"It’s an urgent time": Rithika Merchant on making art in response to social issues

A chat with Rithika Merchant, leading up to the India Art Fair 2018.
Rithika Merchant
Rithika Merchant

Rithika Merchant works primarily with gouache and ink on paper to create mosaics of myths across time and space. These myths serve as allegories to articulate contemporary concerns, offers a note from Mumbai's gallery Tarq. 

Currently based in Barcelona, Merchant has witnessed the tragedy of the refugee crisis up-close, says the note. The experience has informed her latest body of work, where she takes it a step further by looking at the very essence of migration within the context of civilisations, the note explains. At the India Art Fair 2018, Rithika will be a part of a showcase of women artists, along with Saubiya Chasmawala and Soghra Khurasani, hosted by Tarq. A chat with the artist, leading up to the India Art Fair 2018.

"A Distant Memory" (2017), Rithika Merchant, Mixed media
collage with gouache, ink and graphite on paper, 76 x 118 cms

Tell us a little about the artworks that you will be showing at the Art Fair this year. Is there an underlying message in your works that you wish to share with viewers? 
Rithika Merchant:
The mass displacement of people, forced migration, and the dislocation and exile of many groups of people all over the world are very troubling to me. Living in Barcelona I have felt very helpless watching the European refugee crisis unfold right on my doorstep. This body of work deals with the profound effect this had had one me through the role of water in migration.

Water and migration go hand in hand for me, largely due to where I live. The mayor of Barcelona installed a digital counter - the "Shame Counter" - which displays the number of  known victims who drowned in the Mediterranean in real time. This body of work comes from my own feelings generated by seeing the contrast between my life in this city and what this counter represents. 

How do you perceive artworks that make a political statement? Would you like to produce more pertinent, and politically charged artworks as a part of your practice?
I see two ways to perceive political statements in a piece of art. The artist may have created a piece as a specific political statement or the artist may have created a more universal artwork that resonates with a particular political situation of the time.

I strive to make art that is more in the second category. My work is often triggered by a specific event that has taken place and links to more universal ideas relating to that initial feeling as well. 

Give us your overview, of the rise in political art over the last few years, as you have been witnessing it - as a viewer, and as an artist. Would you like to see more artists making powerful works with a socially relevant message?
Every artist is different and I don’t think that artists should feel pressured into making a specific kind of art if they do not want to. 

We are at a time now when more than ever, we are seeing a lot of social issues that have lurked below the surface, bubbling up. It’s an urgent time. This weighs on me and I am finding it difficult to make art about anything that is not a response to this.

<em>Rithika Merchant</em>
Rithika Merchant

Give us your take on the idea that "All art is political in the sense that it engages society in some way, either influencing or influenced by it." Would you agree with this thought? And does this apply to your own practice?
This statement is true in absolute theory but in practice, it would be a stretch to politicise something like... a landscape or flowers. Monet painted water lilies for the last thirty years of his life as his eyesight was failing as a way of observing the world and celebrating its beauty. To politicise it almost does it a disservice. 

I’m still growing in my practice and while much of my work has been political, the motive behind the works are often more personal and come from observation. 

What, according to you, is political art - in essence? Is it necessary for political art to assume the conventional forms of editorial cartoons, or perhaps, as protest art? How would you distinguish political art as a form in itself - removed from the distinctions of paintings, illustration, and protest performance?
I don’t think of political art as removed from the other categories and creative processes. It’s an added value or message. 

Rithika Merchant, "Blessed Water" (2017), Mixed media
collage with gouache, ink and graphite on paper, 76 x 118 cms

How important, do you believe, is it for artists today to take up the responsibility of making a political statement - to comment on current affairs, or draw the attention of viewers to larger issues? Is it essential for artists to make politically charged works, to possibly gain larger visibility?
The only responsibility the artist has is to make genuine work that comes from within. The political message within the work is a choice that an artist makes and the reach of the work depends on many different factors. I don’t think that making political art necessarily leads to larger visibility nor should it be a driving factor behind creating art. I think that artists should feel free to express unhindered. 

A lot of contemporary art, unfortunately, tends to get discussed in closed and often select groups. How would you like to encourage further discussions on art among larger groups of people, and possibly extend art appreciation in a more inclusive, rather than exclusive manner?
Galleries and museums can be intimidating to a lot of people. I think educating people from a young age can help familiarize them and make them more comfortable around art. I think that also having events that are related to art exhibitions in a gallery setting such as film screening, workshops and discussions help bring in an audience that otherwise may not feel as comfortable viewing an exhibition by itself. Also giving more space to art journalism in newspapers and media in general, beyond just listings, would help bring the discussion around art out into the open. 

There's also the final question about balancing the aspects of aesthetics, beauty and taste, with technique and skill. How important is it, in your view, for a powerful work of art to also be visually, and artistically pleasing and beautiful - perhaps, to emphasise the underlying message?
A powerful work of art conveys ideas and emotion. It expresses something visually that sometimes cannot be put into words. Life, humanity and all that comes with it is not always beautiful and art that reflects this may not be conventionally beautiful either. Sometimes, art can be confrontational and uncomfortable. This does not make it any less impactful.  

Rithika Merchant will show alongside Saubiya Chasmawala and Soghra Khurasani at Booth C3, hosted by gallery Tarq, at the India Art Fair 2018. Vernissage: February 9. On show until Feb 12. 

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