Truth as a sculpture

Minimalist grandeur

Truth as a sculpture

Inspired : Karl Antao's Sculpture

Smile. Click... Smile. Click… fellow artist Manisha Gera Baswani is making Ahmedabad-based sculptor Karl Antao pose next to each of his thirteen massive sculptures being displayed in a show at Gallery Espace in Delhi.

Antao, armed with a most disarming smile, is an easy subject for a photographer but his sculptures, majestic figures in Burma teak and sevan wood, are complicated stories that weave myths, fables and facts together to address issues rooted in today’s world.

Story-telling has anyway been Antao’s forte, who after graduating from J J School of Art, Mumbai in 1989, was recruited on campus by the advertising biggies Lintas. His two-year stint with adman Alyque Padamsee was spent creating some memorable ad campaigns, one of them being the still-fondly remembered Lalithaji of Surf detergent fame!

“I loved what I was doing but whenever I used to visit art exhibitions, I came back yearning to become a sculptor. Though I had studied Applied Arts in Mumbai, the paper-pulp sculptures I did as a second year student were already being shown as part of the college’s graduate show,” recalls Antao.

Soon enough, in 1992, he landed at the sculpture studio in Kanoria Centre for Arts, Ahmedabad, where he later taught from 1994 to 1996. Surrounded by contemporaries like Tushar Joag, Sudharshan Shetty and Sharmila Samant at that time, Antao says that the “open space” at Kanoria helped him to discover wood that was to soon become both his muse and medium.

Agony and ecstacy

Says Karl Antao: “During my growing up years, I had read Irving Stone’s  The Agony And The Ecstasy which was a biographical account of the 16th century Renaissance artist Michelangelo. A line from that book has stayed with me ever since - the artist’s need to release an image trapped in stone.”

Several celebrated works followed, among others, the acclaimed 2003 installation Rest in Peace at the Khoj residency in Bangalore, where Antao paid tribute to the 2003 Gujarat riot victims through a pristine water mattress impaled on 24 sharp knives.  “As an artist, I have always reacted to such situations. At times the government orchestrates the riots and then tells the victims that they will be taken care of, in shelter camps, with food and mattresses.”

Antao, 43, makes a similar comment in one of his more recent sculptures, titled Varaha in the stars of the knights, created in the aftermath of the 26/11 attack where he takes the mythological story of Vishnu as the boar and converts it into a contemporary metaphor - the deity’s snake is transformed into a boar’s ear, while a man is shown sitting on the animal’s back.

“It is a tribute to the commandos who saved our dignity while the political blame game was on. The attack came from the sea, so I have used that imagery to relate it to Vishnu who took the form of a boar and jumped into the sea to rescue the earth.”

Subtle satire

Most of his recent works, in the last two years act as a satire on the interplay of the educated mind and situations where circumstances are manipulated to create an environment conducive to one’s advantage. In a lifesize sculpture titled Innocence Sacrificed, he takes the myth of Abraham who unhesitatingly took his son’s life at Christ’s behest and connects it to the modern day dilemma of choosing between ideals and compromise.

Says the recipient of the best solo show award at India Habitat Centre in 2005: “I feel there is a crucial lack of accountability in the society today. Education is meant to make things purer. Education however is often distorted by those who want to manipulate the world around them.”

For anyone remotely interested in textures, it is Antao’s medium that reaches out at once. The depth and variation of wood tone and grain in maintained in the multi-textured surface of the megalithic sculptures which also contain subtle details, features and sentiments that demand a closer study of the works.

Values to cherish

For instance, in a sculpture titled  Rational Brawny Hearts, a woman tightly clutches on to her braid, as it reaches out to what could be a bud, and therefore, suggestive of a new life. “The hair is the extension of one’s mind. Certain values need to be cherished, even if one has to compromise with situations,” he philosophises.

Antao’s medium of sevan wood has its own story to tell. “This white wood is used by the Swaminarayan sect of Gujarat to make statues of their saints. I chanced upon this wood when I began looking for something which would be more durable and could retain the intensity of colours more easily than Burma teak I was earlier working with.”

Yet, Antao is at equal ease with other mediums that he has worked in, paper pulp and bronze being his companions for several years. He points at a bronze bust titled Hidden Truth, where he portrays the depths of human emotions through a male torso entangled in stems and flowers mushrooming from its side.

“When you work in bronze, you tend to dominate the medium but working in wood is a substractive process, it just imposes itself upon you and takes its own shape,” says the Bendre- Husain award winner who also bagged the Best Sculpture Award from All India Arts Society, Mumbai in 1992.

So how long is this medium going to “impose itself” upon the artist?  “Que sera sera,” he smiles, enigmatically this time!

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