Art of Hema Upadhyay Paying tribute to the late visionary artist
News of artist Hema Upadhyay’s death in Mumbai stunned the international art community. Upadhyay, 42, was a painter and mixed media artist who showed with Mumbai gallery Chemould Prescott Road, and had been featured in landmark shows in the global trajectory of Indian contemporary art, including Indian Highway(Serpentine Gallery, 2008) and Chalo! India (Mori Art Museum, 2009). Her work was characterized by a deep emotional sensitivity to the realities of poverty and displacement, and she was known for seamlessly linking personal trauma with environmental and human crises to evocative effect. Upadhyay frequently used collaged elements from newspapers in her paintings, which dealt poetically with questions of violence and erasure.
Confronting an emigrant’s struggle to belong in a new place, Hema Upadhyay’s work narrates her personal and artistic transition to Bombay. Born in Baroda and trained in painting and printmaking there at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Upadhyay shifted to Bombay after completing her education. Having experienced a journey paralleling that of the hordes who arrive in Bombay seeking work each year, the artist became a self-aware agent for the anonymous urban migrant. In her renderings of displacement, Upadhyay privileges her own impressions of the urban landscape and the performative gesture.
Upadhyay’s first solo exhibition “Sweet-Sweat Memories,” held at Gallery Chemould in 2001, presented the architecture of the artist’s experience from multiple perspectives. Pasting miniaturized, cut-out photographs of herself onto large mixed-media paintings, the artist alternated aerial and subaltern perspectives of an overwhelmed and overwhelming city. Her work reaches beyond the visualization of physical spaces to remember the emotional and physical remnants of resettlement. Included in that exhibition, I Have a Feeling that I Belong, 2000, was Upadhyay’s hazy, autobiographical declaration of Bombay as her home.
Updahyay further engaged the metaphors of migration in The Space in Between You and Me, a site-specific installation at the Khoj International Artists’ Workshop in Mysore, 2002. The artist used freshly-tilled ground to plant seeds that, when sprouted, spelled a letter to her mother. Implicit was the interplay between trace and impermanence, as the message would first become overgrown but then disappear once Upadhyay was not there to garden it.
In Made in China, a collaborative installation executed with Chintan Upadhyay in 2003 at Gallery Chemould, the artists strung Chinese goods at varying heights along one gallery wall. The installation abstracted objects of ordinary and outlandish utility from their intended customers, reflecting the changing capital of imported items and the expanded culture of consumerism in India today. For the Vasl International Artists’ Residency in Karachi in 2003, Upadhyay’s spectacular sculpture Loco-Foto-Moto painstakingly balanced masses of matchsticks to form a hanging, suspended chandelier.