Graduating from the Masters Program of Fine Arts, Sukeshi Sondi transcends her concerns and background in a series of installation pieces. Her work as a visual arts practitioner extends to drawings, sculpture and installations – demonstrating the ideas of vulnerability, consumerism and the treatment of women.
Her early works explored a series of paintings of the late Lee Kuan Yew in the ‘LKY paintings’, and ‘OK Lah’. Apart from owning her own studio/gallery space, ArtOne21, she has had a solo exhibition, ‘LKY: An Icon and a Legend’ (2015), and has exhibited in spaces like Affordable Art Fair (2014/2012), Galerie Belvedere (2015/2013) and Culture Square Gallery (2013), as well as participated in auctions for charity events such as the UN Women’s Annual SNOW Gala Singapore in 2013.
OMGSOC: Tell us about the history of your art practice.
SS: I’m an MBA banker. I came to Singapore in 2005 and in 2008, I started taking lessons in painting and drawing from various teachers. I did one year with a Singaporean teacher and he taught me oils, one year with an abstract teacher. I had all kinds of teachers and about three years, I learned something that I had never done before. It was not in high school or anything. Then I decided that enough of hand holding. I started to open up my own studio. Whatever I had learned I had to simulate it and that’s it. I said I must try it to sort of get my own vision and my own style, without any help from anybody because whenever you’re learning in a school or with teachers, you always get help whenever you get stuck. You always ask for help (yes). I think the only way to really do it is to get the crutches away and that turned out to be quite exciting.
I tried many different kinds of medium and then I started participating in art fairs, got affiliated with a couple of galleries and it took from there. That went on for about three years. What I had realised is that I was lacking and wanting academic knowledge in the fine arts, primarily art history. I was curious as to what they teach in schools, so I came to LASALLE twice. Once was to sit in for the BA open house and then I realised that that was a lot of… First of all, it meant three years, which was way too long and a lot of it was repetition of what I had already learned. The student body was very young and it was a very specific curriculum, which parts of it were really exciting. Then I sat in in Ian’s talk for the MA, which resonated quite well with what I was doing. So I went up to tell him and told him that I had no BA, “does that get in the way.” And he said well, not necessarily because we have people from different backgrounds and since you have an existing arts practice that would come into, and of course the fact that you can write. Being an MBA, having done many papers and being a banker for 10 odd years, it sort of was okay in my ability to tackle the academics.
OMGSOC: Did you have a topic in mind for your research paper before starting your studies in Masters?
SS: They always tell you to come in with a research proposal, which really makes you think. I sort of wondered where should I start and I felt that I should look within. Where do I come from, what were my concerns at this point of time in my life, why am I doing what I’m doing, and why do I even want to do this? So it started basically from where I was, which I was a Singaporean but for only like five years. Obviously I’m Indian, I have very strong roots in India. I’ve been educated in the US and in the Philippines and all over the place. So there is a strong international nomadic kind of lifestyle and I’m of a certain age. My daughter, she’s all grown up and in meds school in the US. My family, my parents are now in India and my sister lives in Canada, so we’re all over the place and I was very closely connected to the Indian community in Singapore, who have very similar backgrounds in their concerns as mothers and as women and at different stage. This is something that I can understand, I can empathize and perhaps I can bring it out in my art. So that’s what I started when I came. That was you know, kind of my topic. You know, transience, migration, concerns of the society, which is like a third culture child, third culture individuals.
OMGSOC: The art presented are different from your previous series of paintings on Asian Pop Art from the OK Lah and LKY series of paintings.
SS: That was my Singaporean phase! I had just become a Singaporean (laughs).
OMGSOC: Well it’s very different aesthetically and materially. You did a lot of paintings and over here you have installation pieces, so how did you transition from that?
SS: Which is the beauty of art school I’ve got to say. When I came, I had a lot of abstract paintings as well. Jeremy had come to the studio. The LKY and Ok Lah was a Singaporean thing. It was fun for me because I had just turned Singaporean and it managed to catch the public eye quite well but that’s not my primary focus. It used to be kind of mixed media as well as acrylic abstract art.
