Artist Saju Kunhan continues to paint his family stories

Kerala-based artist Saju Kunhan has always moved from the personal to the sociopolitical in his works. In his second solo, Stadium in Tarq, he again delves into family histories to talk about issues of migration and displacement. Much of this is shaped by the oral histories shared by different generations of his family with him. Kunhan explores these themes through his unique method of transferring images onto teak wood. “The artist’s works on paper are also presented for the first time in this exhibition. All of the works presented in this exhibition explore the more personal side of Saju’s practice,” says gallery owner Hena Kapadia. In an interview with SalonKunhan develops his style, often described as a speculative historical and cartographic practice:

What prompted you to delve into family histories to explore issues of migration and displacement?

If you delve into family histories, you will soon transcend the “personal” and become universal. When I was a child, I heard stories of our ancestors’ migration from family elders. Most of them were related to Tipu Sultan. It is believed that we were warriors and managed to escape from northern Malabar during his battle march through the region. Out of fear, we fled to little-known forest areas in central Kerala and settled in these remote areas. However, no valid document can be found to confirm this story. Most of them exist as oral histories shared by generations.

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In this show, I try to connect our personal stories and histories to the larger context of migration and displacement. While in one work a colony grows in the middle of a desert, and in another work one can see colonies forming inside the forest. In the first, the design of the facility is similar to that of a “Zaatari refugee camp”, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. He arose in the midst of a barren land, where there is limited access to the outside world and a struggle to survive. In the second, people expand their territories through commercial activities and by systematically removing portions of the forest cover.

Materiality, in a way, becomes part of the message. If you could talk about the use of red oxide floors, found objects, maps and models, and the importance you place on using these materials?

In fact, the found items, like the red oxide floor pieces, are from my ancestral home. I spent a large part of my childhood there and I have very close ties with these objects. Now that the house is destroyed, these memories and objects will not be available for future generations. My role is therefore to archive this knowledge for future generations.

I like to use different mediums and explore their possibilities. In my work, objects, supposed to be archival objects, are transformed into raw materials.

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For the first time, you are also showing drawings on paper. Could you specify which ideas lend themselves to being transferred to teak wood, and others in the form of drawings?

The drawings happened by chance. This work was done during the first nationwide lockdown in 2020. I had moved from Mumbai to my village. There were practically no materials to work with. Fortunately, I received ink from the children at home. I also used the central rib of coconut leaves to draw, which also evoked memories of my childhood encounter with art.

Alongside the work on teak wood, I try to communicate my concerns of history, migration, displacement, conquest and colonialism. Furthermore, I relate my works to politics, power as well as environmental concerns. Events unfolding today always have roots in the past. My work is about connecting past and present through concept and methodology.

The process is the main aspect of my artistic practice. I transfer digital images to wood. Recycled old wood carries its own story. The ink from the paper is carefully transferred to the surface. The process takes time and the result is unpredictable, which always fascinates me. I call this process displacement, because what you are seeing is the ink adapting to a new condition.

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Why do you call your work speculative historical and cartographic practice?

History has always been subject to corrections and manipulations. It also depends on the influential force behind the making of the story.

I use large maps in my works, especially those of particular cities that have historical significance. By using historical images, I subject them to a lot of corrections. After being transferred to the wood, what you see is the reverse of the actual images with my manipulations. The historical image ends up losing its original existence.

‘Home Ground’ exists as a collection of stories shared by generations. I connect the stories with the available written stories and draw my own conclusions. So, in a way, that’s my interpretation. It contains historical and fictional elements. The line between reality and fiction is blurred.

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How important are institutional archives in your work? What gaps do you find in the representation of stories in these archives?

I usually visit different museums and do the documentation process. Everything you see in my works comes either from museums or from Google Maps. I use images of museum objects, prototypes and elements of museum dioramas in my work. In museums, most objects are in a mummified state. I bring together different objects and elements, so that they can interact with each other and endure. For me, it’s a process of giving them new life.

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