Reflections on trade and labour.
In the July 2017 Mumbai-based artist Ranjeeta Kumari attended the Summer Residency at Hospitalfield. This interview is an opportunity to hear her reflections on the ongoing project she was working on while in Scotland.
Kumari has recently had a successful solo exhibition at Clark House entitled Labour of the Unseen – Sujani – Nihilism in the Craft and been involved in many other projects across India. This residency was her first project in the UK.
Kumari is a conceptual artist whose practice is anchored in visual experiments. Her work concentrates on the aesthetics of conceptualism and labour; and looks at how language and race or caste in India decide the cultural value associated with objects. Displacement and migration is a constant thread through her projects as she takes portraits and uses found materials and objects. Read more about Ranjeeta Kumari here…
LS Your project is called Iron Breath, the title itself implies that a person or people are implicated within the work; living interaction with material. This ties in with the focus on vindas within your recent sculpture where there is a remnant of individual’s attire used in the work. In that piece the sculpture is made from many used vindas, the utilitarian head wrap used by male and female construction workers to carry materials. How does this come through in Iron Breath?
RK It manifests in the rust, to depict the history of a tool. Through the use of rust I explore the stories of factories, stories of the factory workers and city and its co-relation between me and my journey through my visual work. My journeys include frequent visits to Patna, Kolkata and, the city where I currently live, Mumbai, which is called a city of mills, and recently I have been to Dundee in Scotland for this project. Every city that I mentioned above are historical places and I found the common thread between all of them: these cities are now only existing like rust as a remnant of the past.
In terms of the intervention of a person with machine, Iron has a close relation to labour so here I am trying to make the images with rust and watercolour. In a similar way to which I found, collected and used the medium of the vinda, I have used rust. Both are similarly translated to create a form where I am looking and exploring the labourer history – colonial, post colonial and trade. How the hand and tools had together been creating the world.
LS The title Iron Breath also makes me think of a temporal element, where the work, or in this case the rust, may continue to change over time.
RK As I have been making work on labour I have been observing the traces of labour in many different places. During my visit to Verdant Work Textile Heritage Museum I saw there were lots of huge iron machines and it reminds me of when I used to visit Kolkata from Patna and many times we used to cross the railway yards where I saw the rusty railway tracks and huge old ships in the river Hooghly. The interesting part of this material was the natural transformation because of water; the water from the rain and the river.
LS Are you interested in the connection between metal as a vital earth element, giving strength but also showing the potential for disintegration, thinking about the iron in us: blood?
RK Iron has connection to the human blood and particularly labourers’ lives, so for me rust is like the history of the person and the tools. I imagine the remaining rust from the iron tools or machines as the past of the object.
LS You also worked on sculptural projects while you were here.
RK I am interested in found materials and objects and my sculpture deals with the same subject matter. I used jute as raw material, it is a direct (and connected) relationship to Bengal and Dundee. It made me to think about the current situation of womens’ labour in Bengal, Bihar and many places in India and in the history of labour in Scotland. I came to know that in the Dundee jute mills women were seen as powerful and strong although the working conditions themselves were exploitative as they was struggled to gain a minimum wage; this history of womens’ labour in Scotland inspired me. I contrasted the use of the jute with a shoe pasted over with sequins. The object is a reference for me to speak about the power of women and revolutionary steps in the past and the present. With the help of shiny sequins on the modern shoe, I am looking towards footsteps for self-respect and socio-political rights. My visual imagery is based on the women working in a jute mill; the roll of jute pulls out of the shoe and it shows the unending work process in the jute mill. I have used jute before in a previous project where I made small bags with jute and the vindas are also often made from jute.
LS What was your reaction to seeing those historic references to industry and labour here in Scotland and to the colonial trading infrastructure which was connected to that?
RK Seeing jute in UK it suddenly takes me directly back to my home town Bihar and to Bengal where jute is very common in daily use for many purposes mostly for working class people. I started to think of my own connections through the history of trade.
LS Tell me more about your new project looking at jute used in Bihar. How long is it since you lived there? What do you remember of jute use and production and what has drawn you to look at this element of the life there?
RK It is a continuation of the project, which I proposed for the residency at Hospitalfield. I am interested to explore more in terms of production and trying to make a body of work, which reflects the story of jute in connection to my home town so I need to do more research and work in that place. I want to investigate the trade history and also the use of jute by people day to day and its place in the market and the city. Recently, I have been reading a book called Flood of Fire by Amitabh Gosh, a writer from Bengal, which seems to be connected to what I have been working on.
This project is one of several to come out of a research trip to India in December 2016 organised by British Council and Creative Scotland. Hospitalfield’s Programme Manager, Laura Simpson, spent four days in south India at the Kochi Muziris Biennale and four days in Mumbai. During the visit to Mumabi, the group visited Clark House and met several members of the artists’ group who are based there, using the building as a site for producing and presenting work, hosting residencies and discussion events.
Ranjeeta Kumari arrived in Scotland at the end of June to start the residency with the other selected artists, by attending FIELDWORK, Hospitalfield International Summer School. The summer school hosted 60 artists, students and curators for a 2.5 day programme of discussion, performances, lectures and workshops co-programmed with Cicely Farrer and Gordon Douglas under the title Shoulder-to-Shoulder. This title reflected the central theme of negotiating personal approaches to activism and artistic practice and the format of the summer school was influenced by ‘Scratch Night’ culture where works-in-progress can be shared and developed.
Kumari’s residency continued during July alongside eight UK artists David Raymond Conroy, Adam Lewis Jacob, Ellie Kyungran Heo, Laura Phillips, Alexander Storey Gordon, Jane Topping, Mark Vernon, Mark Aerial Waller; and two international artists, Isabel Cordiero an artist based in Amsterdam; and Camille Chedda, an artist based in Jamaica who was also supported by British Council, through the Trans Atlantic Artists Residency Exchange.
Kumari presented at our Artists’ Exchange – International Connections event on 25 July at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Hospitalfield organised the event with British Council to give an opportunity for the regional artists community to hear from the international visitors and to open up a discussion about creating opportunities within the city and elsewhere.
As an additional follow up to the research trip in December 2016, we invited Clark House co-founder Sumesh Sharma to come for a series of visits with us and project partners Chapter 13 in Glasgow; Grampian Hospitals Art Trust in Aberdeen and Atlas in Skye. Sharma also presented at the Artists’ Exchange event as well as having a series of meetings hosted by Ben Fallon and Chapter 13.
Kumari and Sharma also went on a field trip to Aberdeen with Kumari, led by Hospitalfield’s Programme Trainee Juliane Foronda and hosted by Fraser McDonald, Collections Coordinator & Suttie Arts Space Programme Curator for GHAT. While in Aberdeen the artists met Nuno Sacramento, Director of Peacock Visual Arts; Jessica Barrie, artist and co-founder of Tendancy Towards; Kirsty Russell, studio holder at Anatomy Rooms; as well as visiting Suttie Art Space. They also visited the Maritime Museum.
At the end of their stays, Kumari and Sharma attended the Edinburgh Art Festival including attending the exhibition previews, artist’s talks and facilitated events. Sharma was part of the Momentum Delegation and presented at the international networking event organised by British Council and Creative Scotland.