Pierre Huber, Geneva
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Bharti Kher's The Skin Speaks a Language not its Own, 2006, is the most iconic and most talked about work of art by a contemporary Indian artist and the masterpiece of the leading female artist of her generation. Awe-inspiring in its scale, detail and beauty, this life-sized female Indian elephant brought to its knees in a seemingly untenable position, simultaneously peaceful and painful, is a vision that engenders extreme pathos from the viewer. A work which took the artist ten months to create, every fold and recess of the hide is meticulously contoured by the intricately arranged patterns of thousands of white bindis which organically swarm across the beast like a second skin, animating its otherwise inert flesh. Is she rising or is she falling, resting or expiring, living or dying? In a powerfully emotive sculpture, Kher combines two symbols of Indian culture – the bindi and the elephant – but leaves us asking whether this is a vision of India on the rise or India exhausted by its own rapid modernisation.
The now endangered native Indian elephant has long been a symbol of the subcontinent. Sacred in Hindu mythology, temples are ubiquitously adorned with stone carvings of the powerful, upright beasts which are revered and worshipped in religious ceremonies in which extravagant feasts are prepared for the animals as a way of placating Ganesh, the elephant god of wealth and the fulfilment of wishes. Throughout the ages, elephants have also been symbols of state power and royal authority in India, used as ceremonial mounts for royal and religious dignitaries and familiar tropes of traditional Indian miniature painting. Prized for their intelligence, domestication and versatility, their physical strength has been variously employed in warfare, transportation, industry and agriculture and even capital punishment where, throughout the Mughal era, death by elephant stampede was prescribed as a punishment for theft. In the West, too, elephants have become a symbol of the exotic and of Indian culture in general, through the tales of Rudyard Kipling, British colonial involvement in the Indian subcontinent and today's tourist industry where elephant rides are a crowd pleaser at any cultural landmark.
In The Skin Speaks a Language not its Own, Kher personifies this creature as the archetype of India, its culture, history and civilisation and marries it with another identifier of Indian ethnicity: the bindi. Kher's signature motif, the bindi in India is traditionally a mark of pigment applied to the forehead which is associated with the Hindu symbol of the third eye that sees beyond the material world. It is also traditional in wedding ceremonies, where the red daub on the bride's forehead (believed to have been the husband's blood in centuries past) is a marker of marital status. In today's modern India, however, these cultural associations of the past are increasingly diminished and bindis have been transformed into mass-produced, vinyl stickers, disposable objects hollow of meaning which have become secular, feminine fashion accessories. Kher was particularly attracted to the white, serpentine bindi used in this work because of its spermatozoa form and its oxymoronic relationship to the traditionally female accessory, thereby striking deeper associations of gender roles and definitions of femininity in modern India.
Kher is acutely aware of these associations and plays on the pluralism of ancient Indian customs juxtaposed with modern Western values. In a society increasingly receptive to foreign influence, many Indians remain overtly reverent to their own deeply ingrained history and culture, yet nonetheless this is a period of seismic shift for India as it undergoes the changes wrought by globalisation, commerce and consumerism. India's cultural wealth derives in part from its inherent contradictions which have existed cheek by jowl for centuries; it is the friction at the fault lines of these contradictions which are increasingly under stress from the fast pace of change and which Kher so observantly layers in her complex sculpture. As the inherent contradiction of the title The Skin Speaks a Language not its Own suggests, outward appearance and inner values do not always coalesce. The social roles, traditional rituals, gender relationships and popular culture of India past and present are all scrutinised from Kher's unique trans-national vantage point. Born in London and trained in Newcastle, Kher is a rare reverse émigré who moved back to India from the United Kingdom in 1992 at the age of 23, having not set foot on Indian soil for almost twenty years. Questions of her own identity and her place as a successful female artist with a western upbringing in modern Indian society are inevitably entwined into her ethnographic observations of contemporary Indian life.
Despite our familiarity with elephants, be they domesticated in the West or wild in India, nothing prepares the viewer for the emotional experience of seeing Kher's elephant, huge and incongruous in the gallery space. With her head resting on her front foot, she is brought down to our level and her glassy black eye entreats a communion and proximity rarely encountered in the wild. In every culture, elephants are considered intelligent beasts who we credit with thoughts and emotions. This pathos is only enhanced by her solitude; in the wild, female elephants live in the protection of all-female groups and only set off alone to die. Confronting us with this sculpture laden with symbolism, ultimately Kher leaves it open to our interpretation whether India the elephant can rise up and march on as the economic global powerhouse of the future that so many predict, or whether the weight of history and the pace of change prove too much for this beast of burden, crestfallen and crippled by its own cultural contradictions which do not fit the western mould of progress. Made in Kher's studio in Delhi, the city which boasts the newest and fastest underground transport system in the world but where even today it is not improbable to see elephants used as pack animals, The Skin Speaks a Language not its Own eloquently articulates India's contemporary dilemma. Either way, it is India's identity in all its glorious complexities which is the hero of this masterpiece which will remain a beacon of India's avant garde art scene at the beginning of the Twenty-first Century.
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