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In the Studio with Shailee Mehta

Shailee Mehta finds inspiration in stories: merging superstitions, children's fables and Hindu mythology, she focuses on re-establishing the role of women in these narratives. We met with Shailee to tell us more about identifying as an artist and how her upbringing in Indiore has impacted her practice today.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

Although I have been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember, the definition and role of an artist has been a point of constant questioning for me. It has been a circuitous journey from working on the floor in my house back home as a kid, to encountering the liberating nature of a studio, to understanding its limitations and attempting to expand my work beyond its four walls. The germination of this criticality is probably what I would call the point in time I started to identify as an artist.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I was born and raised in Indore, a small city in central India. My mother is a Tanjore (a traditional art form that originated in the south of India) artist herself, and her unconditional support stands at par with any other form of education or experience I went on to gain. I was brought up in a family where varied notions of the traditional and the modern collide to generate a culture which is unique to every household, which is nothing out of the ordinary in a country like India. The nostalgia pertaining to these lived experiences inevitably permeates into my work where I can translate them into images through a lens of political criticality, rather than just a reassertion of the memory itself.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience? 

I have had most of my formal art education in London, starting with a foundation at UAL and recently finishing at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL. While being at art school has been a transformative journey in many ways, I strongly believe that the detours and pauses, such as my year out from Slade, are truly the catalysts that allow for an education to become operational in its entirety.

What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose?

I take a thematic approach to my work, which makes it difficult to limit it to a message or purpose. I work extensively with figurations of womanhood and femininity, that regard women of colour as an agential subject. Through performing the awkwardness of mundane activities, I intend to situate my figures as the embodiment of abjection and try to create multiple narratives (and counter narratives) within this context.

Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

Superstitions, Hindu mythology, historical fiction and children’s stories have influenced my work a lot in the past couple of years. The images I make stem from an urge to subvert the narratives of women in these stories, fabels or beliefs that I have grown up with. In an attempt to build this self-mythologising archive, my aesthetic is a combination of reclaimed motifs and a corporeal surreality visible through evocative colours and exaggerated forms.

Who and what are your greatest influences? 

Artists such as Bhupen Khakhar, Kiki Smith, Marlene Dumas, Maria Lassnig and Sanya Kantarovsky and their use of figuration is something I am quite drawn to at the moment. Other than that, performance artists such as Tejal Shah have also been an inspiration in the way they refer to the queerness of nature and suggest a dystopian imagination in their work.

Bhupen Khakhar, Barber's Shop, 1973

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

I plan my works to a certain extent which essentially involves drawing a lot and revisiting old drawings and sketches. When I am starting a new piece, I only like to think about what makes sense to me, but eventually start to consider the kind of effect the composition, for example, might have on the audience. I like my work to occupy the space between sacredness, care and the everyday violence and I would like viewers to take away a certain sense of familiarity as well as a feeling of dissonance and doubt when they encounter these images.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you stick to one medium? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work?

I took a year out from my degree at Slade in 2018 which was definitely a turning point in my practice. I went from making constructivist, abstract spaces to figuration, which at that point felt like a very organic shift. A lot contributed to that, including working outside of a studio, writing, developing a visual language solely based on instinct rather than immediate influences and, indeed, refraining from setting any parameters to my work.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

Good breakfast, good lighting and time.

What are your goals for the future? (Projects, collaborations)

I have a couple of shows lined up – a solo show at the Residence Gallery, London at the end of August and another one in Mumbai later in the year. I have also been working on a new series that looks at rituals related to food and their politics, and the role of women in this narrative. Apart from that, I am working on some writing projects that look quite exciting!

How have you been staying creative during the pandemic ?

Since a lot of my imagery is based on the dialogue between the private and the public, being creative during these times hasn’t been a problem for me. I have had fun working on a smaller scale with a lot more time on my hands, which has allowed me to slow down my entire process – something I had forgotten about for a long time.

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