The agony and ecstasy of Anjum Singh
The artist has transformed personal afflictions to a more universal level of human experience in her layered images
Anjum Singh’s latest exhibition — I am still here — offers an exciting encounter. Her seven oils and countless mixed media works on paper, from 2015, are on view in New Delhi after a gap of almost a decade. It is one of the most well-hung exhibitions of the season, presenting dramatic views of individual paintings and compelling groupings of works on paper.
The long break between her last solo show and this has brought a major shift in her imagery. In the earlier phase of her work, Singh (52) focused on the urban environment, the complexities of its organisation and structure, the order and movements of its networks, its environmental degradation and its crowded buzz.
At one of her earlier shows, when she was experimenting with different material several years ago, she had made a number of beehives using iron and magnets, suggestive of the teeming city habitat. There was also a fascinating installation of a shimmering trash heap, titled All that Glitters, again highlighting her environmental concerns.
But now she has turned her gaze inwards. Most of the works in this show, at the Talwar Gallery, explore the interior landscape of the body — the lungs, the heart, the viscera, the tubes and capillaries that keep the pulsating life force flowing.
There is, perhaps, a reason for her absorption with the human body. In 2014, Singh was diagnosed with cancer and she has since been battling the disease. Sometimes she has had recessions, and at other times she has been in and out of hospitals. And during times of some respite, she has painted these compelling images.
Singh’s images are varied. They can be simple and direct, such as the work I Am Pink, done with watercolour and pencil on paper. It shows a pair of lungs attached together with an elastic band. There is often a quirkiness in Singh’s images that intensifies their appeal. There are images that speak of a playful, whimsical imagination. The richly painted oil Belly Button is one such. Singh creates what can be termed visual puns with buttons and other circular forms. In fact, she often uses different impressions of rounded forms, such as the screw heads that appear in some of her works.
Then there are complex, intricate images of physicality, done on paper, showing tufts of fine filaments, cross-sections of concentric lines like a bit of skin seen under a microscope, delicate tubular forms. Singh’s handling of her images is subtly layered, wherein a deep, intimate experience of pain is mixed with a clinical distancing from her personal experience. In the oil on canvasHeart, there is the darkish organ floating against a background of richly painted cellular structure in shades of pink. In striking contrast, there is the stark, monochromatic, almost-abstract oil Alien, which leaves a strong impression on the viewer of an invasive attack on the system.
Apart from the paintings and mixed media works featuring parts of the body, there are a few works that refer to the human habitat. The work on paperFall 2018 has splotches of red and yellow watercolour on a convoluted network of routes. Wildfires of California is another work on paper showing staccato lines placed at angles with similar splotches of colour. These works on paper belong to a series that Singh had done in 2018 when she was in the US for treatment. In Dust Storm, the predominantly grey oil done a couple of years earlier, one sees an abstraction of a turbulent natural phenomenon.
The powerful impressions of Singh’s images are a result of her unquestionable control over her mediums. Singh’s lines are a delight. They are so nuanced — bold, fine, firm, crisp, delicate and wispy, curvy and sinuous — that they hold the viewer’s attention. It is the same with her handling of colours. She has kept her palette deliberately limited to reds, pinks and black. A grey and a blue oil are the only exceptions. But within this restricted range, she has achieved such a dazzling variety of shades and textures in her oils that they demand repeated viewings.
Similarly, in the watercolours, Singh’s application is infinitely varied. With tints, washes, daubs, stains and drips, Singh suggests the pulpy, soft mass of living flesh, the trickle of dripping discharges of body fluids, the mysterious workings of human physiology. Through this collection of paintings and works on paper, she has transformed her personal afflictions to a more universal level of human experience.
Singh has had very varied training as an artist. She graduated in art from Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. Her Master’s degree was from the Delhi College of Art, where her parents — the artists Arpita and Paramjit Singh — studied in its previous incarnation as Delhi Polytechnic, and, finally, she studied art at The Corcoran School of Art, Washington DC. Each of these institutions shaped her sensibilities in their own way. They taught her to see, experience, articulate.
She has succeeded in evolving her own distinctive language, which haunts viewer memory. Her oeuvre in I Am Still Here is an undaunted humanist’s assertion challenging the afflictions and mishaps that life has in store for all humans.