Kirtika Kain

During my visit to Kirtika Kain’s home and studio in Parramatta, it was apparent that she and her artworks were in a state of co-habitation. Her artistic practice envelops her apartment; canvases lean against walls, and splashes of paint, ink and gold leaf temporarily stain the tiled floors. The process of creating this mess holds as much weight as the final amorphous works on canvas—all of which allude to her experiences of belonging to the Indian Dalit caste in the diaspora.

Kain migrated with her family from India to Australia in 1993, and during her childhood was shielded from the weight of the Indian caste system. Caste structures form the backbone of the Indian nation; it is a system in which bodies are denoted as sacred or polluted and treated accordingly. The lowest caste of this system is Kain’s own, the Dalit. Being part of the Dalit diaspora, Kain wasn’t equipped with a means to navigate or speak of the damage of the still active caste system—that is, until she attended art school.

Prior to art school and following the encouragement of her parents to pursue “more traditional” studies, Kain studied psychology at Macquarie University. During this time, the prospect of having a creative outlet was unfathomable, let alone pursuing of a creative career. After six years of psychology, at the age of twenty-four, she went on to major in printmaking at the National Art School and graduated in 2018.

Kain describes art school as, “a real learning ground in the sense that everything that I already wanted to say was there, but I found a way to say it.” Her artistic practice provided a language for expressing her experiences of Dalit caste, free from the constraints of verbal articulation. While psychology assisted in shaping structure, printmaking initiated the “chaos that is very much [her] practice now.” In recent works, parameters of printmaking have dissolved and have been replaced by intuitive mark-making that privileges materials on canvas.

Incorporating materials related to religion is at the forefront of Kain’s current practice as “caste and religion are intertwined.” The materials, such as tar, certain pigments and dung are “so embedded in religion, ritual, and the body.” Many centuries-old rituals are shrouded in exclusivity and sacredness, having been denied to people in the lower caste. As a Dalit artist, the process of employing these materials signifies an act of reclamation. Kain is acutely interested in the material quality of these religious objects, and upon entering the studio space, each is stripped of its religious and political charge. The importance is now tied to the material itself, “how it sits on [her] hand, how it smears onto a canvas, how it combines with tar, or how it is masked with gold.”

The creation of each work is an iterative and laborious process. First, Kain puts a layer of paint on the canvas, lets it dry, comes back to it, erases parts and then perhaps works on another. She creates layer upon layer, splashing the canvas down, allowing it to dry, then hosing the whole thing down. The ongoing process is one of intuition, give and take, of scrubbing and smearing. The reasons for decisions are impossible to articulate verbally, rather it is a collaborative and responsive relationship between Kain and the canvas, the physical enactment of a deep memory. Consequently, the canvases themselves transform into entities and co-habit the apartment like messy housemates.

Through this physical process, Kain reflects on her father’s experience of hard labour, after migrating to Australia as a chef and being forced to recommence his career from the beginning. The bodily response to the canvas also echoes the labour of Dalit women and the physical toil of many of their occupations. While still a laborious process, Kain affirms that this is a very different kind of labour, noting “the actual act of making is very constant and continuous and has a life of its own.”

Kain spends as much time cleaning as she does making. Her practice has infiltrated everything she does and what she is, remnants of materials are often wedged under her fingernails. The studio space itself is one of freedom and play, which sits in stark opposition to how Dalit people are typically represented. Within this space and work there is a palpable sense of passion and anger. This multi-faceted presentation provides needed dimension and expression, which is overlooked when you represent people in their victimhood.

The resulting works are layered, beautiful and grotesque. The canvases possess an alluring sculptural quality formed from “the coagulation of tar, or bright gold on top of things like dung.” The works ripple, protrude and sink, creating depth and dimension. The pigments on the canvas follow irregular patterns and embody striking swathes of reds, blues, and greens. Through the viewing process, there is a sense of familiarity with both the materials and the marks they have made, such as “the way the paint has coagulated and cracked open, as if its dry land.”

Kain’s forthcoming exhibition, Blue Bloods, at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, considers notions of blue as representative of royalty as well as the colour of Dalit resistance. This body of work, and her recent practice, is informed by her time in Siena for the 2022 Amant residency. Blue Bloods also materially expresses the literature that Kain reads, cataloguing Dalit culture and tradition so inextricably linked with their oppression—specifically, the texts The Trauma of Caste, 2022, by Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan and The Museum of Broken Teacups: Postcards from India’s Margins, 2020, by Gunjan Veda. For Kain, this exhibition is “a way to honour the history and in my own way piece together what it means to be Dalit.” As Dalit is of the lowest standing, Kain explains that there is “no archive, no artefacts that are revered, nothing that has an aura or anything that is displayed with a sense of pride.” Consequently, Dalit culture is “something that is so internalised and has so much stigma and shame.” In response, Kain employs gold leaf as a prominent material in these works. The implementation of this revered material not only provides a sense of elevation but also suggests gold as an agreed currency and ascribed value—akin to the ascribing of value to people.

Alongside these texts, Kain has deeply contemplated how these memories and histories have been soaked in the earth and in bodies for generations of the Dalit people. She denotes that “the intuitive process goes hand in hand with something not learned, but another knowledge, a quieter and still knowledge, that hasn’t been taken away from us.”

Kirtika Kain is one of many artists from the Dalit community creating work, threading these narratives together and reconciling their history. For Kain, there is an abundance of creativity and excitement in expressing this history, making Dalit visible, and expanding what it means to be a Dalit artist. This sentiment is echoed in Kain’s presentation in the upcoming 24th Biennale of Sydney: Ten Thousand Suns, where she will present her largest scale works to date which “explore those shades of joy, grief, celebration and rage.”

This profile was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 65 

Blue Bloods
27 November 2023 – 25 January 2024
RoslynOxley9 Gallery, Sydney 

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