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Labour, love and the pre-symbolic order meet multi-media artist; Somnath Bhatt

Artist Somnath Bhatt’s work tempers the personal with macro-social issues faced by the ever-changing world today. His body of enigmatic works brings our full attention to the doctrine of individuality and pushes us to consider the ways in which we can shift our gaze for good. While Bhatt now lives in the US, he was raised in Ahmedabad so his protean work, mostly made of digital illustration, visual images and precise algorithms are shaped by the local makers, stories, craft traditions and long-standing rituals. 

Somnath Bhatt often emits himself in his works. Whether in his 2021 gothic club fashion-inspired line with fashion designer Hyein Seo or upcoming illustrations for BOMB magazine, imagined as a cross-sectional assemblage about labour, worker solidarity, queer desire, and dreams, engaging in a real act of self-inquiry. In turn, it widens our view outside the parameters of the classical canon. “My work has no loyalty to a specific form or media. It might be described as a shuffle between genres, centuries, cultures, and emotional states via algorithmic relationships” Bhatt says. 

The pulse of activism beats strongly in Bhatt as he is deeply committed “to re-thinking the representation of labour and what feels visible and invisible about labour today.” Not only is this apparent in his current projects but also in his involvement with the Walker Worker Union during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Bhatt continues to decode the riveting duality between stark individuality and collective energy and forces us to examine the crux of human nature and forewarnings of ego and intense individualism. Rather than being transfixed on one’s sole concerns, he urges us as a collective to consider the possibility of the global issues at hand that ultimately prompt issues in creative practices. “I think a lot about implication because the meaning of an action is not always loud and clear,” explains Bhatt. 

Here he speaks in more detail as Bhatt is the one we need to hear from – beyond the monotony of everyday conversation. 

 

Could you explain the origins, visions and intention of your works? 

My work comes from two sources: forms I have previously seen and my experiences.

There was a period when I was thinking a lot about the metaphor of edges, which led me to play around with the ‘Sharpen Edge’ command in Photoshop. I would find existing images and then Shift+Cmd+F ten-thousand times. A new image, very pixelated, would emerge from underneath. ‘Sharpen Edge’ repeatedly, almost like a chant or spell, would force the image to progress into another realm. Drawn at the lowest resolution in Photoshop, the pixelated drawings convey forms in their pre-symbolic order. The images are recreations of things that intrigue me, and the struggle of the work usually is in the recomposition of all those things. To visit them again and start an open-ended dialogue between seemingly unrelated entities. You like two things and put them next to each other to see if they resonate.

I am also really inspired by Gujarati folk music and the many themes that come from it. The creative energy of Dingal Shastra (ડિંગળ શાસ્ત્ર) is energy that quickens and reverberates. It is a world of will and power, filled with creativity that throbs in the deep realms of folk insight, earthly intuition, and animal imagination. Many regional Indian music and poetry live outside the rigid parameters of “the classical canon” and can express the body and language in a measured but fiercely unapologetic way. 

Another recurring vision is desire. I’ve never found the courage to make work about it, but touch, feelings, emotions, fantasy, and love really compel me. I love thinking about this quote by Chris Kraus: “Desire doesn’t lack, it’s surplus energy — a claustrophobia inside your skin.”

Desiring is taught and enacted upon us. Our desire and desirability are not just about how we look or who wants to have sex with us. Our desire also informs how we treat people in almost every emotional context, romantic or not. We navigate the world through the adjectival palette of our desires.

It remains important for me to interrogate desire and be aware of what powers inform my desire and what I am upholding with my desire. But also, culturally “undesirable” people should receive the justice of interpersonal value and appreciation.

How would you define your mode of work?

I’ve heard others describe it as techno-mythic. We often end up with the descriptions others give to us. But identifying too deeply with that tag feels self-orientalizing to me. The purpose of the mythic register is to render the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives and make the stories of long ago beautiful and painful. I’m not thinking about either technology or mythology daily. 

I like to treat style as an ecosystem — a rhetorical meeting place. It might be described as a shuffle between genres, centuries, and emotional states mediated by contemporary image-making technologies.

Recently, you discussed the crucial issues of hyper individuality. How do you think this relates to other underlying issues such as race?

Race is always a collective experience, and individualism is inherently not collective. Capitalism thrives on division.   

If not “hyper”, how do you think artists should approach their practices?

By embracing unintended consequences, which are far more satisfying and far-reaching than hard or predictable results. 

