Bharti Kher (born 1969) is an Indian contemporary artist. Her work encompasses painting, sculpture and installation, often incorporating bindis — the popular forehead decoration worn by women in India — which in Kher’s hands become an epidermal filter, transforming objects and dissolving the distinction between two and three dimensions.
Bharti Kher was born 1969 in London to parents who had migrated to England as adults. She studied painting, graduating in 1991 from Newcastle Polytechnic. In 1992 she travelled to India, deciding to live there permanently after meeting her future husband, the artist Subodh Gupta. The couple live and work in Delhi and have two children.
Kher’s works are radically heterogeneous. Sculptures she has made since the mid-2000s combine animal with human body parts to create hybrid female figures that confront the viewer with a compelling mixture of sexuality and monstrosity. In contrast, her bindi ‘paintings’ are abstract and aesthetic, turning the mass-produced consumerist items into artworks of sumptuous beauty.
Overarching themes are the notion of the self as a multiple and culture’s openness to misinterpretation. She exploits the drama inherent in objects, tapping into mythologies and the numerous diverse associations a thing can bring. Kher has said "I look everywhere and copy everyone – I am like a magpie that takes what it needs and turns an old shiny button into a beacon. Most of us are products of our lives."
In 1995 Kher was struck by a woman in a market wearing a ‘sperm’ bindi on her forehead. She asked the woman where it came from and went straight to the store. ‘I walked in and said, “give me all the serpent bindis you have,” which turned out to be a few packages that she stuck in her sketchbook. It turned out to be a supernova moment.’
Since then, Bindis have become Kher’s signature, operating not so much as a central motif as a language that the artist has invented to articulate and animate her themes. Bindis swarm over sculptures endowing them with a cryptic second skin. They are deployed in vivid chromatic constellations to form ‘paintings’ whose abstract patterns relate to the history of western art whilst seeming biological and essential — resembling cellular life viewed under a microscope or the intercourse of oceans and continents viewed from a satellite. Each dot or sperm-like squiggle can be understood as a person, their arrangement en masse mapping demographic movement, the migrations and miscegenation of teeming populaces.
Kher is attracted to the aesthetic and cultural duality of the bindi, its ability to meld the superficial with the sublime; its multiple meanings and slippery ambiguity. ‘Many people,’ she has explained, ‘believe it’s a traditional symbol of marriage, but actually it’s meant to represent a third eye — one that forges a link between the real and the spiritual worlds.’
Kher created Symphony, an digital artwork about Bindi at 2012.
In sculptures and collages Kher has created hybrid beings that conjoin contradictions of gender, species, race and role. The resulting chimeras are both elegant and alien, at once relating to and departing from the history of the female nude. Sculptures such as ‘Arione’ (2004) and ‘Arione’s Sister’ (2006) are part human, part animal; bare-breasted Amazons bearing cupcakes and shopping bags who each step forward with equanimity upon an equine leg culminating in a hoof. Sperm bindis writhe over their bodies completing the vision of a futuristic femininity.
These beings bear out Kher’s interest ‘in the idea of the monster, the hybrid, the contradicting identities.’ They explore the multiple roles put upon and played out by women as well as the tendency to be perceived differently depending on who is doing the looking.
Hybridity is not confined to the animal kingdom in Kher’s work but mixes freely with the arboreal as well. Two sculptures of trees, ‘Solarium Series’ (2007) and ‘The Waq Tree’ (2009), bear hundreds of shrunken animal heads as fruit. These combine recognisable species with fantastical creations, their waxy, flesh-like material seeming disturbingly human.
Kher’s works operate in a fabular realm, affecting a kind of Magic Realism. Strongly narrative, they tap into legends but equally create their own strange stories.
Works such as ‘The Waq Tree’ (2009) and the mirror series ‘Indra’s Net’ (2010) refer to specific sagas, yet in crafting the ancient symbols as physical forms Kher engages in ritual, giving life anew to the legends.
In ‘The skin speaks a language not its own’ (2006), a slumped life-size she-elephant whose considerable surface area courses with white sperm bindi, Kher has created a work endowed by mythology with multiple competing meanings: ‘A white elephant in Europe is a folly,’ she explains. ‘While in Asia it is a sign of good luck, and in Thailand, the King of Siam would give a white elephant as a gift to a person he would like to destroy. Myths legends, stories and associations are so different in different places.’
