Women Mean Business: Art is the lifeline of society - Bharti Kher

The gender divide is fast dissipating in every sphere of business. There are several women business leaders today, leading from the front and inspiring an entire generation of young women to take up the mantle of leadership. 

English Business News Channel BTVi - Business Television India has endeavoured to bring women thought leaders under one platform, celebrating their success stories, thereby motivating the millennial with their show, ‘Women Mean Business’. The second season of the show went on air on June 17, 2017 and airs every Saturday @ 8pm on the channel. The guests on the show this season will range from Media baron to Renowned Restaurateur, from award winning Gemologist and Jewellery Designer to Globally acclaimed artist. 

Celebrity global artist Bharti Kher was born in England. This multi-dimensional and widely acclaimed artist studied painting and graduated from Newcastle Polytechnic in 1991. At the age of 23, she moved to New Delhi, where she lives and works today. Kher is married to Indian contemporary artist Subodh Gupta. 

How would you describe where you are right now?
I am in a good space with my work right now, and I have been working for 25 years. I think at the beginning of the career you have a lot of work to do, because you need to prove to yourself that you are able to achieve certain goals, able to perform when you make exhibitions, and now I feel I am in a space of luxury in some way. I don’t do exhibitions, I have no deadlines and I am free to go work at my studio and make, experiment, think and read. 

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Comparing the first time and the recent exhibition – what has changed?
The first time is exciting and you are also quite nervous; you have nothing to prove as such and so you have nothing to lose. But as you progress, your audience gets wider, there is an expectation from your work and you also need to travel with the work. There is also this advantage that they have an understanding of the previous work and so they are looking through your journey as well. An exhibition poses its own challenges in terms of space, what you are doing with the place; different shows do different things. 

Gallery shows are more about new work and new ideas pushing forward. Museum shows allow you space to contemplate the past and make relationships between older works and newer works. Exhibitions in specific houses and places – like something I did last year at the Ford Museum – was really special for me as I was able to engage with the history of the house and also the writings. As an artist I am extremely interested in both these ideas of femininity and psychology, and I was able to engage with ideas that related in my own practice. 

People say that you are at the top of your game, what does this really mean to you?
If you can take the labels in a positive way, then what you are doing is opening doors for other people to say that you can make art, you can be an artist and you can have a voice. I am very humble to people who say that I am a voice for them as women and that my work speaks to them about something else. I am not arrogant and it’s not like I am not impressed or touched by them in some way. I’ve always thought that it took me a long time to be accepted in India, and so I feel quite touched by that. 

What kind of influence did you mother have on you?
We were first generation immigrants, and going to a new country in the late 60’s was tough if you didn’t speak the language, you had to learn. My parents separated when we were very young, which was almost unheard of for Asian families. My mom went to work even though she is from a Punjabi family, where the mentality is to get married, have children and taking care of one’s families. So, in that sense she was quite independent. She taught us a lot of resilience – both my parents did and they were hard workers. This is the sort of ethos that I have grown up with, that if you want to do something, you have to work very hard. 

How did the resilience work when you returned to India?
I grew up in a white suburban middle class part of Surrey and you were always aware of your difference in terms of race. But that has changed in the 20th century with social media changing the way people interact with each other, it has broken down many barriers. When I grew up in Surrey in the 60’s and the 70’s, we were the only Asian family in the neighbourhood. So you learn to take solace and find comfort in your own spaces, and also the artist in me has helped me greatly. Moreover, coming back to India helped me find my own space. In the 90’s, satellite television had not yet arrived in India and we were still watching Doordarshan. Society was quite conservative. It was quite difficult for us at the beginning. A lot of my earlier work in India was about my own reactions to how I was dealing with my sexuality as a woman in a space which was predominantly male. Thus, the earlier works were a suite of 180 moustaches; the very first bindi works “Spit and swallow” were really ways for me to understand my space and my place, but from a female perspective. I was really talking about that how all these spaces belong to men, with no space for women, and when you did walk into their spaces, it was perceived to be somewhat aggressive. 

Talking about working from India, what are some of the challenges that you actually face?
When I first came here in the 90’s, India felt like this extraordinary melting pot. There was an amazing energy here and we thought we were going to be a part of something extraordinary; the change will begin and we will become part of this dynamic milieu that reintroduces this culture and looks at it in the contemporary. It felt like we could be a part of something. 

I look at the entire world now and not particularly for culture. I think all of us are saying, hey, what happened? We were supposed to be part of this generation of change, but we seem to have failed. I am not really sure; maybe, this is the time where I am asking myself this question whether I need to go back to hibernation to think through. We need to be further out there and be participative and demand change. 

Art is a language of communication, but at some level you need to facilitate the communication. Also, the government needs to facilitate change and facilitate ease of work as it is difficult to work here. I have worked here for 25 years. I chose to live in India, because I love India. 

What was the biggest resistance that you felt?
Art is the lifeline of society, and you have to reclaim your public spaces through art, culture, architecture and music to help societies to come together. I think that in this franchise driven world, culture is the only simple link that keeps us somewhere altogether. In a city like Delhi, we have no public spaces. 

What do you think happens in India’s contemporary art space?
It is a tough criticism, but to be honest, they are all speculators and they aren’t art lovers. It seems that the bottomline in India is just money. 

What is ideally an art council?
An art council may be of the 8 best people from totally different fields, considered to be respected in their respective fields, nominated by various people by nomination, and then they would come together. We have 800 museums in India and most of them have no directorship, but they are not seemingly desirous of filling up these positions with dynamic and young people who can create spaces where people will want to come and love the work. It just needs planning, organising and skills. Take China for example, in the past 3 years, 400 museums were opened all over the country because the Chinese government gave land to Chinese philanthropists and collectors at subsidized rates. At the same time, they were told that if they failed to build the museum in the stipulated time of 3 years and did not have a director in place who was running programmes for the public, then the museum would be shut down and the provision of the land at subsidised rates would be taken away. 

I think what keeps me going is my faith in my work and also because I am quite restless and get bored very easily. So, if I am sculpting, I have to put something away and go for another project. In my studio, I am currently working on six different projects that are in different stages of completion. The fabrication takes an extraordinary amount of time. We make a lot of mistakes and learn a lot from our failures.

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