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Benitha Perciyal, Critical Collective, Amrita Gupta Singh, raw materials, coconut, resin, wood, frankincense, raw banana fibre, minimalism, minimalist abstraction, Arte Povera

“What am I looking for?”, 2018-19

Raw banana fibre paper mache

5ft diameter x 1ft

An alumnus of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai, Perciyal trained in painting (BFA) and printmaking (MFA) and progressed to self-portraiture, conceptual installations, and found assemblages after she received a junior research grant to work at the Lalit Kala Studios in Chennai. Through printmaking, she discovered the qualities of surface, texture, and positive/negative space, which expanded to three dimensional work employing the corporeality of touch. Her transversal practice comes forth in her solo exhibition, Aggregate at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai (August 8- October 15, 2019), firmly embedded in figurative and representational forms, and also exploring minimalist abstraction. Four circular and convex containers hang on the walls of the gallery, transforming it into a sanctum of pristine space and exquisitely crafted texture. In art historical terms, minimalism presented a fundamental challenge to sculpture – whether they were to be placed on the ground or wall, as traditionally the ground was essential to the properties of gravity in sculpture. Perciyal’s four containers allude to the womb and to the four classical elements of nature: earth, air, fire and water, while inhabiting the walls. Large in scale, they are tactile and interact with light, and also open out a new formal semantics in the gallery – occupying, disrupting and ordering space, and also embracing the fourth dimension in sculpture – time. This is most evocative because the material is perishable (raw banana fibre, rice paper, winged seeds from the Indian Elm, Tecoma, Spatodea Campanulata, and Tabebuia Rosea) and subject to decay, recalling the impermanent art of the Arte Povera movement of the mid-20th century in Italy. What am I looking for? (2018-19), a raw banana fibre paper- mache sculpture relates to the element of earth and the title itself raises the existential question of the impermanence of life and what we seek for ourselves in the civilizational agenda of modernity.

The genealogy of feminist art practices filters into her work through laborious processes of kneading clay, the pulping process of paper-mache, or making colours with herbs. Her other materials range from Frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, clove, lemongrass, cedar wood, bark powder, coal, re-used Burma teak, plaster, mineral, tree resin, cedar wood essential oils, gourds, nests and leather, to name a few. Such a processual practice draws critical attention to ‘thinking through making’ and the material agency of each medium allow for an intersectional ethics of the human and the environment centred in feminist principles. Guatarri’s idea of the ‘ethico-aesthetic’ [6] comes into play here, connected through the embodiment of form and the cultural lives of material that is generative and restorative. Perciyal refrains from placing her aesthetics onto any kind of schema, with gendered values unobtrusively running as a sub-text in her work (if not in image), a counter-point to our larger cultural condition of capitalist consumerism. She forages in flea markets or old antique shops to find discarded and abandoned objects that become part of her personal archive, adopting them into her life and incorporating them in her work.

A practicing Christian, Perciyal has been particularly engaged with the history and vernacularisation of Christianity in India through architectural forms, traditional arts, mythology and symbolisms. [7] In 2015-2016, she received the Anmol Vadehra Art Grant initiated by the Foundation for Contemporary Indian Art (FICA) which enabled her to conduct research on the sculptural traditions in Tamil Naidu, including lime stucco (suthai) and wood. [8] She worked with woodcarvers in Thanjavur, Papanasam, Cuddalore and Nagercoil, and also travelled to the Kalvaryan Hills to collect guggul (a gum resin) [9] an ancient herb in Ayurveda and ritualistic contexts, to add to her repertoire of incense mixing. Her exploration of smell is also related to ritualistic sacred practices, and reinstating found objects means to spiritually restore faith in life, through the transience of smell. For her, incense as material brings together real fragments of objects and memories, and bookends personal time and personal space [10] She terms her work as her diary, and if the elements permit, diaries exist for centuries [11] – old, worn and open to new interpretations. Perciyal combines all her organic materials in moulds, and casts her figurative sculptures often without armature – the combination of various incenses and resin support upright vertical sculptures, [12] such as her piece The Fires of Faith at the Kochi Muziris Biennale (2014).

(Excerpted from the essay written by Amrita Gupta Singh for Critical Collective

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