Nidhi Agarwal, artist/painter, living and working in New Dehli, IndiaNew Dehli, India
An amazing coincidence on Facebook brought artist Nidhi Agarwal and myself together. As my husband and I were planning our first trip to northern India, a Facebook request popped up on my email from an artist in India. We became fast friends via email and Nidhi generously welcomed us to a visit to her home, to meet her family and to share a meal together. It was our first evening in New Dehli and we were happy to spend time visiting, listening and learning about the Agarwal family and life in the largest city in India. After our brief but wonderful visit, I asked Nidhi if I could interview her for my blog and she accepted.
CB: Tell me about your background – where did you grow up? Were you introduced to the arts a child? Who were your influences?
NA: I was born in Faridabad, a small town in Haryana, adjoining Dehli. Haryana is known for farming. My father is a doctor from a conservative family and he supported me in every manner.
An art teacher in school encouraged me to practice art when she saw a keenness in me to learn
various techniques. I had not been to an art gallery until I was 17. We didn’t have that kind of culture or awareness.
CB: How old were you when you began making art? What types of art do you make?
NA: When I started doing art seriously I was 14 years old. At 17, I got into Delhi College of Art.
I work in an Abstract Expressionistic style using a thick impasto technique. I also do drawing in pen and charcoal, and miniatures in watercolor and gouache, mixed media apart from oil/acrylic on canvas and also occasionally small sculptures.
CB: Can you tell me about your studio? The process of your work? Materials you use?
NA: I love to be alone when I work. I don’t want any distractions in my studio. But there must be loud music playing in the background which charges me with energy. The music must be closely connected with my moods as it helps me go deeper into my work. You may find it funny to know that I actually do best when I dance while I paint! Basically the whole atmosphere including me becomes very intense, going on to up to three hours at a time. Since I use a spontaneous process, I like to finish fast – I get restless until I complete a painting I am working on. The strokes are bold and color palette is very bright. For my oil paintings I don’t use brushes or solvents. I like using paint directly out of the tube, like the consistency of toothpaste. I use very big sized spatulas and palate knives and often squeeze the paint directly from the tube onto the spatulas or canvas. My studio is full of paints of all colors and shades – otherwise I get nervous. My consumption of paint is huge. I simply love the textures. Apart from paint, I also use wrappers from items and stickers. I see a lot of story in these materials as they have many household uses and meanings. My works are sized from as small as 4 inches to as big as 120 inches.
CB: Have you had any ongoing teachers/mentors?
NA: Noone – I am a mentor to myself.
CB: What ideas, thoughts, or beliefs do you think your work is based on?
NA: I believe in energy, challenge and youthfulness – these ideas generate a lot of positive energy and push me to visually create from my imagination. I enjoy creating my own “organisms”. If we look through history, I find a lot of serious material. This seriousness challenges me to produce work with humor. At times I am mocking the difficult situations we as an Indian society have created for ourselves. I strongly believe that art should be tremendously bold and currently that is my focus. ‘Psychology’ is close to my heart, and I often title my works with terms related to this vast subject. For instance, “Obsessive Thinkers”, “Catatonic State”, “Fuming”, to name a few…
CB: Historically, what artists/art movements do you most connect with?
NA: I have always been fascinated by German Expressionism and painters like Edvard Munch,
Gorky, Basquiat and Indian painters F.N. Souza, and Tyeb Mehta. Also Abstract Expressionist painters like De Kooning, and Robert Rauchenberg and British painter Francis Bacon. I especially connect with post world war two painters whose work reflects their suppressive times. As a woman, I have faced much suppression in my country.
CB: Tell me about your exhibitions, are you most focused on exhibiting in India or other places?
NA: Right now I am focusing outside of India. I seldom find people responding well to my works and experiments in India. I see a lot of pessimism in India, which is noone’s fault, just a product of the times. I feel the art world here(in India) is still living in a shell, and very commercially inclined.
CB: Are there influences from growing up in India that influence your work and identity as an artist? Political? Social? Religious? Being Female? Cultural?
NA: Yes, as a matter of fact, much of my work exhibits rebelliousness. When there has been a lot of turmoil due to a male dominated culture, I ended up painting liberating and shocking figures
like fuming heads, eroticism, smokers, gaping expressions, wide open mouths, sexual gestures, etc. It was obviously a way to vent and show my disregard towards our stereotypical customs. Public transport and public places are the worst where struggle is unending for women. Women are not allowed to make important decisions even if they are well educated and earning salaries.
My “Hangover” series “Feel Free” , “Scream”, and “The Three Freaks” are my best examples of
my reactions to our culture. Nature with its living organisms dominate my thoughts. “Yellow Organism” and “Speed Organism” are some of my favorite works.
CB: What else would you like people to know about you and your work?
