“Black is more than just a colour, it harbours its own philosophy”.
Around this very blackness is what Suman Chandra has anchored in his works of art.
When Suman first visited a coal mine, his perspective on landscapes underwent a paradigm shift. The very definition of a landscape came into a sharper focus. A landscape, he realised, is an amalgamation of land, its people, and the material that shapes its identity.
Coal is a crucial part of today’s economy. While it satiates surging energy demands, it also carries within it a host of national dilemmas that affect lives. Despite investments in infrastructure, education, and healthcare, coal workers continue to grapple with exploitation and meagre wages. A pressing concern lies in rehabilitating those affected — notably, tribal populations that comprise just 8% of the population but account for 40 to 50% of those displaced by mining. Their lives, despite numerous initiatives, remain essentially unchanged.
Fueled by these realities and along with being completely transfixed on the materiality of coal mines as landscapes, Suman Chandra showcases his collection — Silent Vision. This solo exhibition serves to raise awareness about coal mining industry, an issue that has stuck with him since his childhood.
Suman's primary expertise lies in illustrating the intricate ties between human existence and coal, a necessary evil of our modern world. The juxtaposition of coal's economic value and the lives of miners uprooted by political dynamics takes on a deeply personal significance for Suman, who hails from a family of coal sellers himself. This background propels him to challenge prevailing perceptions, heighten awareness, and start discussions encompassing the socio-economic and ecological facets of coal mining, all portrayed through the dark imagery enriching his canvases. His art brings nuance and prompts viewers to contemplate the intricate reality of the coal industry.
Looking at his work, this 'silent vision,' seems to allude to the silence before the storm – a resounding, anticipatory hush. Interestingly, Suman employs charcoal as his medium, a choice that draws an emphasis on his message. Through his engagement with dust as a creative medium, the artist produces canvases that exude both starkness and allure, merging the realms of the political and the poetic.
This creative approach finds its roots in history. The current generation of coal miners migrated to Jharkhand in 1990, bringing with them the traditional art form of Sohrai. This marked the first instance where Suman witnessed vestiges of an artistic tradition amidst the landscape.
Originating in the borderlands of West Bengal, Odisha, and Bihar, Sohrai was derived in the Hazaribagh region, where artists employed natural and mineral hues. However, migration and land politics reshaped Sohrai in coal mine regions. Unfortunately, the agricultural lands that once yielded grains and coloured soil essential for this art form have disappeared. Presently, Sohrai relies on synthetic colors readily accessible in the market.
Suman introduces an innovative process of image-making, meticulously selecting Sohrai motifs, which are increasingly fading and transforming them into stencils, and metamorphosing them into archival artworks, all set amidst toxic fumes. As Suman commemorates the Sohrai tradition and pays homage to the vibrant individuals marginalized by circumstance, he poses a juxtaposition of the coal mines' looming darkness by infusing methane and carbon monoxide fumes into his creative process.
Through coal, dust, and ink, Suman builds a language that merges the politics of land with the poetics of landscape painting, narrating the traditions and practices of coal miners and, in the process, giving them a voice.
Attend Suman Chandra's exhibition, taking place until the 19th of August. Find out more about the exhibition here.
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