She is the powerful protagonist, performer and presence in her art. Playing the central role in her photo and video performances complete with elaborate costumes, unusual settings and a lot of drama, Pushpamala N re-enacts historical representations of women. Pushpamala will be participating at the New Orleans Biennial in October with a set of photographs selected by the curator Franklin Sirmans. Her work from the series From The Ethnographic Series Native Women of South India: Manners & Customs, 2000-2004 (Supported by an Arts Collaboration Grant from the India Foundation for the Arts) was displayed at The Body In Indian Art at National Museum, Delhi.
She says, “My work can be called performance photography. I’ve always been socially aware. Over the years, I have developed a way of using familiar imagery to comment on society, and have added myself to the composition to become part of the story and transform the outcome.” Pushpamala is known for her signature style of critiquing female stereotypes using herself as the chief subject in her projects and “photo romances”. Her recent works will be on view at the Gallery Sumukha in Bangalore in August with Avega/Passion. Throughout the year, Pushpamala will also show her works in various museums in Bochum, Mumbai and San Jose.
What is her unique body of work all about? Her subjects range from a not-so-demure Sita to a placid matronly Mother India; from a fantasy super hero to a 16th century European aristocrat. Moving between different themes, settings, characters and moods, she allows a strong sense of place and humour in her works. Using a flexible narrative style, she first constructs, then deconstructs her plot. She adds, “I try to ensure that my work stays non judgmental at best, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions.” she says. In one of her earlier series of black and white photographs, she appears caped and masked as The Phantom Lady in a rather startling Zorroesque avatar at familiar Bombay locales—a train station, a bus stop, and a stadium.
Ravi Varma portraits epitomising beauty are juxtaposed with two mug shots of women criminals. A 1960s still of Jayalalitha in action gear from an old magazine cover rubs shoulders with a 16th Century “yogini” from a Bijapur miniature and an image of Our Lady of Velankanni. We spot a Toda woman dramatically poised against a chessboard and another boldly riding on a motorcycle. A housewife in a dowdy petticoat projects her secret fantasies—climbing out of the boot of a vintage Ambassador car, complete with bouffant hair do and a billowing frock. “I like to provoke ideas through scenes and situations that are common. I also like to mix up genres and add my own point of view. Jayalalithaa connects directly with the Phantom Lady. Who can you relate to better—Ravi Varma’s ideal Indian woman or the chain snatchers? We also improvise a great deal. We add group shots of the crew on the sets, and recreate representations from paintings, newspaper photographs, historical archives, advertisements and film stills. Our subjects range from hausfraus to mythological characters and criminals.” Pushpamala’s work is never sedate or muted. High action grandly unfolds in finely detailed tableaux, reminiscent of the ornate settings of last century’s Parsi and Kannada theatres. There is the dramatic use of special effects, like mist, symbolising dreams and illusions and boldly highlighted against faint Arcadian landscapes and golden architectural silhouettes.