Skip to content
Sculpture Magazine

Part Of It: A Conversation with Ranjani Shettar

By Beth Williamson

Every aspect of Ranjani Shettar’s artistic practice is rooted in the natural world. Her studio, where she often works out of doors, is located in rural Karnataka in India. That local context is important since she draws on established craft traditions to find the tools and techniques that might be adapted to contemporary sculpture. Embedded in and responsive to context and surroundings, Shettar’s is an ecological and ethical approach to making.

Cloud songs on the horizon, her current installation at the Barbican Conservatory in London, replaces the fragile constellations of intricate sculptures for which she is best known with more solid, faceted forms that nonetheless sit lightly among the lush foliage. Viewers are drawn from sculptures to plantings and back again, the connection reinforced by Shettar’s sympathetic use of natural dyes such as madder root and pomegranate on muslin. The forms themselves echo the shapes of surrounding leaves and petals, while colors and textures find parallels in paper-like tree bark and hanging flower heads. There is a cornucopia of life here, and Shettar’s sculptures make it all the richer.

Beth Williamson: This is your first major institutional exhibition in Europe, and it features all new works. This is also the first artist commission for the Barbican Conservatory. How much of a challenge was it for you?
Ranjani Shettar:
 It was challenging and inspiring at the same time. I came here for an initial research visit in December 2022. That was very useful because the nature of the space is such that I wouldn’t have been able to understand it otherwise. It was good for me to come and spend three days, to experience the space, the different times of day, how much people love it, what it is all about. It was very cold when I came, and the plants were not at their best. When the installation opened in the summer everything had grown. It was nice to see, but I had to navigate those changes with my install.

BW: The sheer scale of the space is incredible—the conservatory is 23,000 square feet, with 1,500 species of plants and trees. It is a real balance between the architecture and the planting, although that is curated and built in its own way. How does what you do as an artist relate to nature? You’ve said that you don’t really separate yourself from nature.
RS: I feel that we are just part of it. We are not different or separate from nature, we are living creatures—it’s just that we have grown apart more and more over time, and we’ve started living away from our natural dwellings. I try to live close to nature, and I like to work outdoors rather than indoors. It’s nourishing and inspiring. I am always outside—the endless forms and the beauty entice me to keep going again and again.

BW: Do you hope that your work might bring people a little closer to nature?
RS: I don’t intend to do that as such, but if it happens, if people can pause and look, I am very happy. When you love something, you will take care of it.

BW: The title of your installation, Cloud songs on the horizon, is poetic, evoking an ecological consciousness that has grown in recent times in contemporary art and more broadly. Is that something you especially wanted to explore?
RS: Ecological concerns have been the bedrock for me from the beginning, part of my understanding and practice for a very long time, ever since I started exhibiting professionally. I’m not very explicit, but it comes through in my carbon footprint and use of materials—I am always very aware of that. I have restricted myself many times when I’d thought of something that didn’t fall in line with that approach. Just like my sculptures, my titles are also abstract. My sculptures have multiple ways to look at them and multiple references, and the titles can do the same thing. Sometime they come easily. Sometime I have a general feeling of what I want to say, then I have to come up with a title that says what I am feeling. Sometimes it happens in parallel, and then it’s very beautiful.

BW: You use a range of materials and processes, some from traditional Indian crafts. Some works are fragile, while others are robust. How do you decide? Is there a dialogue between materials and ideas as you are making?
RS: In sculpture, some of the more technical aspects become embedded in the process, for instance, one has to take care of the stability of the work. There are two ways that I approach it. Sometimes I know what I want, and I go looking for a material that will lend itself to being used in that way; then, I manipulate it to do what I want. Other times, I completely submit myself to a material and see what is possible with it, taking it to the extreme, to the limits of what it can do. I’m always looking. Wherever I go, if I see a material that interests me, I collect a sample, store it, and research it. It takes me a long time before I get to grips with a material. I may be familiar with something, but it doesn’t seep into my practice that quickly. It takes time to match the idea and be convincing from many perspectives, and it has to be a sustainable material.

BW: Your work resonates visually with Western abstract and minimal sculpture, but it’s something different. The way that you conjoin techniques and materials is mostly drawn from sources local to where you work. Can you say something about that context?
RS: I feel that when a technique is passed on from generation to generation, there is a kind of refinement that happens over time, which is beautiful. It takes time to develop a new technique, so I look at these craft traditions as a repertoire of inspiring processes. It’s local to where I live because that is what is around me, but I think if I lived somewhere else, I would be equally inspired by what was around me there. So, it doesn’t necessarily have to come from one geographical location, it could be from anywhere, but many of the techniques happen to be from where I live.

BW: The works that you made for this installation are reminiscent of seed pods, or enlarged cellular structures. There is a sense of energy flowing through them. What did you achieve with this configuration of works, and what have you learned that you will take forward in your practice?
RS: I consider light as a critical part of sculpture-making. When you light sculpture, shadows are inevitable, and those shadows can be controlled and used in a way that adds to the sculpture. I knew that I wasn’t going to have shadows here because of the nature of the space, so I started experimenting with forms to capture more light, to increase visibility and not get lost in this grand space where there is already so much richness. I didn’t want to fight or compete with that richness. I wanted to support it, maybe sing with it, just be part of it. I am still fascinated with color, form, and texture—all of those tactile and elemental things of art practice—they can keep me engaged forever. I think that, from here, I will take the surface of sculptural forms as something to work on in my practice.

BW: Encountering your work in this space creates an emotional pull; you feel connected to it, especially as you ascend to higher-level walkways and see the sculptures at eye level. What do you hope people with take away from the experience of seeing the work in this space?
RS: I would hope that they really take time and see things slowly, see the details, notice the textures. I always like texture, which makes everything more satisfying for me as an artist. Even though we are all running around, I hope that people will experience the slowness and space. People already want to use the conservatory as a place to sit and pause, and my work is an addition to that.

Cloud songs on the horizon is on view at The Barbican in London through June 2024. “Wings of the river,” Shettar’s solo exhibition at TALWAR, New York, has been extended through May 4, 2024.

View Exhibition Page

View More on Sculpture Magazine