Who Are They?

Who is Sheela Gowda?

Meet the artist who transforms some very unlikely things into amazing artworks

Sheela Gowda Protest My Son 2011

Sheela Gowda
of all people 2011
Photo: Thierry Bal © Sheela Gowda

Spices, old plastic tarpaulins, oil drums, hair and cow poo aren't things we normally think of as art materials. But Sheela Gowda chooses to use these unlikely materials and transforms them into amazing installations and sculptures.

Sheela Gowda was born in 1957 and lives and works in Bengalaru, India. India is the main inspiration for her work – its culture, history, religion, and what she sees around her everyday. She often makes work about the lives, work and living conditions of poor people in India who are often forgotten about.

Sheela Gowda Protest My Son 2011

Sheela Gowda
Protest My Son 2011
Courtesy of the artist and GallerySKE, Bangalore

She is famous for using unlikely things to make her art. These are things used every day in India, but to Sheela Gowda they have a symbolic and sometimes mystical meaning. For example the scraps of tarpaulin and old oil drums she uses in her installations represent the simple slum houses of poor Indian workers, as this is often what they use to construct them.

She also often uses thread, incense (a material which gives off a sweet smell when it burns), and a bright red spice called kumkum. Thread and incense feature in Hindu ceremonies, so become symbols of culture, religion and ritual. Kumkum is associated with energy and is used to make a mark on people's foreheads as part of religious and social rituals.

The shapes in the artwork below are made from the paste used to make incense. In the exhibition she burns these so the shapes melt into dust and leave only burn marks to show where they were.

Sheela Gowda Collateral 2011 (installation view)

Sheela Gowda
Collateral 2011 (installation view)
Photo: Thierry Bal
© Sheela Gowda

Sheela Gowda usually begins her artworks by choosing a material that interests her and tests out its physical qualities (as well as thinking about its symbolic meaning). What can the material do? How can it be transformed? What structure can she make from it?

By playing with the materials and what they can do she makes installations and sculptures that look abstract. But because the materials she uses represent or symbolise things about life in India, the artworks also powerfully put across her thoughts, ideas and feelings.

Let's look closer...

Let's take a closer look at one of her amazing installations and find out more about Sheela Gowda's techniques. This picture shows Behold, a huge installation she made in 2009. It is made from two very different materials. Can you see what they are?

Sheela Gowda, ‘Behold’ 2009
Sheela Gowda
Behold 2009
Tate
© Sheela Gowda

It's made from steel car bumpers and knotted human hair. In fact she used roughly 4000 metres of twisted hair strands to make this work! She meshed these into weird squiggly forms so the whole thing looks a bit like an abstract, three-dimensional drawing.

The work was inspired by talismans (or good-luck charms) made from human hair that are knotted around car bumpers in India to protect against bad luck. The hair comes from local temples, where it is cut off as a sacrificial offering when pilgrims complete certain sacred tasks. The longer lengths of hair are usually sold to make wigs, while the shorter sections are kept to make protective charms.

And Finally...

One of the more unusual materials Sheela Gowda uses in her art is cow poo! In Hinduism, the cow is a holy animal and must be respected. This includes anything that it produces, including its poo.

To some it may just be something to avoid stepping in, but to her and many Hindus it is a powerful symbolic material. In India cow poo has lots of valuable uses, from fertiliser to medicine. For lots of people in the world cow poo is something that gives and preserves life (as it makes things grow and helps people who are ill). You can now even buy paper which is made from cow poo.

If you thought cow poo was something to avoid, maybe you'll have new respect next time you have a near miss in a farmer's field!

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