APT8 | Kalpa Vriksha

Kalam Patua / Post office 3 – the runner with the mail 2013 / Watercolour / Courtesy and ©: The artist

This focus project within The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) exhibition investigates how ancient techniques and subjects are still being used, and how they’ve evolved and become instrumental in the expression of contemporary concerns.

The artists featured in the APT8 project Kalpa Vriksha: Contemporary Indigenous and Vernacular Art of India come from small and diverse communities in India — some indigenous, others rural and remote — with each known for its artistic traditions, unique histories and visual languages. This focus project within the exhibition investigates how ancient techniques and subjects are still being used and how they’ve evolved and become instrumental in the expression of contemporary concerns. Concentrating on a small group of younger-generation artists, Kalpa Vriksha incorporates narratives of spiritual and historical significance as well as those of everyday life, through a range of paintings and sculptures that draw on Gond, Warli, Mithila and Kalighat styles, Patachitra scrolls and Rajwar sculpture.

Balu Ladkya Dumada, Warli people / The God appears in the form of a crane bird 2010 / Acrylic and cowdung on canvas / Courtesy and ©: The artist

Kalpavriksha is a Sanskrit term for a divine or wish-fulfilling tree. Kalpavrikshas are mentioned in scriptures describing the creation of the earth, but the term is also applied to numerous actual trees in India, of different species depending on local belief systems. The kalpavrishka’s capacity to cross the boundaries of the vernacular and the mythical, the ancient and the contemporary, as well as its diverse geographical manifestations, makes it an appropriate metaphor for the works in this special exhibition project. Artists Balu Ladkya Dumada and Rajesh Chaitya Vangad belong to the Warli people, who are known for paintings constructed of white lines and geometric forms that convey the significance of animals, deities and local flora. Dumada specialises in painting Warli stories, while Vangad’s broader projects have included public art murals and initiatives aimed at increasing attendance in local schools.

The Gonds are one of the largest groups of indigenous peoples of India. Their artworks were originally made for dwellings and are characterised by animistic themes and intricate patterning. Venkat Raman Singh Shyam is the nephew of the renowned late Jangarh Singh Shyam, and he continues to experiment with and extend the Gond motifs and subjects.

Pushpa Kumari, Bihar, India b.1969 / Tsunami 2015 / Ink on acid-free paper / Courtesy and ©: The artist

Pushpa Kumari is a Madhubani or Mithila artist, whose art is customarily practised by women in the Mithila region. Kumari was taught by her grandmother, Mahasundari Devi, one of the first Mithila artists to work on paper, and addresses themes often relevant to contemporary women, such as female infanticide, dowry deaths and sexuality, as well as stories of love and union from the Ramayana.

The Chitrakar (‘picture makers’) artists in West Bengal creates long, brightly coloured scroll paintings, known as pats or patachitra, which are intimately bound up with itinerant storytelling and song. Six patua artists will feature in the exhibition, with works addressing contemporary history and social issues as well as tales from Hindu scriptures. Kalam Patua was born into this community but taught himself the Kalighat style of watercolour painting, its conventions taken from scroll and miniature painting but focusing on single scenes rather than framed narratives, and often with a satirical, autobiographical or social dimension.

Another group of artists from the Rajwar community of Surguja in the state of Chhattisgarh will present a set of figurative sculptural and architectural clay works for the exhibition. This sculptural practice is often credited to the innovation of one artist, Sonabai (c.1930–2007), whose work was shown in APT3 in 1999. For APT8, her son, Daroga Ram, and three other artists will exhibit sculptural works to represent this unique art form and demonstrate how it has continued to grow, diversify and inspire.

Follow the APT8 installation on our Flickr albums before the opening weekend on 21-22 November.

The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) is the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art’s flagship exhibition focused on the work of Asia, the Pacific and Australia. APT8 (21 November 2015 – 10 April 2016) includes more than 80 artists and groups, an ongoing program of artist performances and projects; a conference as part of the opening program; extensive cinema programs; publications; and activities for kids and families.

The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT)
is the Gallery’s flagship exhibition focused on the work of Asia, the Pacific and Australia.
21 November 2015 – 10 April 2016

Exhibition Founding Sponsor: Queensland Government
Exhibition Principal Sponsor: Audi Australia

Highlight: Leang Seckon ‘Indochina’

Leang Seckon, Cambodia b.1974 / Indochina 2014 / Mixed media and collage on canvas / Purchased 2015. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Leang Seckon’s powerful and vivid paintings are at the forefront of a growing Cambodian contemporary art scene. In his practice Seckon’s personal history is intertwined with his country’s past and its outlook for the future. This recent acquisition features in ‘The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT8), opening in November this year.

Leang Seckon’s autobiographical-driven practice reflects on his direct experiences of the turbulent and violent modern history of his country. Born in Pier Reang, Prey Veng province, Cambodia, in 1974, at the onset of the American bombings of Indochina, he is one of the few artists working today who directly experienced Pol Pot’s brutal and notorious Khmer Rouge regime, which was followed by the Cambodian–Vietnamese War (1978–92). His childhood was marked by bombings, famine, state executions and mass genocide, until the overthrow of Pol Pot and an eventual peace agreement in 1991. Throughout this period, Cambodians endured decades of violence, civil rights abuses and injustice, which deeply affected the population on every level. Official accounts estimate that more than 1.5 million out of a population of 7 to 8 million Cambodians died from starvation, disease, overwork and execution in detention centres. Pol Pot died in 1998 without ever being brought to justice.

Indochina 2014 is a recent painting that explores the intersection of history and traumatic memory, using indigenous, mythological and contemporary symbols. ‘Indochina’ was the name given to three countries in South-East Asia — Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos — under French colonial rule. This lush, densely painted work features collage and decorative elements built up against a tapestry-like background. It draws on a myth about the creation of the Cambodian Khmer Empire and juxtaposes historic images of Cambodia’s, of flowers and trees, scaled serpents devouring each other, wrestling figures, Hindu and Buddhist idols, and the flowing Mekong River (itself a symbol of the complex interweaving of cultures and histories).

Indochina belongs to a body of work exhibited in Leang’s second solo exhibition at Rossi and Rossi Gallery in London in 2014, entitled ‘Hell on Earth’. The title of the exhibition was drawn from the Buddh Damnay, a sacred Buddhist text, which the artist believes is indicative of the Cambodian psyche. The popular nineteenth-century text predicted that:

War will break out on all sides . . . blood will flow up to the bellies of elephants; there will be houses with no people in them, roads upon which no-one travels; there will be rice but nothing to eat. 1

The Khmer Rouge period was, for many Cambodians, literally ‘hell on earth’, and the text found resonance with the survivors as it placed the events within the cyclical pattern of Buddhist history.

For Leang, the use of traditional symbols or motifs such as those in Indochina is important. He believes that the survivors of the war era in Cambodia have been thrown into a rapidly developing society, which has not allowed them time to reflect on their past and how it has affected contemporary life and society. While he references the Khmer Rouge period, he also reflects on the impact of development and modernisation, on both the environment and the individual. In paintings such as Indochina, this combination of symbols, history and personal reflection allows him to come to terms with a traumatic collective past.

Indochina will feature in APT8 in November, and contributes to the Gallery’s strong representation of the leading figures in contemporary Cambodian art such as Svay Ken, Sopheap Pich and Vandy Rattana, who featured in APT6.

1  Leang Seckon, quoted in Interview with Cambodian Artist Leang Seckon: Painting Past and Present, http://theculturetrip.com/asia/cambodia/articles/interview-withcambodian-artist-leang-seckon-painting-past-and-present/, accessed 25 March 2015.