When the art world lost artist Hema Upadhyay, it was staggered. Both her and the expanse of her immense talent were grieved for a long time, or are still being grieved. On her death anniversary, she must be remembered for her poignant art works. In the year of 1972, Hema Upadhyay was born in Baroda. She earned her BFA and MFA from the University of Baroda and soon came to become one of the most recognised artists in the Indian Contemporary Art scene. She had a fresh and unique voice.
If one manages to sift through her numerous works, it becomes clear that migrants are often the locus of her pieces. They can be found climbing and walking in the huge expanse of the urban spaces. It appears as if they are trying to make sense of this new geography and all that it entails. Her work was a commentary upon the ills that plague our urban spaces and those who inhabit it. Themes of uneven development and a crisis of belonging and adaptation are often dealt with.
Her works are riddled with uncomfortable questions. A work often referred to as one of her finest is titled ‘Dream a Wish, Wish a Dream’ (2007,06). It provokes the viewer to think by asking questions about the definitions of utopia and dystopia and how they might seep into each other, about what it means to accommodate worlds that threaten to cancel each other out. Some of her works are self images of a woman going about doing mundane tasks claiming both the public and private spaces.
‘The Nymph and the Adult’ was Upadhyay’s first international solo exhibition. It consisted of 2000 tiny carefully crafted cockroaches that took over an art gallery in Australia. Her distinctive materials, subjects and the way she utilised spaces became hallmarks of her art practice.
Ranjit Hoskote, a curator and cultural theorist, was quoted in a Hindustan Times article saying that “Hema was willing to take risks in her artistic practice. She would explore distinct subjects, from the female self’s negotiation of domestic and urban space to the patchwork architecture of informal housing in the Indian metropolis. Also, she worked with diverse media.”
Her work titled, ‘Conversation’ was displayed at an arts festival in Goa called Sensorium. It used rice grains to create a face of a man and woman to depict lovers that are together yet separate.
Another striking work by her is an installation of the infamous Dharavi slum of Mumbai. The installation offers an aerial view of the slum and is made up of tin cans, aluminum sheets and plastic. It is titled “8’ X 12’” because that is the average size of a slum house in Mumbai’s Dharavi. The installation succeeds in evoking a cramped feeling and is highly sensorial. The whole large scale expanse of the slum was created in painstaking detail in the small scale where she was able to capture habitation in its most mundane forms. Hoskote has further pointed out that Upadhyay succeeded at not romanticising the slum and through the use of materials such as sharp metallic objects she has alluded to the dangerous elements of inhabiting a slum. She liked playing with scales, in her self portraiture, she often depicted herself as an extremely tiny figure.
Her last show was titled, ‘Scales of Attention’ at the Chemould Gallery in Mumbai. Upadhyay was an immensely talented artist and her talent was truly respected in the art circle. She even received the Gujarat Lalit Kala Academy and the National Lalit Kala Academy award for the 10th International Triennale-India.
Her works were known internationally and she was part of some of the most important exhibitions all over the world including Modernization, The Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, USA (2013); and Espace Topographie de l’Art, Festival D’ Automne a Paris (2011); Mute Migration, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia (2012); Where the bees suck, there suck I, Reopening of MACRO museum, Rome Italy (2009).
Often remembering her, her story is lost in the tale of her tragic demise and the media coverage that followed it as revelations after revelations came to the fore. History must remember her as an artist deeply aware of the problems that marked the urban spaces of its country. An artist who through her work provoked thought and asked uncomfortable questions and who made use of personal experience to create beautiful, almost unsettling creations. Her contribution to the Indian Contemporary Art scene is immense and that is how we must remember her: through her works.