Hema’s 2008 mixed-media work is called Killing Site, a title that takes on a new, sinister meaning because of recent events. But Hema’s murder is not how anyone who knew her bubbly self would want to remember her. The last time I wrote to her was on the eve of her solo presentation at Chemould Prescott gallery’s booth at Art Stage Singapore 2015: “OMG, how amazing! Best of luck. I hope we’ll meet soon.” This won’t happen now.
Hema and I first bonded at Indigo Deli in Mumbai’s Colaba neighbourhood in 2009 over an admittedly tipsy discussion of her work, which was being included at London’s Saatchi Gallery’s survey show of Indian art, The Empire Strikes Back. However, looking through my correspondence with Hema, I feel her warmth and sweetness emanating from the emails back and forth even before this date, and her willingness to get involved in projects just to be supportive.
An example is my idea in 2008 to include her in a programme for Kanaka Productions, a Belgian reality television company, in which she explained the connection between her installation Dream a Wish, Wish a Dream (2004) and Mumbai’s slums to Belgian artist Delphine Boël. The programme turned out quite well, largely because Hema handled the situation with aplomb, relating the sleek precincts of the Grand Hyatt to the shanty town we could see from its rooftops. They are mirror images, both sides of the same city, Hema explained.
In many ways the act of commemoration is similarly split. Mourning a friend who was also an important artist seems to have an odd affect on denizens of the art world. In all the obituaries I have read over the last two days, valedictions are laced with personal anxiety. How well did I know her? Do I have the “right” to write a tribute? And then sometimes such questions make the writer, curator, critic and gallerist overcompensate, so that to know the source of tragedy is a way in which to feel like one belongs.
I knew Hema “first”, said one critic. I curated her “first” show, said another. I knew her when she “first arrived” in Mumbai from Baroda in 1998, said an artist friend. I saw her “last” solo, said a journalist. And so we have a personal stake in the tragedy, they all seem to be saying; we are part and parcel of the Mumbai art world that is a little less without her. Thus, grief is transmuted into memorialisation: a creation of legitimacy for the art world mourner as much as that which he/she commemorates.
How do I add my mite to this dialogue? I didn’t know her first and I never saw her last show. But I did care for Hema, and I know she will be a loss to Mumbai’s art world – not just her quirky, clever, city-centric and increasingly poignant work, but also her warm, generous spirit. And somehow, I have a feeling that Hema, of all people, would understand what it is like to feel fragile in an unnerving situation.
When Hema came to Mumbai in 1998, she was quickly absorbed into what art critic Girish Shahane has dubbed “Generation i”. Alongside practitioners like the artist-couples Atul and Anju Dodiya as well as Jitish and Reena Kallat, she fashioned an identity that typified the “new India”, commenting on the radically altering face of its globalising cities. This idea of selfhood was playful, ironic and highly attuned to mass media, advertising billboards and the street. Hence, in some of Hema’s most iconic early collage works, minute self-portraits of the artist are de rigueur: think of the tiny photos of Hema in Ladki Number 1 (2001), which show her in various poses as she busily climbs a perilous ladder that reaches to the sky. A metaphor for girl power in the metropolis?
Among my favourite of her artworks is the mixed-media Universe Revolves On (IV), 2008, which Hema made at Singapore’s Print Tyler Institute. Here, photographs of mini-Hemas are suspended on a pale pinkish backdrop (actually handmade paper treated with clay). Depending on how you look at it, the pastel parchment alternately resembles cracked earth or a confection of pressed flowers. From a distance, the many Hemas appear to levitate blissfully like tiny bubbles of ink, part of the pretty day-dreamy pattern. This is how I remember Hema – giggling and gregarious and drinking kiwi margaritas at Indigo Deli, while I take (increasingly erratic) notes on her work. In this memory of a seemingly endless cocktail time, she is suspended in an eternal happy hour.
Zehra Jumabhoy is a critic and art historian specialising in contemporary Indian art. Her book, The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today, was published by Random House in 2010.
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