Indulge one-on-one: Ashwini Bhat plays global citizen for ceramics with Priya Sundaravalli
Priya Sundaravalli coaxes out the story of Ashwini Bhat, a former dancer who moved from small-town South India to the US to craft monumental sculptures, and also keep a little herb garden.
Ceramics artist Ashwini Bhat bridges a number of cultures in her work, even as she moved from Auroville to California, where she is now based. She lets in fellow ceramist Priya Sundaravalli on her journey so far.
Priya Sundaravalli: In one of your early reflections, you talk about finding freedom and losing your fears when you transitioned from dance into the world of clay. Can you elaborate on this fearlessness?
Ashwini Bhat: It was very liberating to find a material beyond my body with which to express myself. At every stage of my decade-long journey in dance, a world of restrictions met me.
Although dance took me around the world touring, its undercurrents took the joy out of my life. Clay welcomed me. It’s also a physical art, but slower, more meditative yet still capable of instigating explosive insights and actions. The material allows me to move through mistakes, to rebuild, to explore interiors I didn’t reach in my life in dance. The playfulness and possibility I still feel working with clay make me happy to get out of bed.
PS: When I look at some of your sculptural work, I think of ‘Tantra’. There is the presence of the ancient, the feminine and masculine, the play and energies. For me, there is a spiritual undertone to the work. You also make several references to Goddesses - saptamatrikas for example. So my question is what drives you and your work? Where does your inspiration come from? What compels you to build in body-size 'large scale’?
AB: Those are sharp observations Priya. I’m certainly more interested in Tantric and mystical philosophies than in conventional religions. While at some level, the Matrikas you mention, my Queen, the Stele and the Eye idols all suggest, as it has been noted, the grace and regal confidence of female goddesses as they are represented in many ancient cultures. But I want to torque those clichés, I want to reimagine the forms, remove them from pedestals of worship, and reinvest them with humanity. This is the kind of thinking that guided me into my most recent large-scale works, the Honoo-no-Mori.
In those seven-foot iconic sculptures, I incorporate elements of multiple cultural representations into one syncretic shrine. You’ve probably noticed that at the bases of those sculptures, the (phallic) image of the Shiva lingam makes a kind of erotic rhyme with the narrow yoni, the (labial) passage above it, linking non-hierarchical male and female creativity. The labial passage also references lamp-slits found in Japanese toros, stone lanterns, and I mean for their presence in my sculptures to honor the particular geography where these sculptures came into being.
As you know, my series of Eye Idols reference Tell Brak and Harappan civilisation headdresses. The inspiration comes from various sources — my reading, travels, mythology, archeology, history, and geology. In a collaborative project I’m working on right now with the writer Forrest Gander, I’m going back to Sangam poetry, temple architecture, and representations of Shiva as Ardhanaarishwara (half woman/half man).
The thrill of building big, the long process, the everyday connection with the sculpture I’m coaxing into being, the human size — it’s all like interacting with another body. That excites me. When I’m building a ceramic sculpture almost as tall as I am, and I’m walking around it, I sometimes feel as though I’m back on stage as a dancer, intricately aware of the space and tension and mutuality between my body, the sculpture, and the environment. I like how these large-scale sculptures look as though they are unveiling themselves in situ, connected to the precise landscape in which they have been created. I like to imagine the viewer seeing INTO their origins.
PS: The period of childhood is full of sensory impacts and deep memories that leave their mark and affect how we approach our adult life and expressions. How does your childhood play a role on you artistically now? The reason I ask you this is because you grew up in Puttur, not in some big city. And then you spent many years in Chennai and Pondicherry.
AB: Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had a wonderful childhood — protected, yet free to make my own decisions. My parents placed a lot of trust in me, and they emphasised the importance of education, hard work, open-mindedness. Also I had three very supportive older sisters. As a kid in Puttur, I was a bookworm; exposure to everything later in my life, including the desire to travel, came from reading translations of novels and poetry.
There was always a promise of some new land/ language/ experience/ taste. I think that's what makes me feel most comfortable living in a foreign land as well. The transitions from my small village to Mangalore to Banglaore to Chennai to Pondicherry came quite organically. So did the recent move to the US.
In the initial few years in America, I lived out of two suitcases as I traveled from one studio residency to another— mostly in the US but also in Australia, China and Japan. I haven’t felt out of place in any of my travels because I make an effort to be open to the unknown. And as a result, traveling has enriched my being. It could be that my lust for the foreign, for knowledge, for expansive experiences is a consequence of growing up fairly isolated in a small town in southern India.
PS: You recently co-led an anagama workshop - and have also entered the field of teaching. Two questions: (i) What is your initial experience of sharing knowledge and skills? Besides the monetary compensation, what does teaching offer you? (ii) The Anagama workshop, there was a mention of it being the first woman-led workshop! Is that still a big deal? Is there a need for a feminist stance in the clay world? Especially we all know that there are more women in clay than men?
