Sheela Gowda is presenting a new sculptural installation commissioned by Pérez Art Museum Miami for a tall Project Gallery on the second floor of the museum. The walls and floor of this space are made of concrete, creating a solid, tower-like room. Within the strong geometry of this gallery, Gowda has positioned a series of linear and tactile elements that challenge the cool minimalism of its architecture.
The acute strength of Sheela Gowda’s works lies in the rigorous approach she takes toward both the formal and linguistic potential of the materials she engages. Her practice is one of conjecture, questioning and testing the physical qualities of these elements while concurrently revealing and creating agency for the latent cultural and philosophical references that they provoke. Her works draw from international modernist explorations of abstraction, playing these tendencies against other modernities and forms found in the everyday context of Bangalore, India, where Gowda lives.
And that is no lie consists of yards of rough cotton fabric that have been stitched together to create a gigantic rectangular canopy, measuring 30 by 35 feet. Black rope has been threaded through a fold along the edge of the fabric, from which the four corners have been attached, at different heights, to the walls of the room. The center section of the canopy has been cut from this large rectangle and lies fallen on the gallery floor. Hanging across the walls of the room is the structure’s remaining frame of fabric and rope. The edge of this fabric has been cut using a jagged pattern, creating a series of hanging triangles that recall small decorative flags, paradoxically conflating an act of separation with one of celebration. Several metal elements crisscross the space. A scaffoldlike structure made of dark iron poles that are bound together creates a partially built, rectilinear form. An empty metal flagpole, 30 feet in height, leans against one wall of the gallery, extending diagonally across the floor.
The canopy in this piece alludes to a traditional Indian tent or awning known as a shamiana, or pandal. Dating back to the Mughal era, these light, temporary enclosures are still commonly used for ceremonial purposes—for weddings, funerals, or other social gatherings. The particular rope that the artist has used in this installation is one that she has employed in several previous projects. Woven together from human hair, this material is found in markets in South India and used as a good luck charm. It is often coiled around car bumpers to protect drivers from accidents, or hung around an animal for protection.
Each of the materials in this installation carry references to human collectivity: the shamiana as a site for social interaction through celebration or mourning; the hair rope through its commingling of the physical fragments of hundreds of individuals. The intense red fabric used in the piece creates a charged atmosphere for the viewer. Gowda uses the color here in reference to its traditional use with the shamiana, while additionally evoking contemporary political symbols. Red as the international color of communism, revolution, the workers’ movement (since the Revolutions of 1848), and leftist thinking in general, emerges a referent in this piece.
While communism and socialism, as uniquely transnational movements, powerfully shaped critical thinking and cross-cultural dialogue for decades, these ideologies are increasingly seen as nostalgic positions—something of the past, in their final stages of being taken apart. Gowda hints at these past and present political concerns and at a more general lost sense of collectivity through the ruptures and dismantling that her installation presents. Examining further the formal and symbolic vocabulary Gowda establishes within this installation, however, a rich ambiguity is revealed: the broken shelter she presents, rather than representing a structure in the process of being dismantled, could perhaps be seen instead as depicting one in the process of being built, pulled upwards into place. The flagpole included remains enigmatically bare, missing its sign of nationalism, collectivity, or political assertion. Its lack here perhaps hints, in an open-ended manner, at diffused identities, articulated in a globalized, post-national world.