Rithika Merchant talks breathlessly, at a pace that’s almost difficult to keep up with. Based in Barcelona, the artist from Mumbai made waves around the world with her collaboration with French luxury fashion house Chloe on their SS’18 collection this year. That’s just the latest feather in her hat, though. She’s showcased her fantastical, mythical art at galleries across the United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Portugal, India, Spain, Singapore and Denmark. Off the back of this successful design collaboration as well as her first solo exhibition, ‘Where The Water Takes Us’ at Mumbai’s TARQ art gallery, I caught up with Rithika over a Skype call to decode her work, influences and progressive ideas.
“I don’t think I could ever be one of those people whose studio is not in their house, you know? I like being really close to the work,” she tells me when I apologise for keeping her away from her studio. Rithika is an alumnus of the Parsons School of Design in New York and has lived and worked all over the world. She completed an artist residency in Portugal, moved to Lisbon (where she met the man she would go on to marry) and has set up home in Spain. Rithika works with wash and watercolour on paper almost exclusively, incorporating more and more collage elements now as well. “I really like watercolour and wash because when you work with it you kind of have to mean it. You can’t paint over it or take it away. With an oil painting, for instance, if you don’t like it you can scrape it or paint over it. With watercolours, you can’t do that; there is a finality that I like. I also like that it’s less saturated, more faded and sort of translucent. Aesthetically, I’ve always liked things like maps and botanical drawings because the colours are not so in-your-face.” A look at her work and I completely understand what she means; there’s a dream-like quality to it that finds a place between reality and fiction and makes the viewer feel like he/she’s caught in the middle of being and not being. “I also feel like it lends itself better to my work,” she tells me.
Rithika describes her work as “mosaics of myths that question received histories that are available to us throughout culture.” Specifically interested in comparative mythology, or myths that are common to many different cultures, she’s exploring the folklore where “different people came to the same kind conclusion or invented the same story independently of each other” at a time when we weren’t geographically, or technologically, connected. Contextualising them, she tells me that, in retrospect, she uses these myths to interpret what’s going on around her.
“This kind of started with the horrible gangrape in Delhi and then another one soon after at the Mills in Bombay,” she explains. Despite being from Mumbai and always feeling safe, she began to feel insecure and scared, exposed to the misogyny towards women in India. “At the same time, I was reading this book by Joseph Campbell ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’. In the book, he theorises with examples that all the heroes of all epics go through the same 17 steps. It’s a seminal book and a lot of people have read it and George Lucas cited it as one of his references for when he set up the Star Wars trilogy–the journey that Luke Skywalker goes through.”
The thing that stood out to Rithika was that all of these Epics were from a male standpoint or perspective and she wanted to introduce a more feminine narrative. “So, I did this series of paintings from the perspective of a female hero, Looking back, I did this at a time when I was feeling insecure and created a strong female figure to sort of soothe me.” At a time when the world is fractured, borders are closing everywhere and people are turning against each other, she finds that drawing on these common myths sort of ties everyone together. Her work, in this light, becomes even more important.
“Opening up that dialogue and talking about this kind of stuff is a way to grapple with it, reconcile it and digest it,” she says, talking about her brand of non-aggressive political art that developed by chance but has initiated thought and conversation.
Asked about her favourite myth, one that’s had a profound impact on her, she narrates the story of Visha Kanyas. “During the Mauryan empire (and apparently a lot of monarchs did this as well) they would take these young and beautiful girls and feed them tiny bits of poison. Over time, they became immune to the poison but their bodily fluids would become poisonous. These women were deployed as assassins and sent to ‘seduce’ rival kings.” She elaborates, “The thought of weaponizing women is a very interesting and strange concept and I even wonder about consent but this is a myth so we’ll never know if it’s true or not, but it’s probably my favourite.”
Rithika’s semi-surreal narrative works are influenced by botanical drawings and nature, to which she’s drawn to quite instinctively. “Travel also to a big extent because I’m so interested in these different cultures and luckily moving around with Europe is quite cheap.” The work of female artists like Kiki Smith, Leonora Carrington and Hilma Klint have also impacted this Indian artist. Speaking of Klint, the enigmatic Swedish artist, she says “I just saw a show of hers maybe two years ago; she had this belief where she wanted to make contact with this other world, she would often have seances to get in contact with it and her abstract work kind of looks like diagrams in some ways, huge paintings on 10-foot-long canvases.” But the most interesting thing to Rithika is that “she never wanted them to be shown till twenty years after her death.”
I bring up the subject of her Chloé collaboration, now with more context, as I realise her style is the perfect complement to the designer label’s folklore feel. Powered by the internet, a simple Google search led Chloe creative director Natacha Ramsay-Levi to Rithika and, she tells me, “an email in my inbox”. A chance, dream collab, she says “they liked my work and my style and there wasn’t a ton of back-and-forth; what was nice was that they stayed quite true to the work.” Rithika says that the entire process was quite easy, especially because Natacha is easygoing while at the same time, she knows exactly what she wants. The result is another dreamy Chloe collection of structured shirts with interesting collar details, skirts and dresses with a distinct Rithika Merchant voice.
On the future, Rithika tells me that, luckily, she’s coming off of a really good phase and now she’s taking the time to enjoy the view. To regroup and re-imagine. To dream up mythical creatures and a world that’s unified by them.
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