Creativity doesn’t wait for an ideal set of circumstances. It can function just as fine with the barest of materials available. And the life of 26-year-old artist Unnikrishnan C. is the perfect model of this view. Born to a family of stone quarry workers, Unnikrishnan, a Kerala-born artist, is now showcasing his works in a solo show in Zug, Switzerland.
The Swiss collectors, Richard and Adrienne Blum, were impressed by Unnikrishnan’s deep commitment to his art. He received a patronage from them for two years which now culminates into a solo exhibition in Switzerland. In the show, the artist will be presenting his work to leading curators, galleries, museums and auction houses, apart from many art collectors from Switzerland and Germany.
“I am extremely excited and humbled by this opportunity to show my works in Zug. As a young artist who graduated from art school just three years ago, I could not have imagined such a possibility for myself. And I am even more excited to see how an audience that is so disconnected and distant from Kerala will react to and engage with my works that are steeped and rooted in people and stories from Nenmara, my small town,” Unnikrishnan tells Guardian 20.
The artist’s style draws upon a number of cultural idioms. There is also a strong presence of hyper-local textual references. These references are taken by Unnikrishnan from the stories told by his grandmother. Much of his work aims to document events and images from fast changing surroundings. His art also offers an insider’s view of interactions between tradition, belief systems and modernity.
Unninkrishnan’s art is also a way to archive objects and ways of living—values that face the danger of slow disappearance. For instance, the collapse of weaving and other traditional economies.
Early in his life, Unnikrishnan came in contact with bricks as a motif for his art. The exposure with bricks led him to paint on terracotta bricks on the walls of his home in Thrissur, Kerala. This work led him to create a freestanding installation called Brick Wall which became one of the prominent displays at Kochi Biennale 2014.
His solo exhibition in Switzerland, entitled Portraits of Everyday Life, is a collective of ten works on varied mediums, such as paintings, installations and video works. One of the artist’s works in the exhibition is called Portrait of Mother and Sister, which he has painted directly onto his bedroom door. Now, the bedroom door has been transported to Switzerland at the site of the exhibition.
This colourful mosaic work depicts the artist’s surrounding and was intended as a series of portraits of Unnikrishnan’s mother and sister. Looking at the work, one could gauge the ritualistic and beatific elements in the domestic. One of his other artworks, entitled Portraits from Everyday Life, is a series of 100 drawings. It chronicles lives of the artist’s neighbours and people he encounters every day. About this work, Unnikrishnan says, “Each of the portraits depicts a different ‘character’ in my world of everyday life. They form a mosaic almost of humans that inhabit the spaces of my works, like the sand factory workers, agricultural labourers, family, tarot card reader, devotees etc. Although this suite of portraits ostensibly resembles my earlier works on brick, each tile is carefully crafted by layering rice paper, a medium I have been working with since mid-2016. The display, a scattered placement of portraits in three to four rows, mirrors the signature brick masonry.”
Unnikrishnan has also been in constant touch with family rituals and practices since childhood. He says, “The heavily decorated temples, deities and ritual dancers that I saw at festivals… in short the art was all around me! To me, making art is not a choice that I made. There was nothing else that I could have done and there is nothing else I want to do.” This inclination towards a diverse range of art led him to study at the Thrissur School of Art. This was quite a fascinating time for Unnikrishnan as he finally got to nurture his skills.
“Although I had been drawing and painting from a young age, I had never imagined that there could be a place where I could learn how to make art and pursue it as a career. It was extremely difficult for my family to comprehend what I was doing and I had to pay for my schooling by doing menial jobs in Thrissur, throughout the three years,” says Unnikrishnan.