A few weeks before Hema Upadhyay was murdered in Mumbai, she had returned from Dubai, where her installation Modernization (2011) was included in the inaugural exhibition at 1×1 gallery’s new space in the Alserkal Avenue complex. There, alongside her contemporaries Bharti Kher, Sudarshan Shetty, Mithu Sen and with works by forerunners like Zarina Hashmi and Nasreen Mohamedi (1937–1990), was Hema’s sculptural depiction of a colorful, chaotic tin-roof sprawl, like the Dharavi district of Mumbai seen from above. Between patches of colored tarpaulin and squares of corrugated tin protrude the domes and minarets of mosques, spires of temples and churches, flyover sections and occasional high-rises; the surfaces are strewn with miniature tires or metal scraps, as if tossed onto the roofs. As the work’s title implies, it is a piece that represents the pains and paradoxes of 21st-century development, and was emblematic of Upadhyay’s core interests as an artist during more than two decades of art making, a time that ended prematurely and brutally.
In 1998, Hema was herself a new arrival to Mumbai. She was born in the comparatively small city of Vadodara (Baroda) in 1972, and studied there at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, before relocating to India’s largest metropolis after her graduation in 1997. That transition, she would come to realize, made her like million of others in India and around the world who relocate to the mega-cities for opportunities. As her longtime gallerist Shireen Gandhy told AAP: “The city in which she was the ‘alien,’ the all-consuming—had changed into becoming one that she felt completely in tune with. Her story began with that of a migrant in the city—and she carried this on in many ways—the observer flying over the city, absorbing its various intricacies in the early works, to become an intrinsic part of the migrant community—comfortable in its skin as much as she became comfortable in exploring the various ways in which she experienced the city through her extensive use of mediums.”
Her new environment would fuel the perspectives she brought to her own works. As she said in a 2010 interview: “So much chaos in my work actually came from the city. When I work in my studio in Mumbai, there are lots of elements, of decay, of life, of chaos. It’s a double-edged condition when you see development in the making—you see growth but [also] decay, you see modern skyscrapers but [also] the mushrooming of slums.”
Long-time supporter Conor Macklin, director of London’s Grosvenor Gallery, recently told AAP, “Perhaps her most ambitious projects were her slum pieces. Re-creations of the tin shacks that cover her adopted town of Mumbai. Hema loved these shanty towns and despaired at their destruction and the soulless tower blocks that they were replaced with. I remember her talking about them saying something like, ‘These shanty towns are so full of life—the same house is used as a mini factory during the day and a family house in the evening.’ We also discussed how every morning, despite all their hardships, all the kids would turn up in sparkling clean white shirts for school.”
Throughout her career she created paintings, prints, mixed-media collages, installations and sculptures, a breadth that was evident in what became her final solo exhibition at Gallery Chemould, in September 2014, “Fish in a Dead Landscape.” There were large panels to which she had adhered thousands of individual rice grains, some of which she had written on with black ink, including phrases such as “Blessed are those who can give without remembering and take without forgetting,” and creating, as what appeared from a distance, delineating shapes. The prevalence of dense masses of tiny forms—whether they be miniature dwellings, grains of rice, or the figures in her paintings and collages—suggested her acute awareness of scale within the contemporary city. The aerial perspective provided in Modernization, and her earlier sculptural depictions of city neighborhoods, recalls that of a bird—an urban protagonist with an even better vantage point on the city than humans, and another recurring motif in Hema’s works. Included in the 2014 Chemould show were her collages that depict exotic birds inside a glass-domed bell jar with a dark, arid landscape surrounding them; in another work, the avian creatures are portrayed building a nest from lines of actual texts they carry in their beaks. As surrogates for humans, they become trapped in glass towers, or are depicted as scavenging for threads of meaning with which to build their homes.
Hema held her first solo exhibitions in 2001, at Art Space Sydney and Gallery Chemould in Mumbai, and also participated in the 10th International Triennale – India, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, where she won the first prize. A 2003 residency with the Karachi artists collective Vasl led to her works “Loco-Foco-Motto,” comprising chandeliers made from matchsticks, which many saw as a reference to the readily combustible situation between India and Pakistan. By the mid-to-late 2000s, she was included in many of the big, India-themed group surveys of the time, such as “Chalo! India: A New Era of Indian Art,” which toured from the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo to east Asia and Europe, and “Indian Highway,” which was first held at the Serpentine Galleries in London, in late 2008. There she displayed Dream a Wish – Wish a Dream (2006), a hilly landscape covered in miniature houses (a more literal city depiction than the later Modernization). In later incarnations of “Indian Highway,” she displayed 8′ × 12′ (2009), a box-like room with tiny buildings on the walls and ceilings, which had been on view at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi, in “Constructs/Constructions,” at the time of her death.
Commenting on Dream a Wish – Wish a Dream, Hema stated: “Of course I know the socio-economic structures and social hierarchy in the slum and the city. But as an artist, I am more interested in the aesthetics they created in the slum. When I looked at the architecture, the set up of the area, the form and colors they created, I am seeing surrealism, conceptual art and arte povera. But it’s their home. When I pass the area everyday on my way to work, I took the part of a voyeur to spy into their life. I am dealing with the dichotomy of social hierarchy and the whole idea of voyeurism where I take the protagonists as the performers.”
Shireen Gandhy echoed this sentiment in a statement the gallery sent out following Upadhyay’s death: “Her use of material—especially ‘poor material’—was exceptional. She used tarpaulin and tin to create slum visualizations, matchsticks to create posh chandeliers, [and] she used silhouettes of herself in vinyl to create magical maps of the city, and rice to create the most magnificent landscapes.”
Gandhy later wrote to AAP: “Hema was at the prime of her career. Hema Upadhyay is synonymous with Indian contemporary art—especially of the generation to which she belongs. She has been one of the artists who have resonated the pulse of India, contextualized through its contemporary art scene in several exhibitions curated around the world.” At the time of her death, she was working on a new body of work that will debut in April at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in the exhibition “Megacities Asia.” Gandhy continued: “As things begin to calm (after the storm of the brutal way in which she was taken away from us), we will begin to look into the production and the continuing of this work in her absence.”
HG Masters is editor at large at ArtAsiaPacific.