MUMBAI — I was not familiar with Anant Joshi when I entered his exhibition, Raised Eyebrow, at Chemould Prescott Road, but I was instantly riveted by the nine large paintings featuring a tar-black Rorschach-like form atop a patterned, colored ground. As immediate as these images were, though, it was only after longer scrutiny of the paintings’ layered surfaces and materials, and of the artist’s sculptures and light boxes, that I sensed the depth, ambition, and satiric edge of Joshi’s timely art.
With the exhibition’s title hinting at both surprise and skepticism, I think it is fair to conclude that the work addresses India’s current political and social state, especially after learning that the images in the 11 light boxes — collectively titled Zeroed Down to Zero (all 2023) — are sourced from newspaper clippings, and, according to the press release, “Anant Joshi is a newspaper devourer.” Yet I think these works are about more than just current events.
Ten of the light boxes are evenly spaced on a long wall of an enclosed, hall-like area. The single light box at the far end, which I encountered last, contextualized what I had been looking at: circular enlargements of spiky fabric, sometimes against a black shape suggesting an arm or shoulder, on a white ground. The last light box contained a key to the installation, a grainy colored photograph of a group of men standing in front of a table at which two men sit and look over a stack of papers. Dispersed across the picture are circles in which the artist has inserted an indecipherable, but seemingly figurative, image; it is the blowups of these circles that we see in the other 10 light boxes.
In December 2019, the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which provided a fast track for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to become citizens. The law also reserved the category of “illegal immigrant” for Muslims alone. Shortly after its passage, protests broke out across India, as many people were understandably fearful that this law would lead to the disenfranchisement of India’s substantial Muslim population. Not all officials complied — the chief minsters of the states of Kerala, Punjab, and West Bengal announced they would refuse to implement the law. As the government instituted a violent crackdown against the protestors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that “those who are creating violence can be identified by their clothes,” further fueling religious intolerance. Joshi is referring to this state of affairs when he calls attention to the reductiveness of Modi’s statement, and the possible consequences of such absurd reasoning.
The three sculptures, composed of a dark and a light-colored part, each made of distinct materials (sand-blasted bronze and fiberglass; colored paper and silver wrapping paper) are each titled “Missing – Flowers of the Wilderness” (all dated 2023). Both parts are open forms with uneven surfaces marked by bulbous and tear-like shapes, recalling spiky coral. The bright fiberglass pieces peer through the openings of the blackish bronzes. While the title indicates that the source is from nature, the press release clues the viewer into Joshi’s source.
According to the press release, the sculptures were inspired by “an almost comic episode of a common citizen from Madhya Pradesh who had filed an RTI (Right To Information) to the PMO’s office asking about the whereabouts of the original 3 Monkeys — a miniscule toy-like sculpture that was kept by Gandhi.” The three monkeys, which signified to his followers to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” and was one of his few worldly possessions, went missing shortly after he was assassinated by the Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse, who could not abide by Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence toward Muslims. However, “the pursuant citizen Z was informed through his inquiry 3 years later that the monkeys were (now) housed (as large sculptures) at Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad!” The absurdity of the government’s response prompted Joshi to make these two-part sculptures, which share basic corporeal features but do not resemble each other.
The exhibition’s paintings, created by layering varied materials (listed as “acrylic colors, silver gift wrapping paper, tar paint, and UV varnish on canvas”), are rendered as different patterns of acrylic color carefully applied in parallel and nesting bands overlaid with open networks of linear filigree. The bands’ different-colored sections recall pinched oval beads. Superimposed over this is a Rorschach-like silhouette composed of echoing and nesting bands.
Joshi fills in the silhouette (which is delineated with silver wrapping paper) with tarry black paint applied in parallel bands and nesting ellipses that are defined by slight grooves. The bands within the silhouette echo the ones seen peering through the silver wrapping paper and final layer of UV varnish. That interaction animates the figure-ground relationship and infuses the composition with a visual complexity.
The cartoony silhouettes, which seem to be simultaneously melting and exploding, evoke familiar sights, as in “Newsroom Anchor” (2023), which has a ghoulish face surrounded by less decipherable forms, and preposterous events, such as “Thunderstruck Typewriter” (2023). In the latter painting, the connection between the imagery and title eludes comprehension. The experience is funny and delightful. At the same time, the humor running through all of Joshi’s work provokes viewers to reflect upon serious issues, such as Prime Minister Modi’s orchestration of religious fervor and the extreme lengths the government will take to deny that Gandhi’s three monkeys object is missing. Gandhi believed that India should be a secular, pluralistic society where different religious could be practiced — a stance that Prime Minister Modi and his party are trying to overturn.
Though not well known outside of India, Joshi is global artist whose concerns are hardly limited to the current turmoil unfolding in his native country. By using camouflage, which leads us to look deeper and more closely, the artist reminds viewers that we should always do the same in the world. Otherwise, we accept propaganda as the news.
Anant Joshi: Raised Eyebrow continues at Chemould Prescott Road (3rd Floor, Queens Mansion, G Talwatkar Marg, Fort Mumbai, India) through February 10. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.