A new exhibition at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art not only opens up an opportunity for showcasing Slovenian contemporary art to Indians, it is also a reflection of the artistic ambitions of a relatively new republic.
Mounted inside the sprawling colonial-era building of New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) is a collection of artworks by artists from Slovenia, a small country in Europe that declared its independence from the erstwhile Yugoslavian federation not very long ago. It’s a rare artistic showcase to engage Indians with the rich contemporary art practices of the central European country that celebrated its 25th independence anniversary this year.
The exhibition, titled “Slovenindia”, is also part of the cultural exchange programme between India and Slovenia, and is supported by the National Museum of Slovenia.
The artworks form a heterogeneous mix of creations by established as well as young artists from Slovenia. Created with mixed media materials like acrylic, oil, duct tape, photographic prints and even backlight, the exhibition is also a reflection of the artistic thinking and ambition of a relatively new republic. A quick walk through the gallery of more than a dozen artworks reveals Slovenian artists being preoccupied with wide-ranging themes and questions – from the interpretation of natural landscapes to the more intense existential, creative and feminist topics; along with spiritual and abstract explorations.
Feminist, Existential, Creative Angst
The most striking painting– and perhaps the least abstract also – has been created by Tina Dobrajc, who shows a half-naked woman, wearing a Slovenian folklore headgear, and holding a pig in her arms. The image appears to give an impression of shifting vulnerabilities and strength of the two figures depicted on the canvas – the woman and the animal – and questions socially conformist ideas of female identity and sex. This uncanny work overturns “stereotypical female iconographies”, by placing the woman in “inappropriate and unexpected situations”.
In Sladana Mitrovic’s painting, the feminist overtones acquire an overtly abstract quality, by exploring the relationship between the female body, corporeality and identity. In her use of a bright blue colour in the background, with splotches of what looks like golden o brown, Mitrovic seems to be attacking the very notion of representation, and the cultural problems that arise out of a depiction when associated with the female body. In her feminist project, she goes a step further and questions the limits of the visible itself.
In Brina Torkar, who is also the curator of the show with Breda Sturm, the feminist, the existential, and the mythological overlap. The result is a painting of a natural landscape, titled “Atlanta”, which shows a woman meandering her way through a dense forest – as if she’s asking “where is my place on earth”. The myth of Atlanta, a virgin huntress abandoned by her father because he wanted a son, contributes to the feminist theme. At the same time, in the depiction of the person lost in wilderness, the microcosmic world of a human is juxtaposed with the so-called bigger happenings. In that larger juxtaposition, the feminist question of “where is my place on earth” gets transformed into an enquiry of the human being.
Within this trope of the personal angst, a unique abstract painting by co-curator Breda Sturm – which is titled “Turn on a New Page” – confronts the anxiety of a poet/artist, when he or she starts a new project with a blank page. Using mixed media on canvas, Strum, therefore, depicts the pre-creation stage of an artistic project on her canvas.
Creation (and by implication, the universe) takes on a stunningly exuberant artistic expression in the mixed media paintings of Spela Laela Cvetko. “Her way of seeing the world is playful and sunny,” according to the exhibition catalogue. Through the use of elemental symbols such a big dark yellow sun in the near-centre of the painting, she juxtaposes the so-called outer space against a circumscribing chaotic world. A samurai’s sword over-arches our view of Cvetko’s painting “It is all yours”, adding a playful quality to the whole artwork which may have otherwise looked more intense.
Cvekto’s two-worlds theme figuratively extends into Sergej Kapus’ “Inside the Cut”, that seeks to take a “flight beyond the terrestrial globe”. Apart from acrylic, the work uses digital prints of photographs to show the surface of Mars, a form of artistic “interplanetary voyage”.
Of course, no discussion on creation is ever complete without talking about nature. And rightly so, especially if the artworks belong to a nature-rich country like Slovenia. The country, sandwiched between Italy, Austria and Croatia, is home to Alpine mountains, thick forests, the Adrian Sea coast, and historic cities.
The representation of wilderness has a flirtatious narrative of its own in “Slovenindia” – so much so that the motif subsumes other parallel themes. For example, Simon Kajtna’s creation of a forest, with its atmospheric colours and phantasmagorical essence, has been likened to the Garden of Eden; and its art “reminiscent of the tradition of post-impressionism”. While Peter Gaber’s treatment of the forest is comparatively different, for the sake of artistic inquiry he may be somewhat like Brina Torkar’s mythologically charged painting “Atlanta”. In his acrylic and sort-of abstract work “My Place in Nature”, Gaber paints “the artist’s relation to nature”. The painting has parallel brown lines that look like trees, done against a soft green background – in that geometry, and title of the work, there is probably an existential theme lurking somewhere.
If Gaber’s working of nature is gentle and minimalist at the same time, Mito Gegic’s portrayal of “Autumn” and “Winter” might come across as typically gruff. His radical use of duct tape all over his acrylic work accentuates the coldness of the scene, combined violence, often represented through scenes of hunting. The pervasive duct tape also creates an impression of distorted reality.
On the other hand, the colours of nature explode in Andreja Erzen’s backlit works “Summer Afternoon” and “Night”. In their interaction of colour and light, these effervescent works are created in a kind of “painterly magic realism” style.
The show thrives on such artistic innovations, where artists seek to push the envelope of their creative energies. In the end, you can argue that this project achieves a rare feat – that of hosting artworks by foreign artists in an Indian gallery, which is a irregular practice.
The current cultural exchange program between India and Slovenia also opens up the opportunity to showcase Indian art in Slovenia. While such national-level projects expose artists to a wider audience, such initiatives are few and far between.