How does an artist use material and form to engage directly with all aspects, emotional personal social, political of the world around her? Artist Rupali Patil speaks to curator Agnieszka Kilian about the possibilities for instant and profound expression in drawing and printmaking.
Agnieszka Kilian: Let’s start by discussing your chosen medium, drawing. I’m curious about your specific approach to this medium. What led you to choose drawing?
Rupali Patil: While my background is in printmaking, I enjoy exploring various mediums in my practice to delineate the boundaries between them, turning them into political and social statements. Materials like corrugated tin, cutting mats, graph paper, and even everyday objects such as school benches and cotton, along with sound, allow me to delve into and explore concepts deeply. When I was younger, I eagerly awaited the arrival of cartoons and comic strips in newspapers like Loksatta, Times of India, and Indian Express. These tiny yet powerful drawings, accompanied by provocative statements from artists like R.K. Laxman, Abu Abraham, and Prashant Kulkarni, offered satirical commentary on politics, economics, education, labor issues, and social changes. I discovered the hidden power within those two lines, shaping my understanding and expression of wit and commentary on the subjects surrounding me.
A: Is there a sense of longing for an immediate response to the world, a desire to provide commentary on unfolding events that draws you to this technique? Based on your description of the power of drawing, it seems that in capturing a moment, a distinct political agency is inherently inscribed. Would you agree?
R: Drawing offers the flexibility to express oneself instantly, allowing for both brief and extended reflections. It provides an intimate space where unprocessed thoughts can be freely expressed. Through drawing, one can convey raw, direct messages without feeling vulnerable. This agency over our thoughts is crucial when addressing politics through art.
A: As you mentioned, your background is in printmaking. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the circulation of images, particularly within the tradition of printmaking. Käthe Kollowitz’s work, such as her Weaver Workers series, has always been significant to me, as her pieces were widely circulated in catalogs, posters, and even schoolbooks. Could you expand on this topic but from your perspective?
R: When we examine the history of printmaking in India, we can trace back to when Raja Ravi Verma began creating lithographs. Influenced by European academic art while incorporating Indian aesthetic and iconography, Raja Ravi Verma sought to make his art accessible to the mass public. He mass-produced lithographs, calendars, and oleographs, particularly focusing on religious depictions of popular Hindu deities from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Raja Ravi Verma utilized lithography as a means to reach a wider audience, particularly during the pre-independence and colonial periods of India. It’s important to consider the context of the time period and the underlying ideologies behind Raja Ravi Verma’s work. His prints often reflected themes of patriotism and religious influences, which were prevalent during that era. In more recent times, artists like N Pushmala and Nalini Malani have interrogated Verma’s idealized nationalism and portrayal of women by reinterpreting his images through photography and painting.
This example highlights the importance of interrogating printmaking as a medium, both conceptually and technically. Personally, I’m drawn to the uniqueness of each print rather than mass-producing editions of my plates. I’ve explored printmaking and digital printing on silk cloth, utilizing the material’s transparency to add dimension to my work. This exploration led me to seek surfaces that wouldn’t lend themselves to mass production, such as paper cutting mats or using engraved woodblocks purely for display purposes.
A: The first work I encountered of yours is an engraving titled “Let’s Divide the River, too.” It presents a powerful image—a depleted river, depicting a landscape devoid of human presence, evoking a profound sense of emptiness. Your artistic practice encompasses various mediums, yet consistently maintains a connection to nature, especially in times of crisis. Your works often portray structures like walls obstructing access to resources or endless pipelines. I’m intrigued by your understanding of the environmental ethos, or as Edouard Glissant proposed, the surrounding. Do you prefer to discuss the environment or the surrounding?
