I'M SINGING FOR my supper today,” rasps Bharti Kher in a husky British accent. The Delhi-based artist has just flown into Hong Kong for her first solo show at Galerie Perrotin and she's joking about her packed interview schedule. We're sitting in the centre of the gallery, surrounded by her latest works: resin-soaked saris on cement plinths and paintings dotted with thousands of bindis (the “third eye” mark) – both items worn by women across India. Kher, however, has arrived wearing neither. Dressed in a blue floral-print shirt tucked into boyish trousers with her hair piled in a messy bun, she exudes a sense of femininity but also an underlying toughness.
I notice her electric-blue nails and she breaks into a guilty smile. “That's because I haven't been working much lately. When you wear nail polish it's a sign that you're not in the studio,” she confesses. That's uncharacteristic of Kher, who has had an intensely busy year churning out works for exhibitions across the globe. In the last few months alone, she's shipped pieces to shows in London, New York, Beijing and Tel Aviv.
Born and raised in London, Kher moved to Delhi in the early '90s when she was 23 years old after meeting Subodh Gupta, one of India's most recognised artists and now her husband. She rose to fame in 2010 when her giant sculpture of a crumpled elephant The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own (2006), fetched US$1.5 million at a Sotheby's auction, smashing the record for a work sold by any contemporary Indian female artist at auction at the time. Covered in bindis, the sculpture was a commentary on old India collapsing under the weight of the new.
Moving to the subcontinent in her early twenties was a shock for Kher, who had last visited India when she was four years old. “It was really strange, I was a complete foreigner,” she recalls. “You're familiar but you're not – you don't understand the humour, you're not speaking the same language really fast, the gestures are different.” Immersing herself in her new surroundings, Kher began exploring the markets of Delhi, where a sperm-shaped bindi caught her eye. “I thought it was quite funny – I just put it in my sketchbook,” Kher says, smiling. A few months later, she ordered 20,000 bindis and used them to make the first of her trademark bindi paintings – dense abstract works filled with the colourful velvet stickers.
“Then I didn't do anything for two years,” recalls Kher. “I didn't realise that I had hit something. In that way, Subodh was very good. He said, ‘You've got something really good here. Go do something else.' ” Exploring the significance of the bindi as the third eye, as well as its use as a symbol of women's marital status, she began spending days on end from morning to night sticking them onto various surfaces.
In 2002, Kher started scattering her bindis onto three-dimensional forms. “The first one I did was of two humping dogs because I'd made a painting of that and I thought that would be great as a sculpture,” she grins. Over time, Kher's oeuvre filled with monstrous figurative sculptures. In sharp contrast to her abstract bindi paintings, she invented mythical beasts and hybrid humananimal creatures ensnaring her viewers in a realm of fantasy.
Much of her inspiration stemmed from childhood memories. “I'd been looking at art since I was seven or eight,” she explains. “I had a really amazing art teacher who was showing us William Blake and Botticelli. You know, we were looking at artwork by Goya saying, ‘Oh my God.' We were taught to be artists who tell stories so I tried to do that.”
Among her most fascinating works was An Absence of Assignable Cause (2007), a sculpture of the heart of a sperm whale, which was the size of a small car. Kher unleashed her imagination to come up with the striking form reaching more than five feet in height, and covered in veins and arteries.
Meanwhile, other life-size sculptures like Arione (2004) – half animal, half Amazonian – took on more disturbing tones. With one leg balanced on a high-heeled shoe and the other a hoof, the semi-nude figure was shown wearing hot pants and an open vest displaying her breasts and carrying a serving tray with two pink frosted cupcakes. Her bald head was covered in a swarm of black bindis and her face formidable. Part of Kher's series of “goddess” sculptures, the piece pushed to the surface stereotypes about the role of women in the domestic sphere. “Some of the sculptures are confrontational because I can be, too,” Kher says bluntly. “I'm not trying to please anybody or make you feel great about yourself; I don't think it's the role of the artist.”
Asked why she didn't pick larger or more risky sculptures to debut in Hong Kong, Kher explains the sari sculptures and bindi paintings were made in response to the Hong Kong gallery. “Spaces tell you what kind of works you can make, cities also tell you how people want to share or look at work,” she muses. “It was a strange thing when I was looking at the lift when I first came to Hong Kong in May, I was like, ‘You can't get anything in here, just a person.' So I thought, OK, maybe I make people.”
For Kher, each of the colourful sari sculptures poised on the tall cement blocks represents an individual woman. Removing saris from their domestic settings, she dipped the knotted fabrics into resin to create the effect of being frozen in time. Kher titled the series of sculptures Portrait of a Lady, explaining that she sees clothing as a “second skin” that carries a trace or imprint of a person. She was particularly drawn to the sari as the unstitched garment as it's loaded with cultural and historical significance.
“You think you have clothes in Europe, forget it,” she says. “I think if you ask a very normal middle-class woman in India, how many saris she has, she would say as many as 300. They've been collecting saris since they were young. Their saris were bought when they were born by their parents…I like the idea that you can open a cupboard, perhaps, and see all these memories clothing carries.”
While much of Kher's art may be linked to her life in India, it isn't limited by it. Asked if she feels her position as both an insider and outsider in the country plays an important role in her art, Kher rebuffs the question. “My work is not autobiographical. Why should it be? After all, you can only flog a dead horse that much. Of course, there's part of you [involved]. I mean you don't make art unless you're giving something of yourself. But art is about ideas, how can art be solely about you?”
Walking through Kher's exhibition, it's evident that her frozen fabric sculptures and rippled bindi paintings venture beyond her personal experiences. Intricate and deeply textured, the blue-toned paintings have sweeping titles such as Chemistry, Biology, and Geography and look like cell structures or images of the natural world. She may be using an inherently Indian material but it's clear Kher speaks a universal language. Of these new works, she says, “It's more about this idea that there's a commonality between people. We share the same sky and we share the same sea. We all have histories and geographies. Even though it feels like you may be very far away, your life – depending on who are and how your day was and what your mum said to you this morning – is the same as anybody's.”