I did show that when I first came, I said I would start with collage. I decided I would keep the paints aside and I just started collage before I moved and it was very fascinating. And because it’s so layered and so nuance, you know you put things and take things away so I said I will start with collage and maybe that will be able to express what I’m trying to say about the community of women I belong to and the concerns that I have about the migration and the society that I belong to who have moved away from India. It’s all fragmentation so I started with that, it was very colourful and it was also about the consumerist society that we’re in because at this stage in life the people that I belong to, they were interactive with before I joined school. We were people who were fairly well-to-do, like to spend money, worked very hard to get to where they were and are now living the life they want to, you know? I mean, you’ve worked hard, you’ve earned your money and you want to spend it. And we had a lot of concerns about our parenthood. It’s not frivolous but that’s the way it was and I wanted to express that and I think collage and decollage worked very well to start with. But in the first semester I showed that and then what I really enjoyed, but of course I’m completely confused now, what I really enjoyed was Jeremy, Ian and Adeline. They kept pushing me to try different things, especially in the first semester, Jeremy said you have to try different things. When I came with the resolution that I will not think about commercial aspect of art at all when I’m here, 102%! It’s just totally non-commercial, it does not have to be a finished product, I am not here to sell and I think that really helped me because then you can be free. You don’t have to worry and think what other people will think and of course, it got me into a bit of trouble because Jeremy would keep on pushing “try this try whatever try” and I would say Jeremy I’m gonna end up with nothing really good and you guys are gonna say all she did was try and she didn’t ended up with anything which was worthwhile for you. He said don’t worry about it and even Ian said it’s not suppose to be a finished product. Everything is a work in progress and this is something that you carry on with you when you go.
Therefore, I started trying out installation. I started collecting objects. It started with found objects and I went back to India many times because my parents were there. They were not well so a lot of stuff was going on in my life, which kind of took me back and forth, and then the I think I don’t know what my process is. It’s not very systematic but in the end, it all came together and my professors realised that. I realised that that’s the way I worked because I would just collect a bunch of stuff and I would wonder why I was collecting it and I would put it together and stuff like that.
OMGSOC: So all of your materials from the muslin cloth to the chains were collected from India?
SS: All of my materials were actually from India but the beauty of it, and I actually had a bit of a problem because it became too India-centric. I think it has become such a journey that started with the individual, which is me and where I am at this particular point in time, what were my concerns. Then I also talked about the community to which I belong, what are their concerns, especially women. I understand women better than I understand men, obviously being a woman myself right? Then it moved beyond that community to women in… I was also very upset with things going on in the world because of the treatment of women and why we feel so upset. We feel vulnerable and so anxious all the time. I’m anxious about my daughter living in the US, my friends are anxious about their children living so far away. I think Singapore was, and this is something that we all realised is that, one of the main reasons we moved to Singapore and became Singaporean was because we felt extremely safe and this is not something you can say for any country in the world. I have travelled the world and lived overseas a lot so I think that feeling of not feeling vulnerable and not feeling that you always have to look over your shoulder was something and I said why should we have to feel that way? Why should women have to feel that way? Why is that they have to dress in a particular way? So those issues started coming and I realised that I was troubled by those issues for a long time.
That started coming out in my art. I started collecting stuff that way and it became from self to community to larger community and became post-colonial. You know, India and post-colonial then it became global, then it became marginalised globally. One of the professors from this Slade school Andrew Stahl, he was a tutor and he walked in and said “where are you from?” He walked into my studio space and the pochas were on the wall and the chains and he said, “Can I ask you that?” And I said you can ask me anything but can you not tell? The moment that you look at me or when you walk into my studio, can’t you tell? And well he actually said no, are you from the same place as Jusan? He was Brazillian and I said, no I’m not. So he still talked to me a bit more and he said, “are you from the US?” And I said no that’s just the way I’m talking to you right now (laugh). I said can’t you tell by those cloth? The pochas? And that was so gratifying that he could not tell that my work was from India because that means that I have achieved my goal of being universal in my approach because this is a universal problem. The vulnerability of women, the violation towards women, women’s issues, issues of the marginalist, it does not pertains to India, it pertains everywhere.
