Muscat: “Working with my hands fascinates me; I prefer tactile, labour intensive and process oriented methods of creating art. I am a visual storyteller and love stories with a certain element of surprise,” muses Oman based artist Debjani, who made a quantum leap from a career as a financial analyst in New Delhi, to the world of art as a full time practicing artist.
Her tryst with art happened in 2007, when she relocated to Dubai. She has since had a string of solo exhibitions, which began in 2011 with ‘Spindle Shuttle Needle’ at the Tashkeel House Bastakiya, followed by ‘Seeing the Invisible’ in 2014 at Centre Franco Omanais, Muscat, ‘Telling Tales’ in 2018 in Tashkeel Gallery (which also travelled to Stal Gallery Muscat in 2019), and ‘Dreams within Dreams’ in 2022 at the Foundry Dubai. She has also illustrated two children’s books – ‘World Tales’ and ‘A Magic Place’.
In the following interview, Debjani, a multidisciplinary artist, talks about her artistic expressions through sculpture (ceramics, paper), illustration, papercuts and printmaking, while reflecting on her passion to unravel stories through art.
What inspired you to become an artist?
I was a precocious artist since I was very little. I believe a deep interest in art and artistic tendencies reside in one’s DNA and artists are born not cultivated. Being born and raised in a family where a devotion to art and culture was encouraged, my early talent for art was not considered to be anything out of the ordinary. However, art was not viewed as a stable and sustainable career path when I was growing up, and I opted for a corporate career. I felt a yearning for art while working as a financial analyst and realized I did not belong in the corporate sector. I left my job to look after my children when they were little and that gave me a chance to recalibrate my life. I decided to take the plunge and delve into art as a full-time profession.
From financial analysis to art – how has your journey evolved?
My art journey was long, hard and circuitous. Initially, I neither had an artistic voice or a medium, only a deep dedication and a conviction about my abilities. I relocated to Dubai due to my husband’s job, where I joined a thriving artist hub – Tashkeel Studios. This is where I got exposed to contemporary art, experimented with different techniques and after many years of relentless practice got clarity and reached where I am now. I completed my MFA from the University for the Creative Arts in UK; it helped me reflect on and deepen my art practice. I have now found my artistic voice, themes and preferred mediums to work with.
How would you describe your art and the artwork you produce?
Storytelling is an important traditional element of the country of my origin (India) and the country of my residence (Oman) and therefore the narrative impulse continues to be my motivating muse. I want to find parallels in the contemporary human condition in these epic stories. I use intricately rendered drawings, papercuts and installations that playfully explore bizarre, dreamlike scenarios, fluctuating between the real and the imagined. These delicate creations probe the precarious line between the possible and the impossible. The stories take the audience through a journey of fragments, false memories, fears, desires and predatory instincts.
Referencing traditional folk and mythological tales from India, GCC countries, and fairy stories I grew up listening to, my works present fleeting moments, dreamlike scenes and a menagerie of peculiar characters performing impossible tasks. Rather than adhering to these folktales, I create my own subverted emblematic language and my own mythologies. My familiar yet uncanny non-linear stories may resemble illustrations from children’s storybooks, but they are visually seductive, inviting the viewer to look beyond the surface and read between the lines. While some of the characters are recognizable, perhaps what we really would see is a reflection of ourselves, a sublimation of those moral tales, the warnings, the rights, the wrongs, the pleasures, the pains, the obvious and the ambiguous – all on one platform. My stories shift and are malleable, offering multiple readings according to the viewer’s subconscious minds.
At a technical level, I explore playful movement of figures using light and shadows, alongside kinetic movement, to allow a certain degree of audience engagement and participation in the storytelling process by setting in motion interactive toys.
Living in Oman and the UAE for over a decade has presented me with the opportunity to delve into the cosmos of characters, culture and stories. The techniques employed are aimed at bringing to life the mystery, the magic, the bizarre, the definite and the indefinite – all at the same time. The evolution and, finally, the manifestation of this visual storytelling has made my journey sublime and rooted at the same time.
What artistic influences shaped your style and genre?
My influences are stories and mythology that contain layered characters and hybrid creatures and ancient wisdom. My visual narratives are my interpretation of these characters which have various shades of grey. My work features hybrids between humans and animals and my papercuts contain many layers indicating that we are not unidimensional. I am also very interested in how the natural world functions: how plants communicate and animals adapt themselves for survival. I often question what if we could camouflage like chameleons, hibernate like bears or breathe underwater like fish. This interest invariably appears in my work.
I have also been influenced by internationally acclaimed papercut artists Andrea Dezso and Elsa Mora. Both these artists are also ceramicists. I have used their contemporary papercuts and ceramics as inspiration to find my unique vision.
How would you describe your creative process?
Language and texts are very important to my work. My practice begins with a study and deep contemplation of a series of stories. I then make drawings of those moments in the stories that are hidden away unnoticed and might contain peripheral characters. I am interested in the slippery in-between moments that one might easily miss. I turn these into papercut art or they assume a sculptural form hand built in clay.
What drives you to explore specific themes in your art?
My artworks are based on stories. These stories could be those that I encountered as a child or unfinished stories I overheard in passing. They could be real stories from my memories or those which never occurred and I conjured up using my own imagination.
What significance do textures and materials hold in your work?
I use paper and clay as mediums to work. I intricately cut paper and I make and use ceramics as surfaces to draw on. Both clay and paper are very fragile and have minds of their own. They are like mortals – fallible, accident-prone, unpredictable, and cannot be taken for granted, which is why I am drawn to them. My processes are like balancing on a tightrope. A delicate papercut section might suddenly snap or tear; a ceramic piece might develop cracks while drying or in the kiln; I love these sort of constraints.
I am also interested in shadows cast by paper and have created and directed a shadow play theatre called ‘Halimah and the Snake’ inspired by a folk tale of Oman.
What role does technology have in your artistic process?
The population of our planet is living faster, acting faster, and thinking faster than it used to several decades ago. We have managed to create a unique environment that has become faster than our own minds and does not stop. Technology aids that. We can generate beautiful images using AI and make digital illustrations on our IPads very quickly as compared to traditional methods of creating. Unfortunately, in these circumstances, we are not able to savour the art-making process in the same way that we used to.
My work is analogous, old-fashioned and labour-intensive. It is a tribute to the times when people had a lot of time on hand and crafted their pieces by hand with great care. It reflected who they were as humans. I tend not to use technology in my work. Taking the longer route enables me to stay with my work for longer – for days, weeks even months – and therefore enjoy the art-making process rather than the outcome.
How have art exhibitions shaped your personal growth as an artist?
Art exhibitions provide me with the opportunity to create cohesive bodies of work and are platforms to showcase my creations to new and discerning audiences. I often participate in open calls and selections of my works by independent curators are motivating. Art exhibitions are also a great excuse to stop being a recluse and step out of my studio to meet other artists, curators and art patrons. They help me garner valuable feedback about my work.
What are you currently working on and what are your plans for the future?
I am currently working on a series of papercuts using ancient ‘Panchtantra’ (Indian folk tales) as a theme for my next solo exhibition, scheduled early next year in a reputed gallery in India. I have also been invited to participate in a solo exhibition in a Museum in Denmark in late 2024 and am developing work for this project.
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