writes into your flesh
you make of me.
— Audre Lorde, Recreation 1
In contemplating matters of desire, it is useful to remember that reciprocity does not beget an arithmetic function, rather it ignites an exponential one. One notices such a generative, almost-erotic, dialogue between Bhasha Chakrabarti and the surfaces she serenades in her studio. They respond to each tender caress, each firm stroke to co-produce the lush poetry and the visceral density that emanates from her paintings.
The artist describes her process as placing equal importance on the visual content of painting, the performativity of the act of painting, and the materiality of the cloth on which paintings are made. Her work starts much before the first dab of paint is applied, carefully choosing the weave of the fabric to match the character of the subjects upon it. This is visible most prominently in The Intertwining I & II (2022) where the warp and weft of the raw jute echo the unbridled emotion of the duos in embrace. Bhasha goes on to arduously stretch the fabric over a self-assembled frame before applying layers of protective gesso. The process has the artist performing a series of acrobatic gestures, fingers, limbs, and torso pulling and clutching, each playing a role in transforming parts into an eager whole.
For her first solo at Experimenter, and in India, Bhasha takes her practice a step further. The solitary subjects that have been the focus of her previous figurative works are now entangled in reciprocal intimacy. A research turn inspired by poetic references by Audre Lorde, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ogden Nash, and others — available to read in the upper room of the gallery — alongside Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of flesh2. Within the oil paintings on view here, the artist is deeply interested in the edges of the body, in the exploration of skin as the medium through which we know the world around us (and thus ourselves), as well as the gestures enacted by wrists, fingers, calves, and feet in moments of affection. Almost all the vignettes are drawn from the artist’s own intimate relationships, predominantly from live sitting sessions. This auto-narrative style is subtly infused with historical references, such as the tension between fingers and limb from Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture The Rape of Proserpina (1622). In another nod to classical forms, Handfeel I & II (2022), two circular oil on panel paintings, create peepholes onto the edges of beds where two kinds of intimacies are being played out. Mirroring the ambiguity of the nature of relationship across the show, one is sensual as between lovers, and the other familial holding years of tender care. Peering at each other within the exhibition space, these tondos conjure a temporal loop uniting the memories of touch.
Another compelling point of departure has been the tradition of skin-to-skin contact between infant and parent recommended by intergenerational wisdom; a way to share cellular knowledge building up the immunity of the newborn. Bhasha recollects this ritual from childhood stories, further extending it to enact an altered form of skin-to-skin, covering her own body with pigments to imprint upon uterine parchment pieces. Three of these impressions, Skin to Skin I, II & III (2022) are delicately stretched in brass frames and suspended in the gallery encouraging a plurilateral tactile view.
Beholden to light, I was holding what the light
Your flesh, my flesh. Our feet
— Sanam Sheriff, I was holding on with both hands,3
It is within her usage of light that Bhasha defies the realism that characterizes her bodyforms. In deeply understanding the intimate relationship between light and flesh, the artist is able to superpose polytopic illumination that does not bow to the laws of physics. She chooses instead to queer the visible realm, accentuating those aspects that rouse her subconscious desire. The method is akin to the way that queer people judiciously reveal facets of themselves, weighing the risk of physical and social danger in being visible, incessantly vigilant of the contexts we inhabit. This negotiation of risk is not only subliminally present in the works, but has played a dominant role in the fragmentation of bodies that populate these walls. The intolerance of the nude feminine body by the contemporary Indian gaze meant that Bhasha was unable to exhibit the fullness of brown jouissance4 that pervades her practice. In its place we see the artist anchored in radical hope5, subverting those constraints by presenting work that is fragmented, anonymous, ambiguous and yet distinctly infused with joy.
Created at this fractured time, this show further opens up a pertinent space to reflect on the social dynamics of touch. Just three years ago we established strict contact boundaries to protect against the spread of covid-19. For some communities, these protocols triggered the trauma of systemic sequestrations. In South Asia, social divisions are still imposed along the fault lines of the caste system, with fatal results for oppressed-caste Dalits. A similar segregation was also in place for Black people within the United States until the mid-twentieth century. In the early days of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, primarily Gay men with the virus were put into solitary confinement, documented within the Indian context in Onir’s My Brother… Nikhil (2005). In the overlap of these named and unnamed histories, where might we find reconciliation?
Extrapolating Bhasha’s recollection of natal skin-to-skin contact for corporeal immunity, how might we think about social and emotional immunity? Reading immune through its Latin roots, in- + mūnus, exempt or free from burden, what practices would lead us to such liberty of human contact? If separation is the way of the oppressor then healing has to be all about connectedness, writes Dalit-feminist activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, offering an imperative path to think ahead,
“Once you decenter whiteness and Brahminical thinking, what’s left is a space where we get to redraw our relationships to each other, where we get to realign in right relationship with each other, learn from each other’s resistance histories, and create the language that was denied by these systems.”6
— Exhibition Text by Shaunak Mahbubani, 2023
1 Audre Lorde. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
2 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Intertwining — The Chiasm, in The Visible and the Invisible. Translated by A. Lingis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968.
3 An excerpt from a series of poems written by Sanam Sheriff responding to the works of this exhibition. Sanam Sheriff, I was holding on with both hands, Unpublished Manuscript, 2023.
4 Amber Jamilla Musser, Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance, New York: New York University Press, 2018.
5 Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
6 Thenmozhi Soundararajan, The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing and Abolition, Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2022.