Individuality is always present and comes into play in my work and practice. But “a singular hierarchical commodification of quality that does not, ever, represent the myriad successful expressions of art and art-making.” This is a direct quote from Ocean Vuong, and it describes the pitfalls of becoming overly invested in the competitive or Forbes 30-under-30 sides of individual expression. At the systems level, there’s also widespread confusion over “individuality” and “collectivism”. In a society based on mutual support and flourishing, what we get is not uniformity or sameness but a field in which as many people as possible can be their full selves. To “express their individuality”, if you will.

As humans, we are tasked to live in plurality. No sensations are solitary. Therefore, individuality is where we get to unleash ourselves and speak perhaps more truly, more fully, than we can. Not self-assertion. Individuality is like “finding everybody that I love and in turn finding myself — my first-person”. I first heard this concise description from Durga Chew-Bose, and it strongly guides my thinking about the self.

You shared an important post on your social media which refers to the essay – Decolonisation is Not A Metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. It discusses how decolonial desires can further settler colonialism. Could you explain this and how it translates to creative practices?

Design only exists as a category to designate some makers belonging to a professionalised and industrialised genealogy. It serves primarily to differentiate them from craftsmen. Design would need to negotiate its history. “Decolonisation” isn’t like bathing in holy water or a quick rebrand. 

In the last decade or so, “decolonisation,” which was originally a very powerful and controversial idea, has become very dilute from its original context. When we speak of decolonising, we very often mean simply the post-colonial. 

There are no quick or easy antidotes. We gradually entered into our current condition, and to change this condition, we need to notice how the world feels and how it affects us. There were always alternate visions of our present reality, and I think we should look more closely at the configurations that don’t exist or didn’t come to fruition. Being open to those alternatives, i.e. collective ownership of land, economies of nurturance and collective aid, technocratic liberation theologies, as we live them now, constantly searching for them, this seems to me like one way out.

At the moment, the most urgent effort to be made toward decolonisation is resisting fascism.

Some ways in which we can stop pandering to the white-gaze in a creative practice: 

– Value craftspeople; foreground the manual labour that is the unacknowledged means of every design process.

– Train a trust in skills and community, rather than consumerism.

– Don’t centre representation as the primary crux of resistance; prefer class solidarity and shared experiences of communion.

– Place more value on reading, and supporting the intellectual and affective labour of contemporary non-Western thinkers, not just the dead ones.

– Hold contradictions, reserve the right to defer solutions or to decline to answer.

From the recent article by Ibrahim asks:

“How can we give the same aesthetic and cultural individuation, acknowledgement and articulation to art and design movements that are non-Western and from the Global South?” 

It’s clear that distinctions, whether it is Dhaka, Senegal or Jakarta, don’t often occur in most spaces, why do you think this is?

First, I think that “East v. West” dichotomies make no sense and shouldn’t be used anymore. When I gave Dhaka, Senegal, or Jakarta as examples to counter places like Paris and Copenhagen, I offered them not because these cities form a coherent cultural or stylistic monolith that is “counter” to an existing hegemon. I mention them because the very hybridity and irreplaceability that characterises non-White spaces, that have yet to be made into consumer experiences by capital hold an incredible excitement for me. In Ahmedabad, my hometown, for example, what we have is a space that is completely tied up with sincere desire to emulate European luxury design trends while trying to account for its specific history and context. But in Ahmedabad, you’ll find greater “originality” than a space that’s purposefully looking to “de-Westernize” or “decolonise”, such as the coastal U.S. or the postmodern academies of the European Union.

The themes and messages you explain are very important; how did you develop these understandings?

I’m very invested in personal narratives and histories. Our homes, our upbringings, and the languages we speak. Subjectivity and understanding are composed of confused embodiments; multiplicity in the singular, meeting points, plural forms, multiple selves inhabiting the singular body. I prefer creating a mood over a statement. 

I’m often holding many references in my mind as I work. These range from essays to fiction to poetry. Here is a poem I’ve been thinking about recently:

My singer 

From that earthen drum 

What sweet music you bring 

From the earthen drum of my body 

Who can bring such music 

As you, my singer?

Take, take me in your arms, 

Sling me about your neck, 

Play on me, on my body till I give the drum’s 

Sweet note.

– Shamrao Hivale, The Pardhans of the Upper Narmada Valley, p.153, This excerpt is from the introduction to The Earthen Drum by Pupul Jayakar.

I am a good maker but a bad worker. There was a point in college when I was making a lot, to the point of overextension. But the effort felt hollow. I wondered: what are different conceptualisations of making? I was disinterested in mining only myself for content. The need to better understand labour and love guide my experiences. I am blessed with friends who lovingly build me.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Labour is entitled to all it creates!

https://somnathbhatt.com/

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