R: I’d like to discuss both because they are interdependent, especially in urban settings. With the current expansion of cities, I feel the environment is at great risk due to inadequate urban planning. One can observe from historical maps that the expansion of most metro cities in India has resulted in the widespread cutting of trees, encroachment on wildlife habitats, destruction of mountains, and even diversion of rivers. This raises questions about how we inhabit or cohabit with the environment in our new living spaces. It’s an ancient practice in India to worship trees, rivers, and animals as an act of loving nature and considering it an essential part of life. “Let’s Divide the River, too” addresses the concept of river privatization, depicting the river map of Chhattisgarh engraved on a cutting mat. I contemplate how such events are planned at bureaucratic levels. The use of the cutting mat with a grid symbolizes the utopian ideals of city development. The void in my work reflects a sense of numbness towards the structures I inhabit. The hidden pipelines, various types of walls constructed for different purposes, fences, and graph paper all visually question the dystopian aspects of my surroundings. How is it that in a democratic country, we as citizens have such little power to prevent such acts? How does it become a commodity for certain stakeholders to wield power and control distribution? The struggle to enact change within this framework is daunting, and I grapple with it in my work.
A: You hail from the northwest part of Maharashtra state, in India and your father moved to the city of Pune.
R: My hometown is Jalgaon, located in the northern part of Maharashtra, known as Khandesh region. Geographically, it lies within the Deccan Traps, characterized by dry, hot weather conducive to farming crops such as cotton, onions, bananas, and lentils. My father moved to Pune in the 1980s when he was very young, marking the beginning of my upbringing in both urban and rural settings. My grandfather owned a cotton farm, and I vividly remember storing the harvested cotton in what we called the living room—it was like having a massive white cloud within four walls, a truly immersive experience that fueled my imagination. Growing up, I experienced the juxtaposition of nature in the village and the urban gentrification happening in the city. We frequently visited our village, so it almost felt like having roots in two places.
A: As you navigate this dual existence, neither fully urban nor entirely rural, does it feel like a painful division, or the opposite? Do you find yourself caught in a blurry “in-between”?
R: When discussing the structure, it’s crucial to acknowledge that India remains a developing country, facing challenges in basic infrastructure such as sewage systems, housing, water supply, education, and accessibility to basic needs. We cannot examine the environment without understanding the intertwined perspectives of caste, labor, religion, and class systems in India. The right to access basic resources like water, land, food, and education has been controlled by certain classes for years, resulting in societal inequality. This inequality has led to an unjust and hybrid structure, built upon the struggles and hardships of people. In 2014, I created a work titled Mill/Mall, focusing on the Phoenix cotton mill in Lower Parel, Mumbai, which was redeveloped into a mall. Remarkably, the chimney of the mill remains inside the mall as a heritage artifact. There are numerous such instances in the city, revealing the blurred and layered narratives of development. The impact of capitalism is evident when one looks beyond the surface and tries to discern the underlying realities.
A: Building on your remarks, I’d like to delve into your recent cycle of work titled Fluid Ground, which explores specific herstories, emerging from your social observations of female sugarcane workers. Could you introduce us into this series? How do you navigate this interwoven narratives within the capitalist system present in the complex hybrid landscape you observe?
R: The issue of sugarcane workers marked the beginning of my exploration into the female body within a capitalist structure. Through Fluid Ground I focus on women’s bodies, labor, and nature, examining their symbiotic relationship and how they are fluid, interconnected, and impacted by environmental degradation.
In the Beed district of Maharashtra state, sugarcane women harvesters face severe health conditions at work, with menstruation being unaffordable while working in the farms. The People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), a journalism website covering rural stories, has highlighted this issue online, but it never got a needed visibility. According to that article, the significant number of families from the Marathwada region migrate to the sugar belt of Western Maharashtra, where women workers face penalties of around Rs 500 if they refrain from work during their menstrual cycle. To continue working regularly, women often labor during menstruation, facing challenges in the cane fields without access to toilets or proper living arrangements. Some undergo hysterectomy surgery to avoid menstruation, unaware of the consequences. Issues like these are deeply distressing and complex, prompting questions about the human body’s suffering and resilience within oppressive structures. Fluid Ground portrays the woman’s body as a tangible entity, depicting uterus bleeding in the corner of walls and breasts emerging from pillars as symbols of collective loss, resistance, empathy, and kindness. I am particularly interested in ecofeminism as a framework for addressing these themes in my work, especially how the female body responds to heavy industrialization. Industrialization has led to increased migration, contributing to gentrification in cities and creating isolated and fragmented bodies within hybrid structures.