NA: Firstly, I want to be known as a colorist. I believe I have a wild way of working, unusual for a female painter in India. I like to break rules and discover new horizons. I don’t want people to just appreciate my work, but spend time with it and make serious criticism. My work should be looked upon as wild humor. The body and style of paint I apply requires lengthy observation.
If my work doesn’t surprise viewers, I see the work as wasteful.
CB: What artist residencies have you done? Can you comment on what you learned or created during those residencies?
NA: One residency was the Mark Rothko Art Center’s international painting residency, held every year in Daugavpils, Latvia. The ambience of the center totally absorbed me – The daily sunlight, the gradual transformation in landscape, arrival of fall and the fortress where we stayed were very unique with a typical European flavor. I had a fantastic time working with other artists who came from many different countries. I contributed 2 acrylic canvases now in their collection, which will be included in future exhibitions. Latvians lead a simple life, are warm at heart and recently liberated from a lengthy Russian rule. The most exciting part was designing a stage for a play at their contemporary theater festival. I experimented with installation work in mixed media in a 100 plus year old historical but abandoned hospital building where injured soldiers were once treated. The Center is also home to painting studios, exhibition halls, a great library, cafeteria and 5 of Rothko’s paintings and materials about his life.
I also went to Penza Russia for the 7th International Sculpture Symposium. Aside from their sculpture making workshops, I was invited as one of 40 artists from all across the globe. I worked with stainless steel to create a steel sculpture “head”, for their mini sculpture show.
The best thing about these residencies is their calm surroundings, providing me with time and space to stimulate my creative juices. Also mingling with other artists, and exchanging ideas was good.
CB: Can you comment on any awards, accomplishments?
NA: I received the Pollack Krasner Grant in 2013 for painting. The grant is designed for funding art expenses. The honor encouraged me to further continue my journey in painting irrespective of sales which are unpredictable. The grant came to me surprisingly, at a time when I needed it most.
CB: Can you comment on your statements that people/women are suppressed in India? Any cultural thoughts related to being an artist or woman?
NA: India has a massive religiously inclined population. Indians follow many cultures and dharmas. We also inherited a very old caste systems and customs that still exist in our society. As more than 70% of the Indian population lives in rural areas, most of them are deprived of basic amenities like hospitals and education. These people still trust their God in creating their destiny, even when they are critically ill. People blindly believe in their rituals and deities. It is very easy here to establish a temple, a Gurudwara(Sik temples) or Masjid(Islam temple) compared to the difficulties of creating a hospital or school – they stick to their ancestral traditions regardless of grave situations. Women and minorities especially suffer from such ideologies. In fact, their status is more or less like a domestic servant. They are denied equal rights, in fact women follow tradition and place the same fate on other females and hence the journey of female suppression never ends. Marriage is something expected, and taught from early childhood that it is part of the ‘family pride’, often consuming womens’ lives.
Gays and transgender men and women are not accepted. Families disown them at the first sign in childhood. Sadly, this population has to live in despair and prostitution at a young age, being disrespected and exploited. Female foeticide(aborting a fetus because it is female) happens in even the affluent and educated class. Even though India is becoming a major economic power, culturally rooted beliefs remain strong, and is a deterrent to the success of India’s future.
CB: Can you talk about how women artists are viewed in India? Are women artists treated differently than male artists?
NA: Men are usually discouraged by their families to pursue art as they are considered the ‘bread winners’ and art is not a moneymaking business. Also since art is ‘freelance work’, its considered
safe and comfortable when we talk of women practicing it. It is now considered a respectable profession and an extremely personal choice. Art in India is usually thought of as coming from the elite or well educated class, who are free from discrimination. To a small extent, women are treated less favorably than men in the art world but top end galleries would never do so.
CB: Are artists censored in any way about the content of their work and can you make whatever kind of work you wish?
NA: Personally, right from the beginning, I have told myself to be honest in what I think and do with my work – there are never any questions about restricting myself in my ideas and painting. You may be surprised I have used erotic subjects and symbols in my work, in spite of coming from a conservative family. Indian women are contrastingly branded as pious, but I am confident that no one will stop me from expressing my ideas. Everyone watches sexual scenes in movies so why can’t we use this imagery in my work? Film directors are never confronted about this so why artists?
CB: In your opinion, what are the best aspects of your culture, ones you appreciate?
NA: The best thing about Indian culture is the unconditional love, respect and sacrifices we make for our families. Family bonding is a virtue for every Indian. Indian people are also known for their hard work ethic and perseverance.
|Feel Free 4' x 3' mix media on paper 2010.|
|Nidhi Agarwal, her family and myself in her studio|
SPEED ORGANISM. 30x 70 inches oil on paper. 2009
The Scream 6'x5'. Oil on Canvas 2009
|The Three Freaks 6x10 ft oil on canvas. Diptych 2010|
HANGOVER. 28x22 inches mix media on paper 2010
Desire Woman 10x4 ft acrylic on board , -2014 (Work done in Penza symposium)