I had another curator from Turkey and she said, “hey we have this in turkey,” and my Indonesian professor Dr. Wulan, she said “we have these in Indonesia.” Many of the elements had a language which was universal.
OMGSOC: We do feel a sense of empowerment from the art, especially the scent of the muslin cloth and the rust, as well as the burn marks from your works-in-progress. As a whole, they are powerful pieces but with power it also quite intimidating. There is also a sense of domestic culture from the drawings on the chalkboard and you did mention on creating awareness in consumption.
SS: I was trying to use the self by exploring domestic objects. A lot of my work also moved, apart from the topic. The way the works moved was when I started working on the collages. I was quite literal. This was one of the criticism. “It’s too literal there’s no ambiguity.” I thought they were quite cool and so did many other people. I will go back but I understood what they meant. It’s too literal, it’s too figurative and I had a big argument with them like what was wrong with that. Later on I realised yes. That’s what I tried to get. When I looked at some interesting female and male artists, which is the beauty of the MA program, which I have now learned, it’s that you see the history, you learn what other artists have done and how what they say resonates with what you’re doing. For my last semester, it was Doris Salcedo, who is an amazing Columbian artist and does enormous installation.
I was also accused of the fact that how can you being from a privileged background, talk about things which like now, I’m talking about the marginalised and the women who were vulnerable, which really… and I said, why can I not? Just because I am not one of them doesn’t mean that I cannot speak. I’m not speaking up for them, I’m standing beside them and I’m being empathetic to a cause. And I am female so the female subjectivity is already existing. So that gives me the right to talk about it. Even if I was a man, I could talk about it but the fact, I’m not talking, I’m not being part of them. It’s like what Trinmar said, you stand by the side for or behalf of or you talk or you stand nearby, you know? So I said I don’t see why I can’t do that.
OMGSOC: Have you ever had someone from that background come to see your work? From their perspective, do they see your work as you do?
SS: Well this was also suggested, no I haven’t. Maybe. Especially the pochas because not all of it is relevant. I could give that a try, talk to people when I go to India, show that and see how they reflect about it.
I try to use these domestic objects to allude and create an atmosphere. And I think the installations are quite sensorial. There’s the texture and a certain palette, which is very skin tone and I was trying to give a presence of an invisible. You know what they say about the absence of presence, it’s there but not there. This was my attempt without shoving feminism in front of anybody’s face, which is not my intent. I’m not a radic feminist. I don’t see the need for it. You know, just to create an atmosphere when somebody looks at it, they will not get it immediately but perhaps something will speak to them. Whether it’s the drawing, whether it’s the, you know. I’ve done lots of stuff but what we’ve shown was the installation primarily.
OMGSOC: Other than Doris, who else has inspired you in your research?
SS: Joseph Beuys, who talked about social sculpture. I had many reference artists. When I started with collage, one of them was Rina Banerjee and she was incredibly good at collage. Then when I moved to installation, more towards women’s issues, we had Shambhavi, her exhibition was there at STPI. They are very interesting artists and very powerful artists.
The beauty of the MA program is that you had to write papers and I just wished they would give us more time. They keep telling you it’s only 20% of your grade but the workload is a lot, especially when you’ve forgotten how to do it (laughs). I’ve written a lot in my life, it’s just the bibliography. It’s quite frightening but it’s also very very interesting. I had a excellent professor, Dr. Wulan, she’s brilliant. I got her in the second semester because my professor Antoine had left but it turned out to be very good because she’s very familiar with my topic. Actually, she guided me. Both she and Jeremy, being my direct supervisors, were very good at guiding without being didactic. They suggest and open up avenues and then let me think about it and do what I want. They never say this is bad or good. They give, which is a nice thing about the MA programme. They never tell you, well they do tell you sometimes that you really suck and what were you thinking. Plus the cohort that I worked with like my batch, they’re amazing! They come from different backgrounds, they come from different disciplines, they have different practices. They’re so generous with their time and you know, with their ideas.
