Before Aden-born visual artist Mukesh Shah discovered his love for art, he would spend days wandering through museums and galleries. For instance, the permanent collections and changing shows at the Tate Modern in London, where he lived for 25 years, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Some ten years ago he discussed an idea for a series of paintings with his younger daughter Malika, to which she replied, “we will never find out if your ideas are any good unless you try to do it rather than just talk about it.” That night, Shah rented a small studio in the Wimbledon Art Studios in the London Borough of Wandsworth and began the uncertain journey of trying to become an artist. “It is hard to pinpoint what forms our sensibility,” says Shah. “So much of it is in our childhood and subconscious rather than the result of conscious deliberation.”
Now an established artist, Shah’s work is informed by the writings of French philosopher Albert Camus and artists like Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman and Gerhard Richter. The Dansaekhwa art movement which arose in South Korea in the late seventies is another influence which resonates with the artist.
Currently, Shah is working on two ongoing projects entitled Playlist and Kind of Blue. “They are fundamentally different in style but complementary which, in juxtaposition, define my practice,” he says.
Mukesh Shah. Let Them Eat Art. 2016. Red neon
Playlist began in 2016 and was recently exhibited at Dubai-based XVA Gallery. “Like many, I got hooked on the news cycle and could not let go,” he admits. “We see demonstrations taking place somewhere in the world every day. And interestingly, in a digital age, graffiti and placards remain the expressive tools of choice in the public space.” Comprising slogans created using neon and screen print on powder-coated aluminium panels, the works have intertwined text and image to depict the shifting forms of expression in today’s digital age.
“The series became a kind of playlist, reflecting the street art and protest slogans that have become an ubiquitous part of our visual landscape as well as of our culture,” says Shah. “The resulting works observe the many big issues that define our times, using the powerful relationship between text and image to explore the zeitgeist in a distilled reductive way.” Some of these issues include inequality, migration, identity, climate change, extinction, the #MeToo movement, autocracy, civil disobedience and indifference. “My practice is a conversation between the sacred and profane, reflecting the process of living, both individually and as a society,” he shares. “The tension between the external and internal is obviously universal and timeless.”
A highlight of the series is Let Them Eat Art (2017), a neon text housed within a clear perspex box. Inspired by the book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) by French economist Thomas Piketty, the work addresses inequality, an issue which the artist feels is one of the biggest of our times. Also of note is I Too Smell Roses (2018), a work Shah created in response to the refugee crisis. “Clearly, people have lost confidence in the leadership and governance in so many countries,” he expresses. “Rising inequality, corruption, stagnating or falling living standards, immigration and a host of issues have created a climate of crisis. Whether we live in a particularly troubled era or not, it certainly feels incredibly turbulent. So protest slogans and graffiti have become mainstream tools of spontaneous democratic expression.”
Kind of Blue 9. 2017. Acrylic, cardboard on aluminium panel. 120x80cm
The Kind of Blue project, more introspective, contemplative and abstract, comprises works made using cardboard, cotton gauze and rice paper. “I explore the materiality of organic fibre in minimal compositions with geometry, chance and repetition as recurring elements of my evolving visual language,” he says. Part of the project is a series entitled Full Moon Rising, which features lyrical abstract works inspired by Russian avant-garde artist and art theorist Kazimir Malevich’s iconic Black Square painting from 1915. “These paintings explore the materiality of manufactured paper, which I crush and transform into creases and folds to reveal a landscape that could be satellite images taken from space,” says Shah. “The idea that ‘art follows nature’ underlies the transition from the abstraction of blank paper to what could be a landscape, perhaps with trees from which the paper is made.”
Why is art so important? “No one must make art, look at it or buy it,” replies Shah. “Yet so much art exists and continues to be created in all cultures. Imagine a world without paintings or poetry or music or dance. For me art is a way to evolve and find a specific expression for my sensibility. I don’t think art changes the world, it would be naive to think that it does. But it is wonderful when someone gets it and that connection happens.”
Images courtesy of the artist and XVA Gallery.
From the Winter 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art