Kirtika Kain

In Issue 46, Indian-born Sydney-based artist Kirtika Kain wrote about her practice, which examines how oppressive social hierarchies and power structures have been enforced upon and embodied by generations before her, from the perspective of an outsider.

Some artists search for inspiration, for others it undeniably presents itself. I made every possible decision not to be an artist. Perhaps it’s the symptom of being raised in a migrant working family; high hopes are often appeased with academic achievement and quantifiable successes. Yet, nothing stands in the way of inevitability and so, five years ago I found myself enrolled in art school dredging up questions as fundamental to me as my DNA.

Although I have been raised on the sun-drenched Northern Beaches of Sydney, I was born in the chaos of New Delhi into the lowest rung of the Indian caste system. As one of the oldest forms of social stratification, this archaic system denigrates Dalits or Untouchables to subhuman status. As it is believed anything they touch or cast a shadow upon is tainted, they have for millennia performed society’s most degrading tasks. Families such as my own have benefited from the slight upward mobility that education and urbanisation have granted.

Through my research I came across the historical writings of prominent Dalit activist and scholar Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. In the mid-twentieth century he transcribed for the first time in English the unspoken social rules that have been embodied and internalised by Dalits. These fifteen rules were compelling not only due to their content, but also the authority they have held over countless generations – stymied human potential and subjugation expressed in such an economy of words.

Despite the loaded political discourse, I have negotiated the immensity of the past through the immediacy of process, unravelling the implications of this text within the studio. I have screen-printed each of these fifteen rules repeatedly with materials that relate to biography, ritual, value, corporality and the manual labour of the lower classes. Instead of inks, through the silkscreen mesh I apply abrasive iron filings, metal dust, silicon carbide, gold pigment and vermilion, printing on layers of rice paper and luscious waxes. I silkscreen with bitumen paint upon copper and zinc, etching the metals in corrosive acid for weeks before allowing them to oxidise and develop patinas.

The processes of erosion, disintegration and the encasing of text creates fragile membrane-like surfaces. By giving the text a physical body, a dimensionality, I am able to materialise the layers of imposed identities and social regulations. Like strata and hierarchies, the overlaying and superposition speaks of this dense accumulation that lies beneath the skin that governs both our body and our identity.

Through the physicality of the studio praxis, the text has come to be more implicit within my own body. Although I, in the twenty-first century, am accessing this transcription in the English language, the words have been enacted and embodied by generations before me. The actions of obliterating, concealing and erasing have been carried out by the unpredictable movement of heat and acid that bypasses my own deliberate efforts. Within the studio, I have the experience of accessing an ancestral knowledge, a body memory that permeates through the process and is expressed through spontaneity.

Collectively, these diverse alchemical printmaking processes have attempted to subvert the language as well as transforming the value of the material. The resulting unique prints recast the waste materials and codes that define the livelihood of Dalits into aesthetic objects. Beyond this, I hope to contend the historical representation and collective projection of the lowest castes; I seek to rewrite a century-old narrative and recreate an identity by relinquishing each rule I have inherited.

I am now seeking to broaden my themes beyond borders. As the recipient of an Art Incubator and British School at Rome scholarship, I will be completing residencies in Delhi and Rome over six months, culminating in an exhibition with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.

As I traverse two ancient civilisations in a time of heightened identity politics, I will navigate the ebb and flow of humanity’s progress and resistance. This will be subsumed into a raw and elemental material investigation. Delving deeper into something so unique, so personal and specific as my own story will open into that which is shared, the subtext inscribed within us all.   

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 46, 2019

Kirtika Kain: Corpus
12 July – 3 August 2019
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney


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