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In The skin speaks a language not its own Bharti Kher critically engages with the role of popular culture and imagery in contemporary Indian art by using the bindi and the white elephant as potent symbolic metaphors.
The term bindi is derived from bindu, the Sanskrit word for a dot or a point, and also carries the meaning of the numeral zero. It is traditionally a mark of pigment applied to the forehead and is associated with the Hindu symbol of the ‘third eye’. In recent times, bindi have become commercially manufactured and decorative items. Kher uses the bindi as a means of transforming objects and surfaces, and to inflect her art with a range of meanings and connotations from various historical and contemporary periods.
In Buddhism the white elephant is associated with wisdom and with royalty and features in processions and ceremonies across South and South-East Asia. In India, the important and popular Hindu deity Ganesha is shown with an elephant’s head. In The skin speaks a language not its own, Kher uses the symbolism of a dying elephant as a means to contemplate the potentially destructive effects of popular culture, mass media and consumerism on the culture of India.
London-born artist Bharti Kher completed art school in the early 1990s, at a time when the Young British Artists (YBA) movement was just emerging. Many of the group rejected the prevailing art establishment and courted controversy. Kher’s decision to move to India gave her a new platform on which to extend and develop her practice, assuming a unique vantage point as an observer of both Western and Indian cultures.
In her work, Kher contends with the paradoxical dilemmas and moralistic conventions of contemporary society and draws on diverse artistic methods and tactics. Some of her most distinctive works are two- and three-dimensional collages and sculptures covered with a textured surface of stick-on bindis.
1. What emotions are evoked when you look at the elephant? How does its posture and surface influence your feelings?
2. Bharti Kher often uses the bindi to transform her works. Bindis can be interpreted as a dot, a point, the number zero, an indicator of marital status and caste in India, as representing the Hindu concept of the ‘third eye’ and more. Discuss the different meanings of the bindi in the context of The skin speaks a language not its own.
1. The elephant is a symbol of dignity, intelligence and strength across Asia, and yet it is now regarded as an endangered species on the Indian subcontinent. Create a work about an endangered Australian species that adopts a similar use of surface decoration to The skin speaks a language not its own.
2. Research other examples of animals that act as cultural symbols. Make a simplified drawing of each example that you find. Pick one drawing and transform it in some way to create an artwork that offers a new interpretation of this symbol.
3. Research Bharti Kher’s practice and see what other materials she uses, their significance, and whether they represent cultural traditions or contemporary society.