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Speak, Uneasy

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MAMMON MOMENT: The work entitled 'Ah' (a sigh) on left uses a newspaper photograph of men lying prostrate in front of money. By burning black wax candles over the canvas (below), Dube has added a performative element to the work

Language has always been a preoccupation with art historian and criticturned-artist Anita Dube. Having graduated with a BA (honors) in history from the University of Delhi, Dube went on to pursue an MFA in art criticism from Baroda's M S University. She began her experiments with sculpture through her involvement with the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association, a group of artists from Baroda in the 1980s that emerged in the wake of anti-Muslim riots. The group's political consciousness offered an incisive social critique to the situation in India at that point, and consciously undermined the narrative painting style of the established Baroda School.

"About twenty years ago, I moved from art criticism to making things with my hands, and for some reason I found this came easier to me, was much less taxing and stressful, more natural, " remarked Dube. "That indicated to me that this might be what I am meant to do, and I decided that even if I wasn't trained in this field, I could always create art. "

Having curated numerous exhibitions, and contributed to several workshops, Dube's work has been showcased at exhibitions both in India and abroad. The artist now lives and works in New Delhi.

The monographic exhibition Kal/ Tomorrow currently exhibited in Mumbai's Lakeeren shows a continued awareness of the layered meaning of words and their physical presence. For her widely celebrated 2005 exhibition Keywords, Dube carved phrases such as 'avant-garde' and 'permanent revolution' from chunks of raw meat. The series of photographs at Lakeeren entitled Meatwords have black-and-white pictures of performance art created in the same fashion. Terms like 'prison', 'resistance', 'inside out' and 'disorder' are carved out of beef and laid out on a slab of ice with a background of jute sprinkled with rose petals. "The choice of meat points to a religious commentary while the rosebuds portray tenderness in the face of this gore, " said Dube. "I have photographed them in black-and-white because I don't want to sensationalise the bloody aspect of the work. " The digital images printed on archival paper are placed strategically around the exhibit in a dialogue with newer works, suggesting their multilayered implication.

The choice of words used in the different works reflects the themes explored in Dube's work, which is profoundly personal yet deeply informed by its socio-political context. Here, Dube destabilises the linear notion of time, juxtaposing the old with the new and the timeless with the contemporary. In The Four Storied House, she uses steel wire covered in black velvet to write Kal, Kaal, Kala and Kaala in Devnagiri script. The remarkably simple work epitomises her interest in etymology - the slippage between words through the addition of an extra letter and the movement through time. "The question I am asking is how you can give body to things by experimenting with materials and embodying words, " says Dube. Her aesthetic approach to textuality is combined with an engagement with the intimacy of touch, where the velvet signifies skin.

Made of the same materials, the Seven Deadly Sins (of Capitalism): Abjection, Corruption, Violence, Pornography, Pride, Poverty and Complicity, creates a chaotic entanglement of words, with muted shadows on the wall behind. Dube revisits timeless concepts and makes them relevant to the contemporary political moment. "The words are not meant to pronounce a judgment in absolute terms - I don't like to think in absolute terms - so for each viewer, there might be some words substituted, added or removed, " says Dube. "It's just a speculation, that attempts to turn people's attention to something, as that is what art can do. " Always a dissenting voice, Dube's unravels the popular consensus in her work. Known for using familiar, found objects and transforming them into cultural revelations, Dube has used sculpture to investigate the material aspect of language. "The thing that is running through this exhibition is language and exploring how different materials work - that simple objects like meat, candles, wax can also be things of art. I have an interest in things that are available in daily life, " says Dube. Over the years she has employed objects like foam, plastic, pearls, wire, thread, beads, dentures, bones and ceramic eyes in her work. The work entitled Ah (a sigh) uses a found newspaper photograph of men lying prostrate in front of money, ironically reflecting on the new god. By burning black wax candles over the canvas, Dube has added a performative element to the work and created a jarring image that captivates the viewer. However, Dube is not interested in the particularity of place portrayed by the picture, "The point of the work is that it can be referring to anywhere : UP, Jharkhand, Meerut."

The most stunning work of the collection is the imposing Kali Yug (Future Times), a found calendar photograph of Kali printed on canvas eleven feet high. By mounting actual objects such as a videocamera, a book, a laptop and even a collection of surrealist heads covered in black velvet, Dube portrays the goddess in a new avatar - the modern woman. Holding the hair of Kali in one hand and a Blackberry in the other, the work hovers between the mythological and the contemporaneous, the individualistic and the political, private and the public. Dube draws from her own rich experiences to explore a divergent range of subjects: loss, mortality, the grand narratives of history, organised religion, revolution, and feminism among others. Jarring the calm of our complicity, her works bear witness to social memory, history, mythology and the supernatural.

(Kal/ Tomorrow Monographic exhibition is on view until January 31, 2011 at Lakeeren Gallery, Mumbai)

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