INTERVIEW: ArtworldNow talks to Mithu Sen

By Tehezeeb Moitra

Intimate, sexual, intensely personal and yet wildly universal at the same time, there is something unrestrained in the quality of the work of Mithu Sen (b. West Bengal, India, 1971). This exceptionally talented Delhi-based artist creates an intricate tapestry of complicated narratives that make use of drawing, painting and collage for expression. Sen’s impressive résumé includes a vast array of international shows, residencies and awards. Her work 'I am a Poet' is showing at Tate Modern in London until 3 November, 2013.

Mithu Sen, You taste like pao bhaiji, 2009
Mixed media on handmade acid free paper. 28  x 40 in.
Courtesy of the artist and
Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris

One of the most intriguing things about your work is that it unapologetically penetrates into those intimate spaces of the psyche with a kind of pounding viscerality that at times borders on the Bakhtinian sense of the grotesque. Yet, somehow your creations are incredibly elegant and almost delicate in nature. What inspires such a juxtaposition and what provokes you to engage with your subject matter?                
I have always tried to give a voice to the marginal that resides in each one of us and also the marginal that exists around us. I am constantly dealing with taboo aspects of human ‘culture’. Sex and death have been two of my many interests so by bringing out on canvas that which is always kept behind walls of propriety or proper behaviour I like to make my audience confront these taboos. 

Mithu Sen, installation view of Drawing Room, 2006
Courtesy of the artist and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai

In one of my shows, Drawing Room (2006), I had literally brought out sexual taboos into the gallery space re-created into a drawing room where usually the private is never brought out into the public! There were paintings decorating this hall that swelled with bodily sexual innuendoes - tongues, a penis, hair, cut-out pictures of women were all part of this yet there was a morbid quality to it which gave this playfulness its shadows. I also try to turn the ‘familiar’ into the grotesque. I don’t really care if it is the sexuality in my works that interests the audience - for me sexuality is the means to enter the self, the psyche.

Mithu Sen, Untitled, 2006
Mixed media on paper. 11 x 15 in.
Exhibition: Drawing Room. Courtesy of the artist and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai

In earlier projects you have used human hair as well as blood, both of which are significantly from your own body, as primary materials in your work. The use of hair makes me almost automatically think of Julia Kristeva’s theory on the abject. Do you see the use of hair as disrupting the viewer’s (or your own) understanding of the boundaries between subject and object? Or very simply put: why hair?
By using hair and also my own blood I tried to add a dimension of organicity to the overall materiality of my work. Both hair and blood are parts of the human body. They are common to all irrespective of racial, regional, gender, class or caste-based differences so by using them as material I intended to make a statement about the universality of human existence. It has been my response to all sorts of inequalities that exist around us.
The use of hair also has another side to it. Hair is like ‘unbelongings’ (this was also a name of one of my shows), they are part of our identity as long as they are part our body. As soon as they fall, they belong to no one so by using the fallen hair as material in my work, I was reclaiming those ‘unbelongings’ which may belong to anyone!

Mithu Sen, From the series Unbelongings, 2006
Human hair sculptures, five boxes of varying size, lights, stools and video
Courtesy of the artist and The Guild Art Gallery, Mumbai.

A lot of your work is highly eroticised and has often been interpreted as dealing with issues that are primarily feminist in nature. Would you agree with this? Also, how do you contextualise the role of female sexuality in your practice?
My works are highly eroticised. Some have found them even uncomfortably sexual possibly because I try to draw sexuality from both living and inanimate objects. I don’t deny the sexual overtones in my works but I do object to people dealing with only their surface value and overlooking the sensitivity and political acumen invested in my art practice. Many of my works deal with femininity, eroticism and interiority in that sense. 

Mithu Sen, To have and to hold, 2002
Painting and drawing on embossed handmade paper. 30 x 22 in.
Exhibition: I hate Pink. Courtesy of the artist and Lakeeren Gallery, Mumbai
As mentioned earlier, sexuality for me is a way to enter the psyche - be it male or female sexuality. I’d rather like to conceive the body with an androgynous identity, where what is feminine and what is masculine is confined to the realm of ideology so I insist on being looked at not as a ‘feminist’ but as a ‘post-feminist’. 

Mithu Sen, detail of Untitled, 2012
Mixed media on custom made, handmade acid free paper, plexiglass plate engraved. 41 x 29.5 in.
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris

For me, it is important to craft one’s own feminism. What one wants to create/claim need to be related to something specific of womanhood. I ask, who exactly is a ‘woman’? Feminism is not to have a set of theories; individually everyone is a feminist. To have full freedom is feminism. One can be feminist by one’s own personal relationships in order to have one’s own dignity and one’s own power. It does not have to put anybody down and it’s certainly not against men!

Mithu Sen, I Cunt Imagine, 2010
Graffiti, 60 x 96 in.
Courtesy of the artist and
Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai

Mithu Sen, Banana Couple, 2006
Dental polymer, artificial teeth, glue and thread, 10 x 3 x 6 in.
Courtesy of the artist and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai

You won the very prestigious and highly coveted Skoda Prize for Contemporary Art in 2010. Can you discuss your prize-winning series Black Candy, which in many way changes the focus of the gaze from the female and onto the male subject.
The drawings are viewed as an extension of audio and text – a trans-disciplinary gaze. The Black Candy series is like repackaging and auto-critiquing my own art practice viewed inside a box, creating a more intimate space and asking people to experience each piece by touching, smelling, tasting, listening and viewing them. I am aiming for the viewer to be a participant - to act/play and hence become responsible for their act of gaze/voyeurism. This show was an attempt to explore the idea of chaos through different human senses as a metaphorical and eternal collage of life. 