A: This practically invisible fate of many sugar cane workers, brings me to the question of fragmentation as a mechanism of capitalism. In these processes, as the legal scholar Costas Douzinas once pointed out, our bodies are constantly broken down into functions, with, at best, scraps of rights attached, but denied unity of self and unity with the surroundings. You seek counter-narratives to the ongoing processes of division and fragmentation, providing more holistic perspective.
R: Issues like this are so heart-wrenching and complex that it’s challenging to understand why and at what cost the human body suffers. It leads me to question where the strength comes from within the body to resist oppressive structures. The “Fluid Ground” project views the woman’s body as a tangible entity. Visuals such as uterus bleeding in the corners of walls and breasts emerging from pillars depict collective loss, resistance, empathy, and kindness. The holistic approach comes from having roots in two different places.
A: I’d like to inquire about how you visually engage with such powerful and difficult experiences and stories. At the beginning of our conversation, I mentioned Käthe Kollowitz, who portrayed hardworking people with deprived and worn-out bodies, creating images that were often considered unwanted yet circulated widely. What is your perspective on representing the laboring body?
R: The visuals emerge from a deeply personal and internal understanding of what’s happening around me. When I read about the sugarcane workers, my mother was going through menopause. Though it was a natural process at her age, I witnessed her struggles on a physiological level. So, I can’t even fathom the challenges that may arise after hysterectomy surgery. These visuals stem from fear, empathy, and the softness denied to the existence of sugarcane workers. I feel a strong sense of empathy with the subject matter I’m working on. When I begin creating the forms, letting the watercolor flow on paper, kindness becomes a form of resistance against silencing and rendering such oppressive structures invisible. In doing so, I’m aware of my ethical responsibility and seek rather a gentle way to represent the image of work-worn bodies.
A: The images often revolve around repetitive structures, as seen in your work Palpable with multiplied legs…
R: Multiplying is also a metaphorical way of expressing ideas. It implies that what you see or are shown visually is not limited to its surface; there’s always a larger, unseen picture.
A: This echoes the question of our relationship to the depicted reality and how we engage with it. I understand you’re in the process of approaching women from the sugarcane community.
R: For me as an artist, drawing extends beyond the paper; it becomes a larger image. I’ve been contemplating the proper approach to engaging with the sugarcane workers and the community—I truly want to conduct interviews. While I’ve met some women, I want to meet more and understand their needs better, exploring ways to facilitate a comfortable shift for them. Is there a possibility of building an alternative economy they can rely on? I know there is a possibility to have such spaces. I was part of Clark House Initiative Mumbai and it changed my understanding of collective space in a very hopeful way. Last summer, I visited Živi Atelier (Living Atelier) in Zagreb and was inspired by the program run by Saša Krajit and Cyrille Cartier, called “Woman to Woman Collective.” They meet weekly, sharing practices while working with ceramics. These gatherings foster empowerment on a grassroots level. Collective action has always inspired me in my practice, with the Chipko Movement from the 1970s being particularly influential.
A: Let’s delve a bit into the Chipko Movement and its legacy.
R: The Chipko Movement prompted me to contemplate the notion of collective action in general. First of all, it made me realize the dominance of capitalism and its degradation of women’s lives. If you look at the origins of ecofeminism, it started in the 1970s with women coming together to protect forests, forming human chains by hugging trees. This later became the inspiration for ecofeminism as a concept and term formulated by the writer Françoise d’Eaubonne. While theoretical frameworks like those of Vandana Shiva are essential to me, the practical experiences of solidarity movements hold equal importance. This is how I understand the legacy and practical aspect of ecofeminism: embracing each other’s existence.
