Delhi based artist, Sukanya Garg explores the human body’s intricacies, particularly the perceptions that stem from the constant evolution of cell structures. Garg’s practice is inspired by her unprecedented journey across the world to understand pain and the diverse practices of healing, unravelling traditional wisdom from Hinduism, Islam, Sufism, Animism, Shamanism and the Amazonian tribal cultures. Her art centres around the concept of ‘Every scar has a Story’ to narrate stories and experiences of scarless wounds, alchemizing them through the visual language of cellular biology. She joins Sunday Guardian for an exclusive chat. Excerpts
Q. You work on the theme of “Every Scar has a Story”. How did you begin working on this theme and what does your work symbolize? What stories are embedded in your work?
A. My artistic practice is inspired from my journey of living with an auto-immune condition. While pain pulsated through me each moment, the nature of its invisibility led to periods of severe self-introspection giving rise to existentialist questions about the meaning of life and the significance of things that can only be felt, not seen. The lack of success with western and various other schools of medicine and the simultaneous desperation for reprieve from pain, chartered a course for me that led me to travel across the mountains of northern and eastern India, Nepal and Kazakhstan, exposure to doctors, healers, tribal and native medicine, unravelling traditional wisdom from Hinduism, Islam, Sufism, Animism, Shamanism and the Amazonian tribal cultures. With the travels came a broadening of insight and a greater acceptance of pain, which while coupled with questions still, seeped down my persona, inking their way out through simple drawings providing a synchronicity between my condition and my artistic practice. My art came to centre around the concept of ‘Every scar has a Story’ to narrate stories and experiences of scarless wounds, alchemizing them through the visual language of cellular biology. Art for me, then, became a journey into exploring the question I once asked myself.
Q. Could you elaborate on the link between your art and mental health?
A. We live in a culture which blatantly discriminates and shames, sometimes with unintentional ignorance, other times with cold indifference and apathy. Subsequently, as I lived through a painful albeit invisible health condition, the rather frequent comments of people I was close to as well as strangers who repeated “But, you don’t look sick” created a deep-seated isolation and yet a desire to be understood and seen for what I was truly undergoing. I realized how people often only have compassion towards what is visible to the naked eye. To be able to truly see is an altogether different thing. In such moments, I remembered the faces of people I knew, those I had known, their stories, their vulnerabilities, their silent pain. I remembered the story of a friend who was anorexic and felt too unattractive and never spoke about it. I remembered the story of a woman who was ashamed of her well-endowed bosom and how she could never wear what she wanted out of fear of being leered at. I remembered the face of another who told me about how she was abused and how she had a permanent fear of intimacy. I remembered the old man who still lives alone next-door, whose wife passed away, the one whose smile never reaches his eyes. And then, in the ocean of faces I saw, I remembered those who were sick, but who didn’t look sick.
Q. How has art been a healing mechanism for you?
A. When I had finally quit my job in Geneva to become an artist, I encountered a strange period in which while all I wanted to do was paint, but I was somehow unable to. I started frequenting artist Shobha Broota’s studio where despite spending a few months getting acquainted with art books and being in the company of artists, I still couldn’t paint. It was on a serendipitous day when my teacher asked me to just paint anything. I picked up a simple transparent cube to try and recreate it. What emerged were drawings in which a repeated meditation on the cube transformed into circular forms. The process of playing with the form and the act of drawing it repeatedly, albeit differently, changed the image of the form. This simple unconscious discovery was also the undertone of my journey of physical healing which led me to numerous medical practitioners, healers, astrologers, shamans, tribal medicine specialists, yoga practitioners, and other guides. The approach of experimenting with numerous things and through the slow process of repeating the ones that showed results, customizing them to my body and condition, the process of healing began. Painting was simultaneous, where every single work of art involved a healing crisis, wherein the process of creating entailed further pain and yet that pain was a part of the healing.
Q. What inspires you as an artist?
A. As an artist, I believe that our interactions with the space around us and the nature we belong to are all guided by how our cells connect with them. Our body, over time, carries all these connections, and weaves them into stories – some are told, some untold. I am, consequently, inspired by such connections, both conscious and subconscious, that stem from my interactions with shamans, healers, artists, humanitarian workers, patients, medical practitioners and conversations with multicultural people from all walks of life. In addition, poetry, the sacred geometry in nature, geographical terrains, medical literature, scientific and spiritual interventions and my own personal experiences all inform and influence my practice.
For instance, the visual aesthetic of my works draws inspiration from the form of a human cell. The first time this imagery entered my practice was after I participated in a native south american healing ritual called Kambo. During the ritual, a shaman burns tiny holes into one’s skin in a pattern. Then they apply the frog’s poison on the holes. The purging that follows is believed to cleanse the body, mind and spirit. The burns, however, leave behind henna-colored cellular shaped scars. These forms unconsciously entered my paintings and changed the course of my artistic imagination and expression.
Q. Could you talk about your artistic process?
A. Art for me is a way of experiencing the mystery. I have often observed a certain bio-synchronicity between my being and the nature in which I exist. Sometimes it is a certain painting or work of art which makes me aware of these unconscious connections between the body and the universe. When the cells start amalgamating in my drawing to create a different visual form altogether, these connections suddenly become visible to me. A shaman once said to me, “The universe is consequential, not moral. No guilt. No shame. No right. No wrong. Perception is what makes us who we are.” His words resonate through my work where the act of painting is my journey into that universal space with the body as my instrument. The scope of my work includes drawing, painting, body art, photography, installation and poetry.
Q. What are you working on at present? What’s building up in the future?
A. At present, I am exploring several new mediums and artistic styles. While the medium of paper still dominates my artistic practice, I have been travelling to learn about the rich textile crafts of India and working with local artisans to create work using the indigenous techniques of Bandhani and Zardozi hand embroidery. The textile work will soon be displayed as part of an upcoming group show at the National Museum in Delhi and will travel to Baroda and Bangalore among other places. In addition, I am also working with the Reliance Art Foundation and their upcoming arts space at Jio World Centre, Mumbai, curating arts programs, public art initiatives and advising on private and public art collections for Ambani family.