Why a Sri Lankan-Australian artist’s fluid polychrome sculptures are making waves around the world
by Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran sculptures are as colorful as the deadliest mushrooms in the world. They smile like Cheshire cats. Embellished with a profusion of spikes, limbs, penises, lips, breasts and heads. Everything about them is synonymous with danger. But, instead of pulling away from these savage mutants, we are drawn to them. It doesn’t matter if we like them or not. They shoot at something primitive and instinctive, winning our curiosity and teasing our desperation to understand.
The Australian sculptor is holding his first solo exhibition in India, which opened earlier this month at Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai and is set to run until March 26. “The language of my work can sometimes be very dark, but I wanted this show to be hopeful and energetic and bright and fresh,” Nithiyendran, 33, says in a phone call. ‘rainbow’, the exhibition includes 14 ceramic pieces that primarily explore sculptural archetypes, such as fertility figures and tutelary spirits. It is a mix of civilizations and iconographies – figures are seated like a Buddha, resemble Mesoamerican masks, stand like totems, and have multiple heads like Hindu gods.Within this painting, Nithiyendran manages to convey ideas of queerness and digital culture.
Fertility figure (2021), which the artist describes as “open, queer and fun, like a kind of anchor for the exhibition”, is a crowned being carrying two smaller zoomorphic figures, as if they were infants. One resembling an ape and the other a pig, the heads of the descendants transform into the breasts of the feeder. Nithiyendran says, “I want to give the audience an opportunity to contribute their knowledge of historic sculptural tropes. The sculpture recalls the archetype of the Mother Goddess, whose figurines have been made over the millennia and also alludes to Christian representations of the Virgin and Child.
There is also Double horn spiky blue head (2021), a cartoonish animal face (Nithiyendran grew up loving Disney movies) that could well be a cat, a rabbit, an upturned tooth or a jackfruit. Another job is multicolored head (2021), which, in its rejection of classical marble busts, is reminiscent of monolithic statues such as the Moai.
Nithiyendran is among the most important artists emerge from Australia in recent years. With over a dozen solo exhibitions and commissions to his credit, and several other group shows, his works have been featured at the National Gallery of Art in Canberra, the Dhaka Art Summit and the Indian Ceramics Triennale in Jaipur. There is worldwide interest in its pantheon of flowing polychrome sculptures, but also in its origin story. He was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to a Tamil Hindu father and a middle-class Dutch mother. Before he could turn a year old, the family fled the war-torn country to safer shores in Sydney, where Nithiyendran continues to be based. Although he was baptized, he found the imagination of Hindu temples and the polytheism of Hinduism more appealing. Although an atheist, he plays with religious iconography.
“The Mud and the Rainbow”, for example, has works of varying sizes, some resembling toys. “They are like effigies, which I remember seeing in a temple when I was a child,” he says. A totemic warrior figure with helmet (2021), evokes the Ayyanar which guards the boundaries of villages and temples in southern India and Sri Lanka. The Ayyanar usually smiles, but as a tiger would, with the fangs exposed. Nithiyendran says, “Massive teeth and wide eyes, that sense of hyperbole plays into my work. These expressions are like emojis, which are reinforced symbols. I try to work with expressions that are almost difficult to locate. That’s what makes them interesting to me, this inability to grasp what they were feeling if they were sensitive.
Among the notable guardians of Nithiyendran is Double-sided avatar with blue figure (2021), in the collection of HOTA Gallery in Gold Coast, Australia. It was his first outdoor sculpture, a six-meter tall stick that nods to rock art and memes, past and present. It has that same unsettling mix of the Ayyanar smile and the grimacing emoji. Nithiyendran says, “The thing with the teeth and the tongue…I’m not interested in ideas of passively accepted social grace. These numbers are on the side of social conventions. When Double-sided avatar with blue figure opened at the HOTA Gallery, Nithiyendran recalls that not everyone got it. He says: “A lot of the responses were that it was demonic, evil… But the carving was a welcome move.” In the recorded history of the world, grotesque guardian figures are believed to ward off evil and mark safe space, whether it be a head of Medusa, a dvarapala of Buddhist temples, demonic faces painted on ash gourds in South India, or even mascarons of Art Nouveau architecture.
by Nithiyendra sculptures come at a time when there is a global movement to rethink memorials to exploitative leaders and events. He says: “In the context of 2021, [they ask] Australia must look to Asia and the Pacific for references to public sculpture as opposed to colonial monuments. Although the sculptor does not intend to be political, his sculptures offer a more inclusive aesthetic with which to view public art. They also challenge the idea of borders – do they welcome or threaten? With the right commissions, it will be interesting to see how the sculptures of Nithiyendran interact with public spaces in South Asia, given that the tutelary figures are often outdoors, surrounded by rituals and ceremonies, among the people who they protect.