Rarely has an exhibition been as keenly anticipated as Anjum Singh's forthcoming, and autobiographical I am Still Here, almost an invocation by the artist whose absence from the current art scene has been the result of life-threatening cancer which she has been grappling since 2014. The last few years, as she has undergone chemotherapy in New York, have been long and lonely. the only child of artists Arpita Singh and Paramjit Singh, the family has been suffused with anxiety and pain. Paramjit himself was injured while taking care of his daughter in the city, further chemotherapy looms like a sentence in the immediate aftermath of the exhibition.
Artists, unlike writers, have rarely navigated the personal space in their work, avoiding the mawkish self-indulgence that one's own body conveys. Anjum, captive to her body's condition over the last five years, has taken it head-on, as though critically evaluating each joint or limb, muscle, and tissue, examining it in the manner that medical examiners explore diseased parts - piecemeal and in isolation. Her analysis has been brutally honest and alienating. The geography of a body is like a geopolitical mass with claims and counter-claims within which she places the urban environment which defined her earlier work. Transposed on her body, the city is at once familiar and alien, drawing the strings on its multi-layered freedoms and repressions. The aesthetics of a hospital, its urgencies, and theatre, its doors that open and shut on life, are at once a receptacle of high reasoning and disciple as well as unreasonable emotion and doubt. Its crossroads are forever marked by equal measures of despair and hope.
As part of her training, Anjum embraced both her mother's roots as well as her parents' alma matter, studying art first in Santiniketan and later at the College of Art in New Delhi, before heading to the Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC. Her muse was always the city - her city, which ironically, she interrogated like a body (recall her exhibition titled The Skin Remembers in 2011). Drawn as much to an urban tautology, she questioned its squalor and corroding environment, almost presciently drawing parallels to what would be replaced by her own body. Like the medical profession that is poking and protruding and pouring in chemicals into her body, she combined materials that embraced tradition and technology equally to create works that were a dialogue between drawing, painting, and sculpture using industrial materials as well as articles on daily consumption to make her point. By 2015, with Masquerade- this was soon after her life-altering diagnosis- she had already bridged the gap to paint almost ethereal explorations of the body that lie under the skin, again, drawing parallels with the interiority of the city.
Friends, supporters, and admirers are planning their travels and schedules to mark their presence at the opening of I Am Still Here on September 7 at Talwar Gallery as much in her support as of her parents. Anjum's long absences from the city and disengagement from its art have been noted with dismay. Only the closest have had access to her during this physically and mentally trying period. The exhibition, comprising intensely personal works undertaken during this ordeal, is a symbol of resistance - hers and the body's - against disease and decay. Anjum's response, however personal, is a marker of the footprints that humanity and nature jointly combat - sometimes in harmony; often in conflict. Her encounters may have been less than salubrious, but Anjum's work looks beyond the maudlin to dissect an aspect of life that rarely gets an airing in art. Her outing of its cruelty, as well as savage beauty, is a reminder of the fragility of life.