It is often debated whether the talent promoted by the visual arts scene has become bit city-centric. What happens to artists who live in remote villages? Does their prodigious talent get discovered or does it remain undiscovered? In an example of a success story that contests this city-centric trope, 26-year-old artist C Unnikrishnan is on the verge of embarking on an international journey to Zug Switzerland. Here he will get the unique opportunity to present his work to curators, directors of leading galleries, museums and auction houses, apart from noted art collectors from Switzerland and Germany. He will also showcase his works at a solo exhibition in Switzerland in March 2018.
Unnikrishnan hails from the quaint little town of Nemmara in Palakkad district of Kerala. His family home is in Pezhumpara which literally means big stone. He belongs to a family of daily wage earners, whose parents used to work in the stone quarry. “I grew up looking into an excavated valley, thanks to stone quarrying which my family vehemently opposed in the beginning, but the destruction illegally continues to this day. The transformation of the landscape around me forms the basis for my inspiration to make art,” he says. His exposure to stones and bricks created his interest in painting on bricks and stones at a very early stage. While at the Thrissur School of Art, he started painting on terracotta bricks on walls of his home, creating one-painting-a-day as if making entries in a visual diary. His work moved out of the home-space and into the light of the art world when he was ‘discovered’, in 2014, by curator Jitish Kallat who showed his work at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that is under the aegis of Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu. One may have remembered his unique paintings on individual bricks used to create a faux wall when he first exhibited this signature work titled ‘Brick Wall’ at the Kochi Biennale and then a version of it was then shown and collected by the Sharjah Biennale Foundation. In late 2015 it was exhibited at GallerySKE in Delhi from where the collectors Richard and Adrianne Blum acquired it.
He may wear a denim shirt but below that, he always has his lungi or Mundu as it is called in Kerala. This duality is emblematic of the artist’s identity since he has one foot in the international art world and one firmly planted in his native place. His work lacks the cosmopolitan sheen that is characteristic of many artists who have migrated from the village to the big city. There is something innocent and raw about his painted-wall installations, as it often speaks of a disappearing culture that is endemic to village life.
It discloses the impulse to archive objects and ways of living that face extinction in an almost imperceptible predicament in rural Kerala brought on by the collapse of traditional economies that are centered on activities such as weaving, farming, and fishing to name a few. With the gradual disappearing of these trades and crats, the objects and implements used to create them are rendered useless or even obsolete. Stirred by the profundity in Unnikrishnan’s work and his passion to make art against the greatest odds, the Blums offered to support Unnikrishnan for two years to create a body of work which they could show at a solo exhibition in Zug. The exhibition made up of about 10 works include paintings, installations, and video works.
“The opportunity to dedicatedly work on a solo exhibition has given me the chance to experiment with varied mediums, which I had so far not worked with, and also given me the space to explore ideas, major influences and translate them into works,” says Unnikrishnan.
“One the first works I made was Portrait of Mother and Sister, which was painted directly onto my bedroom door,” says the artist. This work took several months to complete and by the end of the process, his entire family became very attached to it. “However, as time passed I feel that Mother Weaving Studies is the work what I am most attached to now, as it represents my journey and represents the entire experience of all the works coming together. Past and present. Mother and son,” says the artist. It may well be the beginning of an international presence for the artist and it will be exciting to see how his work grows over the years.