Where the water takes us | An interview with Rithika Merchant

Posted on Dec 07, 2017

As told to Kaveri Acharya

The power of Rithika Merchant's work lies in her ability to weave together myths from across the civilizations to articulate contemporary concerns. Her paintings and collages depict a world where physical amd spiritual displacement has created a profound feeling of loss. The compelling visual beauty of her work, however, carries a promise - a promise of a better future, where the crsytaline spirit, free from the restrctions of race and gender, will be able to enjoy another homecoming. 

We sat down with Rithika to better understand the depths of her unique visual world and rigorous artistic practice. 


 ”Where the water takes us" draws upon the powerful image of vast oceans. What is your relationship to the sea, having grown up in Mumbai and Barcelona? 

Growing up in Mumbai next to the sea, my relationship to it is both mental and visual. Living in Barcelona my relationship to it is much more physical. The sea for me represents infinite possibilities and I feel quite claustrophobic without having this wide expanse to near me. Where the land ends, new possibilities begin. 

Tell us a little bit about your journey from Bombay to New York and now Barcelona? How have these cities influenced your aesthetic sensibilities? 

 The combination of having grown up in India, studied in the U.S.A. and then travelled extensively and finally settled in Europe is the reason for my interest in the links between cultures. I've been lucky enough to able to explore different cultures and witness them. Both Europe and India have such a mixture of different traditions, it has helped me see parallel histories everywhere. The history of myth and traditions shows links between cultures that often isn't highlighted in classical history. 

What is your process? How much research goes into a piece (or series) before you embark upon the actual "making"? 

 I create primarily in my studio in Barcelona, Spain. My studio is part of my home and I love being able to wake up and walk down the corridor to another room and start creating. I spend a lot of my time reading and researching ideas I have, or subjects that I am interested in. I will often read something and have a very vivid image in my mind. Sometimes it’s just a flash, and manifesting these ideas comes naturally. I have my own lexicon of symbols and creatures that I use in my work and so I use these as tools to help me as I visualise these ideas. Once I have a clear idea or image in my head I usually just start to draw directly onto my paper - I rarely sketch beforehand - then I add ink and paint. Sometimes I may do a colour wash or tint on the paper before I begin.  If I am working on a folded piece, then I will fold the paper or make some cuts before I start drawing. I also have a notebook in which I make lots of written notes and diagrams but I almost never make sketches or studies of things. I sketch more with words than images. For my folded pieces, I usually fold the paper before I begin drawing and then after I finish the painting I fold it back up along the same creases to store it. Often, I am able to fold it into some sort of smaller geometric shape, and the paintings then turns into an object. In this way, the paper itself is part of the narrative. 

 Coming to the second, and perhaps not as obvious, thematic strand in this show - migration. This is a difficult and sensitive topic to grapple with. What was your approach to it as you started working on this body of work? 

Water and migration go hand in hand for me, largely due to where I live. Being confronted with the “Shame Counter” daily is a reminder of scale and horrors of this crisis. This digital counter was installed by the mayor of Barcelona and displays the number of  known victims who drowned in the Mediterranean in real time. This body of work come from my own feelings generated by seeing the contrast between my life in this city and what this counter represents. 

 Mixed media collages are an interesting intervention in this series; collages were an important part of the feminist discourse in the 1970s. So the question is two part - a) what drew you to using collage and b) do you situate yourself within the feminist discourse in art? 

My collages began from a need to express certain ideas in a graphic non narrative way. These works come from a much more personal and intuitive way of seeing. Less about research and more about taking a feeling or concept and representing it visually. 
In a similar vein to the works in embroidery hoops, the collages continues my experiments with adding mixed media elements into my work. Needlework, collaging, quilting, weaving etc. have long been considered ‘women’s work’. However, I think there is something powerful in taking whatever scraps you can find and putting them together to create something meaningful. These mediums subvert historic ideas of how women create.

 Who are some of the artists that have and continue to inspire you?

I am a hugely admire Indian artists such as Mithu Sen and Nalini Malani. I am also inspired by Walton Ford,  Ana Mendieta, Frida Kahlo, Belkis Ayon, Hieronymus Bosch, Hilma af Klint, and Kiki Smith. 

What's next after this show?

I would love to keep creating and telling visual stories, and I hope to continue to exhibit my work as well as bring it to a broader audience.



Where the water takes us in on view at TARQ till January 13, 2018. 

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