Other sculptures such as ‘An Absence of Assignable Cause’ (2007), Kher’s bindi-bedecked envisioning of a sperm whale’s heart, are sufficiently astonishing and allusive to make their own mythologies. Such embellished allegories belong to a distinctly Indian tradition whilst being undeniably new. Her art, according to the critic and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, offers ‘a very relevant negotiation with old India and the present … it’s a productive tension between tradition and modernity.’
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Parasol Unit, London, England
Hauser & Wirth, New York NY
Leave your smell, Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris, France
inevitable undeniable necessary, Hauser & Wirth, London
Hauser & Wirth Outdoor Sculpture: Bharti Kher, Southwood Garden, St. James' Church, London
disturbia, utopia, house beautiful, GALLERYSKE, Bangalore
Sing to them that will listen, Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris;
Virus, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK
An Absence of Assignable Cause, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, U.S.A.;
An Absence of Assignable Cause, Gallery Nature Morte, New Delhi
Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons because you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup, GALLERYSKE and Project 88, Mumbai
Quasi-, mim-, ne-, near-, semi-, -ish, -like, GALLERYSKE, Bangalore
Hungry Dogs Eat Dirty Pudding, Nature Morte, New Delhi
The Private Softness of Skin, Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, India
The Private Softness of Skin, Bose Pacia Gallery, New York NY
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Indian Highway VI, MAXXI Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo, Rome, Italy
Paris - Delhi - Bombay, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
Pattern ID, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City MO (Travelling Exhibition)
Festival der Tiere, Essl Museum, Klosterneuberg, Austria
Time Unfolded, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, India
Indian Highway IV, Musée d'Art Contemporain, Lyon France
Pattern ID, Akron Art Museum, Akron OH (Travelling Exhibition)
21st Century: Art in the first Decade, Queensland Art Gallery, Queensland, Australia
Tokyo Art Meeting, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan
Lebenszeichen. Altes Wissen in der zeitgenössischen Kunst / Signs of Life. Ancient Knowledge in Contemporary Art, Kunstmuseum Luzern, Lucerne, Switzerland
Susan Hefuna - Bharti Kher - Fred Tomaselli: Between the Worlds, Kunstmuseum Thun, Thun, Switzerland
Nature Nation, Museum on the Seam, Jerusalem, Israel
Chalo! India: A New Era of Indian Art/Open Your Third Eye, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea (Travelling Exhibition)
Chalo! India: A New Era of Indian Art, Essl Museum, Klosterneuberg, Austria (Travelling Exhibition)
Indian Highway II, Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo, Norway
Who's afraid of the artists? A Selection of works from the Pinault Collection, Palais des Arts de Dinard, France
Re-Imagining Asia. A Thousand Years of Separation, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany (Travelling Exhibition)
Chalo! India: A New Era of Indian Art, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan (Travelling Exhibition)
Distant Nearness, The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, Kansas City KS
Indian Highway,Serpentine Gallery, London, England
India Moderna, Institut Valencia d'Art Modern, Valencia, Spain
Hungry God, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada
The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia,
Le Troisième Oeil, Lille 3000, Lille, France
Zeitsprünge, Raumfolgen, IFA Galerie, Berlin, Germany
Androgyne, Indian Habitat Center, New Delhi, India
Khoj Residency Show, Khoj Studios, New Delhi, India
Photosphere, Nature Morte, New Delhi, India
Kitch kitch Hota Hai, New Delhi, India
Open Circle Exhibition, Lakeeren Art Gallery, Mumbai, India
Embarkations, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, India
The Sanskriti Award, 2003; YFLO Woman Achiever of the Year, 2007; ARKEN Art Prize, 2010
References and notes
- Punj, Rajesh (April 2010). "Bharti Kher". Asian Art Newspaper.
- Holmes, Pernilla (April 2009). "Connecting the Dots". ARTnews: 96–101.
- "Bharti Kher Profile,Interview and Artworks"
- Bharti Kher at Hauser & Wirth
- Information and images of Bharti Kher at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin
- Images and biography of Bharti Kher at Gallery SKE
- Images and texts at The Saatchi Gallery
- Information and images at Nature Morte
- Artist information and auction results at ArtNet.com