Monday, May 04, 2015

Capturing the World in Black and White

The Holland-based Malayali artist, VN Aji's charcoal drawings, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, focuses on the eternal questions facing mankind

Photo of Aji and Italian artist Franscesco Clemente by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

The Holland-based artist VN Aji has a touch of humour. When a female journalism student asks him, with an impish smile, whether any girl offered to marry him after seeing his drawings, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, Aji says, “Not yet.” This elicits a loud laugh from the girl.

As Aji talks, suddenly, a foreigner, in a black sherwani, comes up and hugs him. “So nice to see you, friend,” says Aji, to the Italian artist Francesco Clemente. Warm smiles are exchanged. Then Francesco looks keenly at Aji's works.

They are untitled, but Aji's forte is doing charcoal drawings on paper. In one, which is 8' 2” in length, there are thick shrubs in the front with a vast undulating land behind it. Up above is a forbidding dark sky, with thick white clouds, at one side. “It began as a landscape of Kerala and then it went off in a different direction,” he says. “There is rain at one side. It is a scene at night.”

Like many artists, Aji likes to ask questions. “Where do we come from? Where do we go? Who am I? What is life? What is death?” he says. “These are some of the subjects that I am exploring in my work.”

In another work, he has drawn a seashore, with the waves hitting the shore in a crash of white foam. The sky is jet black and so is the shore. Despite the blackness, it looks like a scene from a Kerala coastline.

I was born and brought up in Kerala,” he says. “So every cell of mine is a Malayali. And that gets reflected in my work. But I also do cityscapes, like Dubai, because I have been there. The city is located in the vastness of the desert. How do you build a city like that? The Netherlands has also influenced me in my art.”

Aji's life changed when he met and fell in love with the Dutch artist Juul Kraijer at a camp in Thiruvananthapuram. “The attraction between human beings is always a mystery,” he says. “But since we are both artists we could find a mutual wavelength.”

They got married in 2000 at Thiruvananthapuram. Ever since, Aji has been based at Rotterdam. Both of them have their own individual studios. Aji works there from morning to evening every day.

Asked whether he has faced any racism, Aji says, “Not at all. On the other hand, I have received the highest scholarship for artistes in the Netherlands. My works have been exhibited all over Europe.”

Aji says the biggest advantage of being based in Europe is that he is able to see world-class art, both contemporary and historical, all the time. “At any moment I can go and observe the works of Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin or Vincent Van Gogh,” he says. “They serve as a huge inspiration. When you see their paintings, you get an idea of the talent, dedication and hard work that is needed to produce timeless art.”

But there is also timeless art in India. “And the people love art also,” says Aji. “If I tell somebody that I am an artist, they will say 'Oh that is so nice'. I get a lot of respect. They think artists are great people. It is part of our heritage. It is through art that we find ourselves.” 

Suddenly, a blonde girl runs up to Aji. “This is Uma Maheswari, my three-year-old daughter,” says Aji. “But she only speaks Dutch at the moment.” Then Aji pauses, smiles, and says, “But as an artist and a father, that is not an issue at all. Because art transcends all the languages in the world.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

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