange kind of Happening, “the process of making a body, but also being the body.”4 While she has also compared the work to an umbilical cord or creeping vine, the artist is hesitant to overload it with metaphors. She is equally comfortable with the view that the piece is purely linear: “Over the past twenty years, line has been the most persistent element in my work, so much so that [And Tell Him of My Pain] is basically a sculpture as drawing. This has come about because of my particular interest in and study of Indian paintings, which are predominantly linear… . I am also dealing with the site… . On the wall, it reads as a line; on the floor, it reads as a linear, sculptural form.”5
Sheela Gowda, interview by Victoria Lynn, “Sensuality and Violence in the Art of Sheela Gowda,” ART AsiaPacific 3, no. 4 (1996): 80. ↩
The source of the title is taken from an early Tamil poem devoted to Vishnu by ninth-century saint and poet Nammalvar, included in an anthology translated by A. K. Ramanujan, Hymns for the Drowning (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1992, 1993). Gowda, correspondence with the author, April 6, 2004 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩
“Sheela Gowda in Conversation with Christoph Storz and Suman Gopinath,” in Sarah Campbell and Grant Watson, eds., Drawing Space: Contemporary Indian Drawing, Sheela Gowda, N.S. Harsha, Nasreen Mohamedi, exh. cat. (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 2000), 53. ↩
Ibid., 52. ↩