Manifesting musings

Safaya’s training in art is rather unconventional
Artist Ankush Safaya
Artist Ankush Safaya

Arvo Part. John Cage. Andrei Tarkovsky. Akira Kurosawa. Mahatma Gandhi. Nelson Mandela. Names of composers, filmmakers and political leaders permeate conversations with artist Ankush Safaya like graphite and oil seep into his canvas. It’s as if they were never apart: the canvas and the paint; Safaya and his influences.

His practice is a visual manifestation of what these art forms trigger in his brain. The rumblings found their way into the recent exhibition, MEMORY TRACE  / DAPAAN* (it is said…) at Delhi’s Latitude 28 gallery. The show, which closes on August 20, features a total of 34 abstract works, including two assemblages of 48 and 70 works each. 

“I am not looking for answers in their (directors, composers, politicians) works,” he says. “I look for the core.  When we talk about elements, the atom is the core, but when put under the microscope, we don’t know where the atom belongs. It is the same thing with music, cinema or politics. Through their vision, I try to engage with my own queries,” the artist adds.

Safaya was born in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur after his parents shifted from Kashmir in 1978. Stories of an imaginary homeland filled first his boyhood and then his canvas. It is, therefore, not surprising that migration and conflict are recurrent themes in his works. “My personal politics lies in the dignity of preservation of human life… not just about Kashmir,” he says, as he talks about finding stimulation also in the stories of Iranian refugees, who sewed their lips in protest at the Greece-Macedonia border in 2015. In one of his works, for instance, Safaya uses the basic shapes and rearranges them in 70 permutations and combinations to explore humankind’s relationship with spaces. 

“It looks at how man uses machines to create habitats by deconstructing and reconstructing spaces as well as themselves,” says Safaya, who currently lives in Baroda.

<strong>a series in graphite on paper</strong>
a series in graphite on paper

Betraying what seems obvious to the eye is the knowledge that he wasn’t always an artist. Trained as an engineer, the 38-year-old’s primary career informed his creative process. “It exposed technology to me in a way that made me engage with an abstract world, wherein circuit boards translated into (Piet) Mondrian’s paintings, and jumbled wires became reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock painted surface,” he writes in his curatorial note.

Take, for instance, a series of 12 graphite-on-paper works exhibited at the show. All that the pieces feature are vertical lines. Arranged in varied densities, one can interpret them to be a representation of the rise and fall of melody, or perhaps the different sensations a composition can evoke in a listener. “How does one measure music that doesn’t have lyrics like Western or Indian classical, or opera?” he asks, and goes on to answer, “There are no words… it’s not telling you anything, but you still engage with it. Which is why, to put in layman’s terms, you get goosebumps.”

Safaya’s training in art is rather unconventional. He gave up engineering to become artist Veer Munshi’s studio assistant in Delhi in 2013, which is where he was first introduced to another artist, Rekha Roddwittiya, and her Collective Studio that she runs with Surendran Narain in Baroda. “That was the turning point for me,” says the artist. The sensorial intervention that is palpable in his works can be attributed to his experiences here. “The curriculum at the studio encouraged us to read books on world cinema, politics, music, philosophy and more. That may not directly inform one’s work, but it opens a new way of looking at things,” he says. It allowed Safaya to make “vulnerability a catalyst” for his practice, and became the abstract medium of expression for not just what he consumed as an adult, but also his memories from childhood.

Interestingly, the artist hasn’t titled any of the works in the show. “When we write, we do not insist on every letter. We see the accumulation of letters, words, sentences or paragraphs that form meaning. Similarly, I don’t want to individually title them because this is a part of my larger relativism,” he elaborates, adding, “So, at least for now, I don’t feel the need to name each work. I want viewers to interact with the art without the burden of a title.” After all, what’s in a name?

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