A: And the Chipko Movement tradition was never solely focused on fragmented and isolated issues…
R: Definitely, hugging a tree is not just a form of saving the tree, but also saving the water irrigation underground and the life contained beneath the tree. Metaphorically speaking, a tree is like a uterus. Removing the uterus halts the cycle that sustains life for a woman’s body. This is how I perceive water in my recent work, as presented in the solo exhibit “If there is water more powerful than this wild water,” quoting a poem by Lucille Clifton, an Afro-American writer who depicts her experience with her wounded body after a hysterectomy. We are always part of something bigger; we are watery bodies and part of water. We need to understand how to embrace loss without allowing it to fragment and separate us from the whole. This is solidarity: with our bodies, their connections—both corporeal and situated in bodily experience – and with nature and our surroundings, in social and political responsibility.
In an age of propaganda, reality is twisted and manipulated on a large scale. Now, more than ever, we need to understand the narrative of the oppressor on a global level. How does it affect climate change, politics, and freedom of speech beyond borders? How can we utilize the power of cross-cultural solidarity to address issues in Palestine, Congo, Sudan, or Manipur? When I think about the sugar cane workers, I’m constantly reminded of the repetitive pattern of violence. This violence around us is the warning that the capitalism is failing us. The situation is not grey anymore now its black and white.
Rupali Patil completed her Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from Bharti Vidyapeeth Pune in 2007 and a Master’s in Printmaking from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in 2011. She is a member of the “Clark House Initiative” in Mumbai, where her debut solo exhibition titled “Everybody Drinks but Nobody Cries” was hosted in 2014. Rupali’s visual arts practice spans printmaking, drawing, and installations, with her subjects primarily focusing on social issues, especially water and natural mineral crises through the framework of eco- feminine.
Her works have been showcased at various Biennales, including the 3rd Industrial Art Biennial in Croatia in 2020, Pune Biennale in 2017, and the 14th Istanbul Biennale in 2015. Additionally, she has participated in numerous group exhibitions such as “Eros” at Parasite in Hong Kong in 2014, “Inserts” curated by RAQS Media Collective at IGNCA, Delhi in 2014, “Kamarado” at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 2015, “Harbinger of Chaos” at Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art in Krakow from 2016 to 2017, “Dreams & Dramas. Law as Literature” at nGbK, Berlin in 2017, “We, the People” at Central Slovakian Gallery, Banska Bystrica in 2018, “This Rare Earth Artefact” at STUK, Leuven in 2018, “Seeds Are Being Sown” at Shrine Empire in 2020, and “Planet, People, Care: It Spells Degrowth!” curated by Ana Devič at HDLU, Zagreb in 2023. Rupali lives and works in Pune, India.
Agnieszka Kilian is a curator, author, and researcher. She is actively engaged in projects related to collaborative structures, particularly those that explore the rich tapestry of togetherness, diverse experiences, and situated knowledge. In her projects, she frequently delves into concepts such as political belonging, citizenship, and justice, exploring these not only as abstract concepts but as deeply emotional experiences. She curated and co-curated such projects as: “We, the People” (Central Slovakian Gallery 2019), “Dreams&Dramas. Law as Literature” along with the publication (nGbK, Berlin 2017), “Text and Its Performance” (Bunkier Sztuki, Krakow 2016), “End of Time” (Kunsthaus Dresden 2015), “(…) behind the togetherness” (tranzit.sk, Bratislava 2014). Agnieszka has curated Rupali Patil´s recent solo exhibit “If There Is Water More Powerful Than This Wild Water“ (Rainbow Unicorn, Berlin 2023). She lives and works in Berlin.