OMGSOC: What kind of artist/practitioner do you see yourself as?
SS: It’s a million dollar question (laughs)! To be honest, I came confused and I thought I’d get clarity. Now I’m further confused but then I was told it takes time. We need to assimilate because we’ve been in this cocoon environment for one and a half years just working working working and now where do we go from here? So that will take a little bit of time for me to assimilate on. I know that I want to know more about art history so I am going to continue reading and studying about contemporary art and art history. Also I’m obviously going back to my studio practice. I’m not in a hurry so we’ll see but it’s too early right now.
OMGSOC: In your instagram, you tagged your works as #conceptualart. What does conceptual art mean to you?
SS: You know you have to hashtag something right? So basically you hashtag so that people get to see.
OMGSOC: But do you see your work as conceptual?
SS: I don’t know if you should quote me on this but every school has a bend of mind. And I think LASALLE’s bend of mind is try to make its students, especially in MA level and I’m sure in BA level but I wouldn’t know, to do more conceptual work. Of course I had to google all these and read up on books on what was conceptual art and fine arts and all that. Not coming from an arts background, textbook wise – it’s when the idea is more important than the actual execution of the work. The aesthetics of the work are not particular or crucial but the concept or the idea that went behind it. The criticism of it would be that it’s a bit too intellectual for some people and it requires explanation from the artist for people to actually understand the complete meaning or not say the complete meaning, but the evolving meaning. The beauty of it is that it allows different interpretations from the viewer. The other beauty is that it does not feed you, it makes you think. It doesn’t do the work for you. Whatever the piece of work is and that is I think is very clever. Painting does that too and I’m not just saying that installation or painting but I’m saying conceptual art makes the viewer think and interact, which I think is very critical. You should not be a lazy viewer and it’s not purely decorative.
OMGSOC: With ArtOne21, you have had collective shows, exhibitions with various artists and art fairs opportunities. What kind of artists do you bring in and where do you source your artists from?
SS: To be very fair, it’s not a gallery it’s a studio. I turned it into a residency for my friend cum teacher, who was from Australia and needed a place to stay for a week. Then there were Lasalle alumni who wanted to show their works, which they have funding for, so I leased it to them for a couple of weeks. It was a first for me, I have never done that before. There was also Art Loft that had taken up some of my works. They wanted to do an exhibition, including me and of other artists so I have been trying different things with the space but primarily it’s my work space. ArtOne21 is a studio gallery. It’s something that is evolving. So far it’s only been people that I know or I could relate to their work. In the future, I am not sure what it will become but it’s a platform for upcoming artists, young artists and I don’t mean in age terms.
OMGSOC : How do you juggle being a parent and an artist?
SS : I actually started studying art when my daughter was in high school. While preparing for her to leave, I would wonder what to do with myself. I didn’t have a full-time job. I used to be a banker but I stopped working when I came to Singapore. It started as a hobby so now I have the time while she is in med school in the US. My parents are getting older and that is a lot of concern if I have to keep flying back and forth. “You know you’ve got to take a chance , you can’t wait for the perfect time,” which is what I said to myself. It’s one and a half years of school and I was told that I could take time off during the MA programme when I needed to go. There are certain dates you need to be here and that flexibility was wonderful relief! And of course you can always say that if you can’t finish it, you can always come back but you have to take a chance. It has not been easy, there have been many pressures of time and commitment, which has been so much fun. I’ve had such a wonderful journey and I’m not saying it for the sake of saying it. I really have had. It’s been great but confusing.
