Art has always played an important role in holding up a mirror to society, and most artists use their gift to create the impact that they like to see around them. For artist Michelle Poonawalla, who unveils her solo show “Born Free” at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai this week (Nov 6-12), the series celebrates the idea of freedom and power of the natural world. Through this exhibition, the Pune-based artist pays a tribute to her grandfather — late Jehangir Vazifdar — who was a renowned artist and architect. To honour his incredible spirit and the legacy of creative freedom, Michelle chose her favourite motif — butterflies — to create a series of 25 new artworks that explore the fragility and power of nature.
Michelle, who has been working on this series for a year, talks about her artistic tribute to her grandfather and mentor. Speaking about her upcoming exhibit, she says, “My grandfather was an innovator and he left me the gift of his unique painting technique. What particularly stuck with me was his commitment to creative freedom — he never let anything other than his creativity be the deciding factor for what he painted. The “fake proof” technique, which my grandfather developed and mastered, is what I've used for this series and it requires precision and focus. The paint is applied to the canvas in a thick impasto and then taken off with a ruler or palette knife to reveal a richly textured, irreplaceable painting. Because I'm working with thick, wet paint, the painting has to be worked on from start to finish in one go. The paint is unpredictable and that's the magic of the technique. The option to touch it up like in a typical oil painting doesn't exist and that's the thrill of the technique."
Michelle is married to Pune-based businessman Yohan Poonawalla and is a mother of two children, who are just as creatively inclined as their mother. When she is not painting, Michelle usually spends time with her children and teaches them the fine nuances of art that she picked from her grandfather. Speaking about her childhood days, she fondly remembers, “I was very blessed to grow up around art and creativity. My grandfather was a contemporary of some of the greats — M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, Ram Kumar; there was always a buzz of creative activity in our home. After school, I would pick up my grandfather from his office and find him sketching away at his desk. We would go to exhibitions at galleries together. In my family, I was the one with the creative bug so we shared a special bond. I went to London to study interior design because it tied together my love for art, design and beautiful spaces. My grandfather had his last show in 2004, he was in his eighties by then; towards the end of his life, he shared
his great secret — the ‘fake proof’ technique that he had mastered — with me. I began painting around this time and over time with the support of my friends and family; my practice has developed to a stage where I can have a strong body of work that has been exhibited at shows in India and abroad.”
Michelle feels that for an artist it is important to express oneself with truth and without fear of judgment or trying to please anyone. She uses symbolism as a powerful tool to communicate complex ideas and it reflects the sensitivity of the artistic spirit, and firmly believes that “great art comes from fearlessness and experimentation”. The paintings that are part of her recent exhibition are mostly portraits of animals that have been represented as totems — symbols and signs from nature that give the human spirit a guide. She has tried to represent them as dynamic forms and inspire the onlooker to rise above limitations and utilize their potential. The artist has used butterflies as one of the most prominent symbols in her artworks, and speaking about her penchant for this delicate creature Michelle says, “I find that butterflies are a powerful metaphor — they’re fragile creatures with a short lifespan, yet go through an incredible journey of metamorphosis. And of course, they’re a visual delight. I start
ed working with the butterfly motif when I was doing an exhibition with students at the Gateway School in Mumbai. I developed this motif, integrating digital mapping technology, for my show in New Delhi in 2018. However, the show does end with butterfly-themed works, which I felt was a counter-balance to the strength of the other creatures represented in the show as well as a perfect symbol of freedom.”
Apart from art, the other two causes close to Michelle's heart are education and the environment. Her artworks were a part of Sotheby's Khushii: India on Canvas charity auction which raised money for Kapil Dev's NGO, Khushii — an organisation that works for the education of underprivileged girls. “I've done several projects with the Gateway School in Mumbai, which is a terrific school for children with autism. On the environmental front, I was delighted to be a part of the Elephant Family's wonderfully curated “Elephant Parade” in early 2018, which raised money to save the asian elephant. As a token of my appreciation for this incredible cause, I presented a painting The Little Monarch Hathi to his royal highness The Prince of Wales for his seventieth birthday,” adds Michelle.
After her Mumbai exhibit, the artist plans to prepare for a collateral project at the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018. The unnamed project will focus on fragility and mankind looking at conflicts and war. Speaking on her next project, she mentions, “For the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, I wanted something that would touch a wide audience. What is more universally resonant in our world today than the images of suffering that we are surrounded by constantly. How can one not be affected by these images? I have used strong images to highlight the universality of this suffering and how we are all caught up in it, even if we are not directly affected. The installation is a massive, immersive, multi-media piece that's been designed to create a powerful experience that the audience will physically engage with.”
Born Free by artist Michelle Poonawall will be on at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, from Nov. 6 to 12, 2018 from 11 am to 7 pm...