Mithu Sen (from left to right) Place the spine on the blade / There is No Hero No Victim / Beheaded after Prostate Surgery, 2010
Mixed media on custom made acid free handmade paper, 83 x 42 in (each)
  Courtesy of the artist and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai

As I was saying earlier, I always try to define the human body in terms of an androgynous identity in my works so both female and male subjects are looked at with empathy and sensitivity. I would not like to look at men with a scrutinising or demeaning gaze but I would like to bring out the vulnerability to which men are subjected with the stereotypes in which the male body is bound usually. My series Black Candy did precisely that. Also, the full name of the series was Black Candy - iforgotmypenisathome, which added another layer of androgyny to it.  

(l to r) Handle with care but do handle / Twist your Pelvis, Scratch where it Itches / RIP another stomach, Another time, 2009
Mixed media on custom made acid free handmade paper, 83 x 42 in (each)
Courtesy of the artist and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai

In that series, I painted a pregnant man, also a man with a flower-chest. I also painted men in very close proximity of each other, seeking love and comfort, in tears. I tried to bring that side of men which is denied to them on the pretext of this ‘ideal’ notion of machismo. It is certainly pro-homosexuality but I’d like to open up this idea that how even a heterosexual man could also exhibit tenderness of character. 
Your work seems to focus a great deal on identity and your interaction and understanding of the self - yourself - in the context of society. Do you have a favourite piece of work that reflects this connection?
I am constantly interacting with my surroundings, my audience through my works. My works also capture/reflect my response to this interaction with society. Against this interaction, I place my ‘self’ and my identity so I am not only looking at myself as a woman but also as a post-colonial artist in a globalised world and also as a migrant from a small town in Bengal living in a metropolitan city like Delhi. By using different mediums of expression like drawing, sculpture, video and sound installations, I try to come to terms with the matrix of my identity vis-à-vis the world around me so be it the narcissistic presence of my image literally in Half Full or my physical absence from the show’s opening of It’s Good to be Queen, I try to understand myself in this keen play.

Mithu Sen, Half Full, 2007
Photocollage on archival paper, 24 x 17 in.
Courtesy of the artist and Bose Pacia Gallery, New York

Language has also been an important part of this self-exploration. Coming from a Bengali background into a city where I was forced to marginalise one language in order to communicate in a more socially accepted language – English –  I had to find my own ways of reconciling with the world. Obviously, over the years my approach has grown and evolved. It began with the exploration of lingual symbols in No Star, No Land… and it has transformed into a need to find an non-syntactic language that is driven by emotion and not by ideology or grammar.

Mithu Sen, No star, no land, no word, no commitment, 2004
Installation view. Artificial hair on wall. 72  x 240 x 24 in.
Courtesy of the artist and Art Omi, New York

Free Mithu: Summer Dhamaka was a project where you exchanged your original works for letters of love and affection. This sort of altruism is almost unheard of in the art world. Can you tell us about this project?
I have this playful relationship with the market that I love to mock every now and then. Every artist, at one level or another, is confronted with this conflict between the market and creative expression. I try to reconcile them through my playfulness. Free Mithu was one such way.
While supported by many artists and others, the Free Mithu project was launched in early 2007 as an approach to devalue the cooked art market prices. I invited people to send me a letter with love to challenge and critique the conventions of art world exchange and over the years, various forms of ‘letters’ have been received from a wide range of participants across the world. 

Mithu Sen, Display of the Free Mithu works wrapped in pillow cover bags to be given to those who send 'letters of love' to the artist.
Courtesy of the artist and KHOJ International Artists' Association, New Delhi

Through interactions with these contributors, Free Mithu explores the fragile notions of sincerity, generosity and gift-giving and also probes the meaning of this project for my art practice and a broader contemporary market-driven art culture.
The initial proposal would have indicated a series of emotional, psychological, conceptual, intellectual and material exchanges and ‘free’ in the sense of being gratuitous or at no value. Instead, the exchanges between Mithu and her participants already contained everything of worth – beauty, sincerity, truth, life, love, art, warmth, sweaters and mangoes – each metaphoric of an individual interaction. This created a conceptual exchange that might have a different edge from the other types of contributions and gallery concerns that the project might devalue my work. 

It is a ‘transformative gift’ in which the gift changes its recipient profoundly over time, often in the form of psychological healing or teaching. 

As Free Mithu began to take shape as an event, exhibition and performance that went beyond the boundaries of online space, the complexity and overflowing contradictions of the project, which attends to the psychological and emotional depth of performative exhibitions to subvert commercial art market practices Implicitly or unconsciously became apparent. 

Mithu Sen, Web announcement for the Free Mithu show, inviting people to send a 'love letter' to the artist.
Courtesy of the artist

One of the central tensions in Free Mithu is between its public and private lives. The project was online, publicly accessible and interactive and aspires to art being more available. It encourages new and young collectors to seek out and live with work that they love and enjoy and is educational in that and other senses. It is also as private as any art, taking personal relationships and interactions from intimate exchanges and revealing them in a public sphere.
But there is so much more to this project! For me it transcended boundaries in the true sense of the word. The letters came to me in all sorts of ways, from all over the world. Through these letters I was preserving human touch, frozen in time, yet existing beyond this temporality.