OMGSOC: How do you get your art noticed? What do you think of the use of social media and online art galleries to promote practitioners and their art pieces?
SS: Marketing for artist is something I feel really should be taught in school. I’ve been in MBA myself. I’ve marketed products, I’ve worked in a bank for many years and I think that it is absolutely critical to know how to do it. Art fairs are good. When you go to art fairs you get noticed. The whole ecosystem of how artists promote is really changing. You don’t have one promoter, patron or a single gallery that will take an artist from the beginning to the end and it’s especially difficult for mid-career artists. I believe that artists should form a community. That’s how history and movements came about. Artists have supported each other in a community and in group shows together, which is really critical. When you get government funding or when you put in your own money, you go as a group and I think that is a greater voice even though you have diverse practices, which is even more interesting. I think that is what I really hope and wish my MA class could continue to work together. Apart from that, it’s basically knocking on doors and showing your works. That’s how I started. You show your works and you try and do something catchy. Even with online platforms , I don’t think you really sell much but they are good for exposure.
OMGSOC: What do you think of the changes that can be made in the Singapore arts industry?
SS: I’m not an expert. The first thing I think and comes to my mind would be the removal of grassroot movements. I’ve noticed in India, China and places like that that a whole community of artists, not just locally but rather internationally, of both young and old, different artists from different backgrounds coming together from the grassroots level to experiment without too much restrictions. I know the government supports a lot and anyone with money gets a say in what you do, so there’s a plus and minus there. The Singapore government is trying very hard but what I find is lacking is organic growth. I used to work in the States and there was a wonderful community of 15 studios and their artists. They have this walk and I participated in it because I had a studio there. Rumours have been flying that they’re going to demolish that area. It’s the beautiful barracks in Pottstown Road. They had already started developing production houses for film and wire technology, and the artists were going to be displaced. They lived in complete fear of being displaced because of the contracts that had to be renewed every year, which were originally every 2 years. This is not how you do things.
You need to let a community of artists flourish. We understand that real estate is very expensive but you’ve got to allow. This is what I mean by organic growth. When you have an organic growth, you don’t uproot it. You can create the Gillman Barracks and create huge gallery spaces and galleries. That is a space for itself and so much spent on museums that is also critical for the ecosystem. What is equally critical for the ecosystem is to have space for the artists to continue to grow their art practices. In China, we have this district and in India, we have areas. Let those areas be known totally as an artist community. Without being subsidized by the government, which is not possible because this country is very very expensive in terms of real estate and lifestyle, which is not the case in India, China and Indonesia. Things are cheaper and what you find in China, India and Indonesia is that the non-resident Chinese and Indians buy a lot of local art. They take a lot of pride in promoting the local artists and because of that, their prices have slowly risen and their statuses have gone up as well.
It’s also because a lot of people have moved out of their country. I have moved out of India, I buy a lot of Indian art. I used to when it started but now it’s unaffordable because it has really really gone up. Then came Sotheby’s and Christie’s who started promoting these artists. This is just a phenomenon of the 90s, it’s not far back when Indian artists, Chinese artists and Indonesian artists started rising because their own people patronize them. Their patronage is from their own people, but maybe not the case in Singapore. Singapore is a young country so it’ll take a while but it’s happening. It’s a young country and everyone is trying to push and promote. There are ways of promoting as well and I think this organic community thing has to be rebuilt. I don’t have the answers but I feel it’s lacking.
OMGSOC: What can we look forward to from you in the future?
SS : I’m going to run away and hide (laughs). I’ve been reflecting on that recently and what is that I want to continue. What I like and what I’ve done resonates. It’s not the medium, it’s the theme. I use repetition, multiplicity, patterns and rhythm in my works and I want to continue that. How and what form, I am not entirely clear but I do know about the elements and I think strongly about them. I will continue that in my practice and how it comes in in terms of painting or installation, mixed media or photography or all of them. We’ll talk. That’s all I can think of right now.