Texts by Nancy Adajania and Grant Watson


‘He looked at his own Soul
With a telescope. What seemed
all irregular, he saw and
shewed to be beautiful
Constellations, and he added
to the Consciousness hidden
worlds within worlds.’

S. T. Coleridge, Notebooks

Scrolls dyed in different dialects of red fall sheer from a height and kiss the floor. On them, numerous white circles project out like curious eyes. Or are they constellations of stars on a sky-cloth? You cannot decipher the pattern on the scrolls, but a glass case in one corner of the room has books whose pages secrete closely packed, yet legible words. They appear to be recipes for preparing Indian and Continental food.

Reena Saini Kallat’s installation, ‘Walls of the Womb’, is an edifice built from silk saris that hang like amplified scrolls echoing her mother’s absence. The artist’s mother did not live long enough to drape a sari around her daughter’s waist, a coming-of-age ritual in India. This sensuous garment has millennially held many secrets, scents and desires in its folds. Crafted in many weaves and textures, it can be as light as dew, transparent as water or opaque as night. This garment signals a woman’s modesty but also invites erotic play.

Here, the saris stand like a memorial, an elegy for a body that the artist remembers only faintly; she lost her mother when she was eight. As a child, Reena tried to construct a portrait of her mother through family lore and by running her hand blindly over her belongings, her saris, cosmetics, books and bags. I suspect that her vocation as an artist helped Reena to recover a sense of wholeness, to wipe out the colour of lack from her life. That is why her paintings and sculpture installations are constructed like spells to ward off the forces of conflict and chaos besieging the body and, by extension, the body politic. You would find a politically contested site lying like a dormant tumour in a steel cradle (Penumbra, 2006) or smeared across anonymous portraits (Penumbra Passage (Canine Cases), 2006). Denial of her mother’s affection has been projected into an extended narrative of belonging: over the years, Reena has obsessively made hundreds of rubber stamps bearing the names of Indian citizens from different castes and religions, who have been deprived of basic freedoms by the Indian state.

This secret history of Reena’s work comes to light in ‘Walls of the Womb’, her first explicitly autobiographical work. Having herself become a mother two years ago, Reena has tried to make peace with her beleaguered self. She has exorcised her mother’s memories by celebrating her courage. Her mother fought the pain of cancer with beauty, making exquisite flower arrangements, fabric paintings and costumes for Reena and her brother.

The intense colours of Reena’s sari-scrolls bespeak a passion for life. This work is not a dirge, but a ballad. And fittingly so, because the saris have been coloured by the tie-and-dye technique associated with the artisans of Bhuj, in the Kutch desert. Reena chose this method so that she could translate her mother’s recipes into Braille on some dotted areas that are left white, while the rest of the fabric is coloured. On display, the recipes in Braille look like eyes, stars or nipples. As abstractions, they are inscrutable yet rich in possibility – just like her mother’s abbreviated life, which remains an ellipsis. The brackets from which the saris hang are moulded into breasts made smooth with bonded marble. They rhyme with the nourishing recipes in the glass case. The Braille dots are like breath-spans: the silken breath of dream, the hissing breath of recall and the empty-yet-full (w)hole which sucks all life in, shunyata.



Red fabrics hang from floor to ceiling. Tie – dye, a textile technique that is elsewhere known for its exuberance, its hippy array of colours and spider web – like patterns, is here controlled, in a manner similar to that used by the artisans of Kutch. The tie – dye effect (where small segments of cloth are tied up so that they resist colour when immersed in a vat of dye) is reduced to a series of tiny dots, which appear across the lengths of fabric like a starry night sky. It is almost too obvious to point out the linguistic connection between textile and text, ‘the Latin word textum means web’ and put simply, in compositional terms, textiles often employ the repetition of small details, a dot, a squiggle, a paisley, or a flower repeated to produce an all over effect not unlike writing. Of course we don’t read textiles like a book and textiles don’t communicate in the way that writing does, but traditionally the squiggles and the dots did mean something. Paisley for example was connected to fertility symbols. Textiles also reflect the cross currents of cultures as they interact, and so Chintz which was commissioned from Indian artisans by European traders, combines the demands of the metropolitan consumer with the vision and skill of the fabrics makers who substantially embellished the original commission. Textiles have also been indexically linked to art history, from the sumptuous drapery of baroque painting, to the soft sculptures of Robert Morris, taking in along the way Matisse, who described his extensive textile collection (which included North African hangings, embroideries and costumes as well as fabrics from Bali and China and traditional French textiles) as his working library.
Reena Kallat’s red hangings draw on these various strands, going beyond textiles as artefacts and linking them to a wider frame of meaning: fabric design as proto – text, cloth as cultural signifier and textiles as objects in the context of art. Although here the connection between pattern and text is literal not suggestive, because if one was able to decipher them, the pattern of dots in Kallat’s hangings could be actually read as a text. They are in fact recipes, which have been translated into Braille and rendered onto the fabric. In doing this the artist draws up the fact that tie-dye is often three dimensional (as the sections which have been tied up and then untied to reveal areas free of colour, sometimes maintain a slight puckering effect) and here the dots could be read by running ones fingers over the cloth. Touching the cloth would also provide an entry into the hap tic of the work, its cultural references, the sensory world evoked by the choice of fabrics, in this case the world of childhood experiences – Kallat lost her mother when she was eight and the dyed sari’s hanging on the walls, on which her mother’s recipes have been inscribed, are testament to the artist’s loss. Sari’s were amongst the fetish objects left behind. Others included photo albums, recipes, books, stuffed toys, cosmetics and bags, and here some of these elements are brought together in act of what Benjamin calls a ‘purposive remembering’ the work of recollection, the ‘weaving’ of memories in the face of a much more powerful forgetting that permanently threatens to dissolve those fragments from the past onto which we place such significance. Here, not only are these elements (linked to the artist’s mother) summoned into the present, they are also made manifest as a sort of public testimony to her loss and put on display, banner like, in the space of the gallery so that others can enter into this narrative. Functioning perhaps in a similar way to collective mourning, where the community not just the individual bears the brunt of the grief along with the responsibility of holding onto the memory of the departed.
The world which is described here, a narrative that includes the colours and textures of her mother’s clothing, her make up and accessories, the memory of her cooking and the toys that she made for her children, is a feminine world in the traditional sense, it is familial, interior and nurturing. Perhaps you could say that Kallat is a feminist artist, but here she does not critique this world, which is in some senses a stereotypical one, but instead presents us with a portrait, not a painted picture portrait, but a mis – en scene, a theatre of her memories which is both an archive and a fiction. What is recognisable within a tradition of feminist practice going back to the 1960s is a manoeuvre in which the artist, insisting on her right to acknowledge not only her position in relation to art history, but also her role as an individual existing within a web of relationships (mother/daughter/lover) places this material fore – square in the gallery. It is a manoeuvre which is by now familiar to audiences, who no longer question it’s legitimacy but see it as one avenue of expression amongst many others available to artists working today.