This review was first published in ArtSlant.
Kitsch with Style
Nilofer Suleman’s first show in October 2009 was like a breath of fresh air. Her paintings didn’t take themselves too seriously but most refreshingly, Sulmena presented a distinctive style that blended the simple, broad lines and wide, expressionless eyes often seen in Indian folk art with a very modern sensibility. It was kitsch that didn’t make you cringe and didn’t rely upon the usual tropes.
In her second show, Suleman does venture towards a more conventional kitsch (like poster art) but she incorporates it into her work in an effort to explore the visual references that make up popular culture in India. The people in “We Two, Ours One” are distinctly more modern than those seen in Suleman’s earlier work. Cellphones peek out of many a cleavage. Rather than just coyly eyeing one another, men and women hold each other close while surrounded by an intricate patchwork of photos, prints, signs, wall paintings and film posters. Through her paintings, Suleman suggests Indian graphic culture – religious kitsch, signage, movie stills – is not simply adornment but also the model upon which reality is fashioned. Aside from showing a set of curious and often humorous scenes, this allows Suleman to show off her ability to draw in a variety of styles in addition to her own mix of folk and kitsch.
In “Iyengar Family,” people pose for their family pictures the way they’ve seen it done in movies even though they belong to and retain traces of traditional conservatism and upper-caste life in their appearance. In a number of the paintings, including “Body of Influence” and “Gulbahar Studeeos,” men and women eye one another as they’ve seen heroes and heroines do in film sequences. More interesting is Suleman’s thesis that notions of masculinity, gender and romance are inherited from religious imagery. In “Nagmani,” the man snoozes while his wife sits with a basket of flowers in front of her. Behind the flower-seller couple is a painting of the passive, reclining Vishnu with his consort Lakshmi sitting at his feet. Both Lakshmi and the flower-seller wife hold a lotus in their hands. “Purity Milk” shows a shop that is adorned with images of Krishna, one of Hinduism’s most popular gods. He’s well-known for being a mischievous boy who stole milk and sweets, and for being one of the top Casanovas in Hinduism (legend has it that he had 108 milk maidens as girlfriends in his youth and 16,108 wives as an adult). At the Purity Milk shop are two couples: one boy who is trying to steal some sweets and a slightly-petrified girl; the other is a young romantic duo whose pose curiously mirrors that of Krishna and Radha (the chief girlfriend in Krishna’s days of youth).
There’s a lot of clever imagery in many of Suleman’s larger paintings, which is unfortunately missing from the smaller works on display. These small works seem to be in the show only to meet the demand for Suleman’s unusual brand of kitsch. So far, by exploring different aspects of the world she’s created out of snatched bits and pieces of reality, Suleman has been able to keep to her style without becoming too repetitive. Her challenge will be to find further depths in this alternative plane and not succumb to the superficiality that is evident in the small paintings of “We Two, Ours One.” So far, however, Suleman’s done well and her second show mostly matches up to her first by being equally fun, accessible, inventive and interesting.