Lunar voyagers, creationism lore, 17th century botanical drawings, epics, mythos, and hybrid creatures: Rithika Merchant’s work is bizarre and unforgettable.
Drawing on her distinctive persona visual lexicon that often looks like an ancient language or pieces of a timeless culture, the artist immerses you in aesthetically intriguing narratives. They may defy explanation, but each tugs at individual memories and speaks to everyone who looks at it in a different way.
We caught up with the artist to discuss both her work and her journey.
1) Tell us a little about yourself and what sparked your interest in art
I always knew I wanted to be an artist. There really is nothing else I want to do.
I have been artistically inclined from a young age and my parents – who are doctors – were always very supportive and encouraging of my need for artistic expression. As a child I remember drawing and painting with my mother, and being taken to see art exhibitions in the city; they really tried to educate me and expose me to art.
In 2004 when I was 18, I moved to New York City to attend Parsons School of Design, and graduated with a BFA in Fine Arts which I received with High Honours. My experience there was amazing. It really shaped the way I make art today.
The program at Parsons favours the conceptual aspect of art making as opposed to the technical aspect. They also require that you take an art history course and some elective courses. For me this was great, because the ideas and the process of making art is much more important to me than having the perfect painting. I was able to explore and experiment with many different things before I came to the place where I make the work that I do now.
2) Your style is so aesthetically distinct. Every piece feels like a page from your very own Voynich Manuscript. Has your time in India, the United States and Barcelona influenced aspects of your visual language?
The combination of having grown up in India, studied in the U.S.A. and then having travelled extensively and finally settled in Europe is the reason for my interest in the links between cultures. I’ve been lucky enough to able to explore different cultures and witness them.
Both Europe and India have such a mixture of different traditions, that it has helped me see parallel histories everywhere. The history of myth and traditions shows links between cultures that often isn’t highlighted in classical history.
3) Yes, mythology and meaning, as you’ve mentioned on your website, is central to many of your exhibition themes. Can you tell us a little about your creative process in exploring and repurposing these narratives?
I am very interested in narratives, myths and received histories that are available to us. I am also interested in how these different fragments are “woven” together to from a complete image. Most cultures use imagery to tell stories and represent ideas. Being inspired by this, I feel I am both celebrating and using elements from these ancient means of storytelling.
4) We’d love to hear you talk about the symmetrical aspect of your imagery
I am very drawn to symmetry – especially circular and oval shapes over more angular shapes, because one rarely sees a straight line in nature, and therefore circular shapes are more organic, reminiscent of eggs, birth and cosmogony.
I also love the symmetry of Venn diagrams for their ability to express simply how things relate to each other. Symmetry also is an extension of the themes found in my work – much of it deals with mirroring worlds, or the passage from one reality to another.
5) Which is your favourite piece? Why?
My favourite pieces recently are my collages. My collages began from a need to express certain ideas in a graphic non narrative way. These works come from a much more personal and intuitive way of seeing. Less about research and more about taking a feeling or concept and representing it visually.
In a similar vein to the works in embroidery hoops, the collages continues my experiments with adding mixed media elements into my work. Needlework, collaging, quilting, weaving etc. have long been considered ‘women’s work’. However, I think there is something powerful in taking whatever scraps you can find and putting them together to create something meaningful. These mediums subvert historic ideas of how women create.
6) Any new shows or projects we should look forward to?
My work will be presented by TARQ at the India Art Fair in February and I will also be part of a group show in London in March.
Interview by Pavi Sagar
Featured image source: ‘Voyagers’ by Rithika Merchant