Initially I found it difficult to dissect meanings from Bharti Kher's works, now on display at Parasol Unit. However, once fully immersed in the exhibition it becomes apparent that strong connotations lie within every element of her works. Kher is primarily known for her use of bindis - thousands of swirling dots forming intricate patterns - and her more recent pieces are largely comprised of fertility bindis - tiny serpents or sperm-like shapes in a vast spectrum of colours.
One of the most dominating pieces is The Deaf Room: built out of black glass which was commissioned by Kher to be made first into bangles and then into bricks, it appears to almost stand sentry as you enter the exhibition. From outside it is a fortress, a shelter, but once you step inside it becomes constricting and claustrophobic – this is a metaphor for the female position, protected yet somewhat imprisoned in the home. It was important for Kher that the glass bricks were once the traditional glass bangles worn by Indian women to reinforce this link to Indian culture and its perceived control of women.
This theme is evident throughout the exhibition, although some pieces are far more cryptic than others: for example, The Skin Speaks a Language of its Own - a blue-grey elephant which lies defeated on the gallery floor – is incredibly subjective. Is it calmly resting? Asleep? Exhausted? Dead? The contours of the animal are marked out with a haze of silver fertility bindis, as if it has been stamped – it is almost as if it is suggestive of a woman drained, tired of her position as a vessel for childbearing. On a simply aesthetic level the piece is sturdy, the thick hide of an elephant perfectly mimicked by the hair-like rows of bindis, yet the soft expression of the face gives it fragility – it is actually quite a tragic image of a powerful creature, felled.
This fatalistic attitude towards femininity is by no means the overriding theme of the exhibition, however: on the first floor we see Warrior with Cloak and Shield, a tall woman in cream fibreglass stands strong, antlers protruding from her dreadlocked head. This piece reminds of legendary female warriors, or mythological nymphs and strong female idols – but she shields herself insufficiently with a splitting banana leaf and carries upon her antlers a sequinned shirt: strength, subjugation, and suppression, it's all there, the complex history of women is personified within one piece. Warrior may be one the one hand a nude clothes-stand, but her power shines out foremost.
Warrior is a very different piece to another of Kher's five largest works, And all the while the benevolent slept, a piece with which the significance of Kher's titles becomes apparent. Here we see a thin fibreglass woman fixed to a solid mahogany pedestal by a phallus. She holds in one hand the skull of a laughing monkey, bejewelled with shimmering fertility bindis, in the other a teacup rimmed with a set of human teeth whilst copper spikes protrude in place of her head, attempting to touch the ground. Immediately there are suggestions of sex, death and ageing – this woman is forced onto this pedestal, attempting but failing to reach the ground, her head removed, useless. Kher comments again upon the cost of keeping women protected: repression, while her title suggests that this situation is ignored, perhaps not maliciously so, is just simply accepted.
These copper spikes continue into works such as Solarum Series I as branches holding fleshy forms like autumnal leaves; these are in fact the miniature heads of fantastical creatures - referencing a tree of life perhaps. Lifecycles and reproduction are patently key themes for Kher, sometimes subtly referenced and sometimes overtly clear with her use of fertility bindis. Whilst sometimes this is celebrated, as in From the beginning to the end which portrays childhood, adulthood, reproduction and death through an assortment of different sized, coloured and shaped bindis, other works such as Contents depict pregnancy and labour as problematic and awkward, an uncomfortable issue cloaked by infinite layers of gleaming fertility bindis.
For the most part Kher highlights female issues as isolating and subordinated, yet at times she depicts them as precious: three of her sculptures which discuss the difficulties of the domestic role stand on beautiful marble plinths, surely promoting their importance. This may be the crux of the issue however: Kher sees women as controlled, yet indispensible - the heart of the family both by choice and by expectation, especially in Indian culture - absolutely invaluable yet not valued.
This exhibition is by far one of the most thought-provoking collections of work I have seen: Bharti Kher's works are expertly executed, aesthetically striking and conceptually potent – a must see.