A towering mother is located at the mouth of Central Park. She is 18 feet tall with a painted bronze body. The heads of her 23 children sprout from her womb, belly, shoulders and back. Her expression is gracious: all passers-by—and anyone who can spot her from a distance—are welcomed into her arms. Entitled, predecessor, it is the work of Bharti Kher, an artist from New Delhi and London whose practice collapses everyday rituals and ancient symbols, sacred objects and ephemera into new forms. Her creations – sometimes painting, sculpture or installation – explore individual and collective relationships with the cultural past. If we are not satisfied with history, suggests Kher, build a better future.
An ancestor is the most monumental entry in Kher’s practice spanning two decades. It belongs to the artist’s ongoing Mediators series, mostly surreal clay chimeras—a mix of humans, animals, and mythical creatures whose fluid identities reflect Kerr’s own cross-cultural journey. The work is presented by the Public Art Fund, a nonprofit organization that transforms New York’s public spaces with edgy artwork, and is curated by Daniel S. Palmer, who was previously appointed chief curator of the SCAD Art Museum this day year.
An ancestor will be on display at Doris C. Freedman Plaza, near the park’s Fifth Avenue and 59th Street entrance, until next August, after which it will travel to the United Kingdom. His forever home, however, will be the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi. Nadar, the collector who founded the institution of the same name and who ranked at ARTnewsThe 2019 Top 200 Collectors List has collected Kher for about 10 years and considers her one of “India’s most prominent contemporary artists”.
“The vision for my collection,” Nadar said at the sculpture’s unveiling Thursday, “is to archive memories and preserve the creativity of our culture for future generations. Bharti says her work An ancestor is the keeper of all memories and time. The narrative that this sculpture brings out is my trajectory to build KNMA over the past 12 years as a leading institution for the arts in South Asia. This job encapsulates all my dreams and desires and so much more.
To learn more about the job, ARTnews I spoke to Kher via email.
ARTnews: How did the Mediators series begin? How has its meaning or process evolved?
Bharti Kher: The series — or family, as I like to call it — is formed from small clay figurines collected over many years from South India. The series started in 2016 when I had nearly 500 dolls sent to my studio in Delhi and many of them arrived broken. I started repairing and redoing them. I really pursued this new work during my residency at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset in 2017.
My interest in objects changed and developed in a profound intensity of mutations, the objects before me represented a whole range and source of life – from animals and metaphor to ritual and mundane. By physically repairing and breaking these figures with my hands and fusing them together into new configurations, I was creating unique avatars. Entropy was now at play.
The Mediators series offers family life, a mixture of unconventionality, ancestral complexity and diasporic identity that carries with it both geographical and psychosocial dissonances. They continue the practice of narrative construction of hybrid beings that is central to my practice – along with ideas of rupture and repair. They suggest a transitional space between reality and illusion, decay and regeneration, balance and weight, and seek a way to deal with questions of identity.
I describe them as the “family of in-betweeners” and as the “outsiders”, the self-made and the jinn who shape at will, these are shape-shifters.
Tell me about the challenges of creating a large-scale work. How, if at all, has your practice had to adapt?
I started translating the smaller Mediators into large-scale works in 2018.
I never thought of working outdoors at such a huge scale, simply because I do most of my work in the studio. So many of my works are intimately scaled and domestic, with a focus on materiality and making that reflects my long-term interest in the human body. There was something about these miniature figurines that demanded to be praised and celebrated on a larger scale. They had a monumentality that felt like Indian sculpture. I had to contact foundries who could work on this scale and who were so committed to my approach to materiality and the choice to hand paint and patina the bronze to look and feel like weathered clay (reflecting the unresolved state between constancy and fragility).
I am no stranger to collaborating with a team, as I do with my team in Delhi. It’s just a different way of working, and I genuinely enjoyed it.
Can you break down some of the symbolism of your new sculpture?
Metaphor should be felt in art. Symbols are jumping off points. The mother is a universal symbol of care. She is the earth, the sea and the heavens. This mother is draped in a sari, with a small child hiding behind its folds. Her name An ancestor is a mythical and powerful female force that pays tribute to generations before and after her. She honors her mothers and their mothers, their stories and stories and journeys. She bears the heads of her many children, which extend from her body like the breasts of Artemis. Her children are from everywhere, all countries, all religions, all genders, all peoples: she personifies multiculturalism, pluralism and interconnectedness.
Items found are important to your practice. When you integrate these objects into a new work, what do you imagine will happen to their previous histories? Is the meaning erased or reinterpreted?
Meaning is always being created and interpreted. Found objects are materials of meaning and are very much part of the language of accumulation. They can be worked with to make art with multiple meanings. They carry memories from their past and I can build on. When I originally started with bindis as a material, I thought maybe I would use them for a while. But when I started really looking at and continuing to push the material, I think what I was able to do was bring it into my practice and make it inextricably mine and a language that I could then speak. Taking both his and my own story.
I always want to know what the material has to say about itself. There must be more than me in the creation process. Anthropology is the part I love; researching and reading materials and collecting stories that inform the work but which I also completely ignore. So yes, sometimes you reinterpret and sometimes you delete. It’s like painting, a language, or music, where you learn your scales, but you don’t always have to play them. To speak my language, I pull things from a library of tools and references I’ve collected over many years. It’s like conducting music or making material sing for you.
Tell me how you settled on the themes of motherhood for this piece and what it means to you to have a figure of refuge located in a public, highly trafficked space.
A mother in a public space is so needed right now as a place of refuge and guardian of wisdom; it is the eternal source of creation. This is a time when we need collective healing for so many things. The earth asks us to care for it; societies are becoming increasingly divisive; tolerance and shared kinship between us can be our common goal, not an opposing game. People believe they are the guardians of the earth, but they are not. We are visitors.
An ancestor indeed offers a genealogical, spiritual and metaphysical exploration of the meaning of humans: who we are and where we are really going if we do not learn from our past and create a shared space for all of us. It is an investigation into our relationship with posterity, self and memory and what that means in this world today.
She is a shaman in a public space: a keeper of all memories and time. A vessel for viewers to travel into the future, a guide to search and honor our past stories, and a companion destined for New York to leave its secrets and desires.