AB: My father was a teacher, all his life. Teaching is considered as the noblest thing to do by my mother. My ceramic teacher, Ray Meeker, was the perfect mentor I needed in my life, one who let me learn from my mistakes instead of castigating me for them. But I’ve also learned from insecure/egoistic mentors, what not to be. Until I started doing it, almost by chance and necessity, I didn't realise I had the teaching seed in me. Now I realise how much it brings to me, and I hope I give as much back to my students.
The Peters Valley anagama workshop! Well, I wasn’t the first but the second woman to be invited to lead that workshop. I later invited Heidi Kreitchet to join me. Peters Valley’s historic anagama kiln has seen more than 40 firings, but Heidi and I were the first women-team to co-teach the workshop. So if women dominate the ceramic arts, how do we explain one women-led team out of forty firings? Or the fact that the best-known and most successful ceramic artists are still, in large part, men?
Our Peters Valley group too was majority women, but there was a collaborative spirit that crossed gender and age boundaries. We were all thrilled to be involved in making sculptural work for this ancient dynamo of a kiln.
Yes, I think we need to be alert to power structures. On the other hand, in my personal experience, I can say quite honestly that, as a newcomer, I was made to feel entirely welcome by the clay and wood-fire community, despite that it’s a male-centric world. The fact of being male doesn’t necessarily make someone a patriarch. Nor does being female necessarily lead a woman artist to champion other women artists. All women artists who try to navigate through the art world encounter some level of discrimination.
Looking at this particular moment in time and reflecting on the political situation both in India and US, it’s evident enough that its time for certain patriarchal systems to be cracked open. Unless the egg cracks open, no new life can come into the world. The transformations will, I think, be generative.
PS: You have now made home for yourself in the USA as an “alien with exceptional abilities”. But you also identify yourself as an Indian artist. It may be a silly question but how does the long distance away from India, affect the kind of work you are making? (I remember all the times I left home, this longing for the wilderness of Auroville will begin to show up in my work. When I go abroad on longer residencies, longing for India gets more acute and it clearly insists from the subconscious! That's why I ask you!)
AB: If there is a passport for global citizenship, I would like to apply for that. My birthplace and the experiences of my upbringing in India are forever a part of me. But I don’t necessarily long to go back there any more than I long for any single place. I’m inspired by and educated by the differences apparent in various places that seem to call me.
Critics and viewers have, of course, found “Indianness” in my work. But what IS “Indianness”? Whether or not I would be doing the same work I do now if I were living in India is purely hypothetical. Finally, it just doesn't matter. No matter where I am, my work will change as I change. And I’m a person who is almost congenitally open to change.
I remember conversations you and I had about the Sundakkai I was growing in my garden in Pondicherry. These days, I am growing pavakkai (bitter gourd), karivepillai (curry leaves) and turmeric here in my garden in California! I am a complete South Indian when it comes to thair-sadam. But I’m equally ravenous for sushi, empanadas, dolmas, and falafels. I listen to Drupad for days on end but I can also steep for hours in Leonard Cohen or Prince.
PS: To have a close artistic collaboration with your poet partner, Forrest Gander, must be quite special. There is something complementary about each of your works that enhances the other's. I found it most interesting that your ‘Compass Rose’ had these beautiful turmeric-kumkum threads now - symbolic of your coming together and living together. How do you work together and influence each other's creativity? Is it you who first responds to his written word or vice versa? Is there a method?
AB: It is very special. My friend, Bruce saw a photo of a segment of our collaboration, Compass Rose, and he remembered how Cambodian weddings use thread similar to the way we did. For me, the use of thread was purely an aesthetic decision, but who knows? More importantly, Forrest and I arrived at that improvisation together while we were installing the sculpture. I feel we are equally drawn to how the other person thinks about or looks at the world. Our process involves several edits.
Although at times I don't respond very well to personal critiques, I’m always open to criticism and feedback from Forrest about my work. We function extremely well under high stress and through the longer processes of getting details right. We’re both workaholics, super disciplined, and at the same time extremely open to exploring new things. The method has been simple: research, experiment, adapt, and evolve.
PS: Any upcoming projects that you can share information on already? What are you reading at the moment? What do you listening now?
AB: I am currently working on a few projects scheduled for the next 6-8 months: A solo show titled Origin of Species for Lacoste-Kean Gallery. A collaboration with Forrest Gander, influenced by the temple architecture and Sangam poetry, for Cohen Gallery in Providence in the early spring. Another solo show and a workshop for Companion Gallery and Clay by the Bay, in San Francisco in early summer. I am teaching a woodfire workshop with Bruce Dehnert at Ox Bow School of Art, Chicago in the summer as well.
Apart from that, a few group shows: an interesting collaboration project initiated by Justin Rothshank and Eric Botbyl for NCECA, a Cub Creek Foundation show, etc. These days, I am reading Roberto Bolaño and listening extensively to Max Richter, a post-minimalist composer/pianist.
— Jaideep Sen