For nearly 25 years, Sheela Gowda has been lauded for her use of agrarian materials, such as cow dung and jute, sourced from her native India, as well as thread and human hair. After completing her formal art education in the late 1980s, Gowda began questioning her approach toward painting, partly in response to the political upheavals occurring in India at the time. This prompted her search for a new visual vocabulary that would resonate with the sociopolitical issues of India, particularly labor, industrialization and the female experience. Recently, Gowda’s various explorations into materiality and form were featured at Hong Kong’s Para Site art space, which showcased both her new and early works.
Two early untitled pieces from 1992, both created from cow dung, were displayed together as an installation. In Hinduism, cow dung carries religious connotations, as the cow is considered a sacred animal. For one of these works, Gowda used manure as pigment to create a textured, sepia-toned surface on paperboard. In its lower right is a drawing of a zebu (a South Asian species of cattle) in a village and a woman collecting its excrement and forming it into patties. At Para Site, this paper-based canvas was propped against a wall atop Gowda’s other early work, which itself was formed of stacks of cow-dung patties. Additional dung piles were strewn on the floor nearby, prompting one to crouch down for a closer look.
Another visually intriguing work was the six-meter-wide installation Either Way (2015), which stood against a gallery wall. Resembling a weaving loom, rows and rows of black rope made from wool and human hair are strung between two wooden beams on opposite ends of the wall. The installation appears to be capturing a moment in the weaving process, whereby the ropes on the left side are transforming into the textile on the right. Most conventional looms are positioned vertically; yet here Gowda has flipped the frame to sit horizontally, in an act of subverting the predominantly female activity of weaving.
Minimalist shapes foregrounded Gowda’s newer works in the exhibition. In Shrine to Utopia and Other Abstractions (2015), the artist devised an intimate space that visitors could enter. Perched slightly above eye level in a corner of this structure—which resembles a traditional Chinese altar—is a small abstract painting of a black square, applied on a stretched piece of rubber extracted from the Amazon rain forest. In her practice Gowda often reuses “unwanted” materials, and in Hong Kong she drew inspiration from the unique way in which locals discard religious idols. Considered inauspicious to throw away such statues, many residents leave them in scenic or natural areas to be respectfully “retired.” Influenced by this, Gowda lined the outside of Shrine with iconic modern art images of abstract and utopian visions—such as Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases and Vladimir Tatlin’s constructivist tower—which were propped on its exterior wall. Elsewhere in the exhibition was a glowing, cool-white neon piece, shaped into a twisted triangular form and hung from the ceiling, which contrasted with the earthy ocher tones of Gowda’s other works. Made in collaboration with a local Hong Kong neon craftsman, Not Equals (2015) combines the vernacular of the installation’s maker and its host city, known for its hypnotically glowing urban landscape.
Also embodying Hong Kong’s energetic street life was the exhibition’s elaborate centerpiece, If You Saw Desire (2015). Three intersecting stainless-steel poles jutted out from a temporary wall on one side of the gallery, with their ends resting atop another wall on the opposite side. Extending from the poles were steel branches from which hung colorful, boldly patterned and sequenced pennants, cut into rectangular, triangular and swallowtail shapes, recalling various religious flags. Gowda, working with a local seamstress during her visit to the city for the exhibition’s opening, decided to use fabric as a tribute to Hong Kong’s textile industry—once a driving force of the territory’s economic boom during the 1950s, but now a dying vocation that is outsourced to cheaper labor across the border or to neighboring countries.
By looking beyond the aesthetics of Gowda’s work, one is led to consider the wider cultural and economic realities from which her materials are sourced, and the acuity of the artist’s formal language.