Delhi based artist, Sukanya Garg explores the human body's intricacies, particularly the perceptions that stem from the constant evolution of cell structures. Garg’s practice is inspired by her unprecedented journey across the world to understand pain and the diverse practices of healing. In the past few years, Garg developed an artistic language that explores life’s fragility and resilience whilst taking us on a simultaneous path into the body's interiority and the cosmos of the universe. Her practice explores the underlying layers of one’s being digging deep to unravel the mysteries of identity, perception, reality, and dreams. Understanding how the human perception of these revelations is influenced by an individual’s intrinsic attributes and his or her constantly changing external environment is what lies at the core of her work. For Garg, art is a medium of instilling hope in a turbulent time, such as the one we inhabit today.
1. With a background in Public policy, what was the reason for you to switch your career to art?
I distinctly remember the moment when I decided to become an artist. I was working in the field of international development at the United Nations in Geneva, a job I had considered a dream for perhaps, all my life. It was on a weekend solo trip to Paris where, just on a hunch, I decided to visit the quaint Musée Marmottan Monet. I still remember the intimate feeling of being in that space. I almost felt overpowered by Monet’s monumental Water Lilies. In that moment, something fundamentally changed inside of me. I realised how much I loved art.
The journey leading up to this moment came with its own set of realizations which preceded this career shift. Serendipitously ending up in a Pranic Healing class, pursuing various meditation workshops, reading Osho, visiting Shobha Broota’s studio to paint, all of these created a hunger inside me to dive into my creative, spiritual side. The domino effect I think is what led me to finally make the career shift.
2. What has been your journey as an artist?
When I had finally quit my job in Geneva to become an artist, the intensity of the career change decision coupled with my return to India led to a period of utter confusion and creative block. I started frequenting artist Shobha Broota’s studio where despite spending a few months, I still couldn’t paint. It was on a serendipitous day when I picked up a simple transparent cube to try and recreate it. What emerged were drawings in which a repeated meditation on the cube transformed into circular forms. The process of playing with the form and the act of drawing it repeatedly, albeit differently, changed the image of the form.
Over time, the repetition of the cellular-shaped form, through which I question my inner biology, has become a sort of meditation leading me towards an unconscious journey of healing. As I paint, the work often takes on a journey into the unknown. While being on this journey, I aspire to surrender to the process of making and silently await the metamorphosis that follows after, both of the painting and myself.
3. What is your perception of art? How do you relate it with healing?
My artistic practice is inspired by my own healing journey. Living with an invisible auto-immune condition led to periods of severe self-introspection which made me question societal attitudes towards things that can only be felt, not seen. Encountering people who suffer from invisible illnesses, grief, loss or other mishaps, I have often wondered about the purpose of art in easing the darkness such conditions inevitably bring. My work since speaks of the silent stories, experiences, wounds and scars that often remain invisible on the skin.
Through my work, I want to evoke a sense of hope inside people and an inner search for their own boundless resilience during trying times. I believe that as people we are often unaware of what we are capable of and even more of what we can survive. In over a decade of discovering the unbounded boundaries of my own resilience, I have realized that art is a medium of instilling hope. In the darker moments of life, we return to art, poetry, music and all that reminds us of the beauty of existence. Survival at its core still requires a sense of hope, the willingness to survive, and inside each of us the possibility of feeling a little less alone in this world.
Subtly threading together the themes of physical and emotional well-being, mental health, resilience, compassion, spiritual evolution and healing, through my work I want to provide expression to the voices and concerns that often remain invisible or silent.
4. Your art form is unique, focusing on mental health. Tell us the inspiration behind it.
The visual aesthetic of my works draws inspiration from the form of a human cell. The first time this imagery entered my practice was after I participated in a Native South American healing ritual called Kambo. During the ritual, a shaman burns tiny holes into one’s skin in a pattern. Then, they apply frog's poison on the holes. The purging that follows is believed to cleanse the body, mind and spirit. The burns, however, leave behind henna-colored cellular shaped scars. These forms unconsciously entered my paintings and changed the course of my artistic imagination and expression.
Since then, these Kambo-inspired cellular forms amalgamate to acquire different visual forms in my paintings, echoing of memories and connections our bodies carry, weaving them into stories which speak of the silent experiences, wounds and scars that often remain invisible on the skin. Reflecting not only the physicality of our being, but also our perceptions of our biology, my work poses questions on the archaic standards which are used to diagnose illnesses wherein the medical tests often only evaluate a patient’s condition against a standardized metric. Such outdated methods deny treatment to multitudes of people whose medical conditions remain “invisible” to the naked eye and in-fact are sometimes ironically termed “psychosomatic” for lack of a genuine diagnosis. Such mis-diagnoses and discriminatory systems wreak mental havoc on people in need of help. My practice, then, is concerned with the inequality of perception of the body’s internal landscape.
5. Art centres around the concept of ‘Every scar has a tory’ has an interesting appeal. Tell us more about this concept, its inspiration and how is it used in narrating stories and experiences.
In October 2016, I wrote a poem – “Every Scar has a Story”. The last stanza of the poem goes as follows:
Every scar has a story,
The ones the skin doesn't show
from stories yet untold
whispered to no one
What of the stories of scarless wounds?
At the time, this was simply an autobiographical note for me written in response to my auto-immune condition which remained invisible making me question society’s perceptions of what a sick person should look like. I wondered about the significance of things that can only be felt, not seen. My journey of healing chartered a course for me which led me to energy healers, shamans, medical practitioners, meditation gurus, tribal and native medicine experts, alternative medicine healers, as well as patients, the wounded, outcasts and others whose voices had been silenced by discriminatory perceptions and deficient systems. These experiences brought a greater acceptance of pain and the discovery of new modalities of treatment and pain relief. The healing that ensued inked its way out through simple drawings providing a synchronicity between my condition and my artistic practice. My art came to centre around the concept of ‘Every scar has a Story’ to narrate stories and experiences of scar-less wounds, alchemizing them through the visual language of cellular biology.
6. Share your experiences, recent shows and the latest techniques you adopted in your art form.
Last year, I was part of a textile show, Sutr Santati. Then. Now. Next at the National Museum, New Delhi last year. It was the first time I worked with artisans from Delhi and Kutch region of Gujarat to create work using the indigenous techniques of Bandhani and Zardozi hand embroidery. The choice of Bandhani was a symbolic extension of the Kambo-inspired cellular compositions of my paintings. The image below shows the resemblance between the inspiration and the final Bandhani work.
The visuals of my recent works incorporate iterations of the crescent moon often associated with the ebb and flow of time and the timeless. I, therefore, represent this journey towards the timeless self and the luminosity of becoming whole once again through the golden sheen of Zardozi embroidery.
7. What have been the latest impressions of the work that you have done so far? What feedback have you received?
Last year, I was a part of several group shows, including a textile show at the National Museum, Delhi. Participating alongside renowned fashion designers, designers, artists and artisans, it was a huge learning experience. The exhibition was received really well and since it was the first time I had ever worked on textile, being exhibited at our country’s foremost art institution was humbling. Most recently, I participated in the Mumbai Gallery Weekend 2023, where I was part of a group show Young Collector’s Weekend South Asia. While I could not attend the show in person, I heard that the show was received really well. The organizers Farah Siddiqui and Teesta Bhandare organized an interactive art workshop for children of all ages. When asked which artwork they resonated with, I was informed that a lot of children picked my works. When meditating on this occurrence I realised that perhaps it was because art for me was a medium or rather a process to re-discover my own inner child, to dig deep into my sub-conscious and explore my own intimate, vulnerable evolving identity.