My interest was spiked, I went along to the grand opening of the new Switch House building at the Tate Modern, a much talked about new extension, to this already iconic of art establishments. I started by looking around each floor, reaching the top, I was introduced to the new views of London. Afterwards I had some time to spare so I looked at my floorplan, l was handed this before I entered. The name, Bhupen Khakhar was listed, at first sight I thought, an Indian name (as you don’t normally find many Indian artists at mainstream galleries) so I decided to read on. What jumped out at me from the description was the word ‘sexuality’, his exhibition was stated to contain these themes. I thought to myself what could this mean. So with this question in mind I went straight to the gallery, to learn about this unknown artist.
In fact, Bhupen Khakhar, was a gay artist, born in 1934 (Mumbai), he explored issues relating to his identity, including his Indian-ness and his gay Indian identity. An accountant by profession who enjoyed to paint, he was self-taught, but was encouraged to attend the Baroda School of art, in Gujarat. In his works he explored the representation of how Indian’s saw themselves, through the eyes of an Indian, painting daily life, incorporating found objects. He is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a pop artist but he was more then that. His focus was not just on the consumer world but his local community. He looked at both popular and high culture, referring to European art history (Rousseau and Pieter Brueghel) for his compositions and colour palette. He created new works from his own observations and experiences.
He painted a set of paintings of local trades, know as his ‘trade paintings’, of mainly places where men congregated, a barber shop, a tailors and a watchmakers. Places that appealed to him because of his interest in men. These were painted for, a commission, for the East India Company, but painted through the eyes of an Indian, not through the eyes of a westerner looking at the ‘other’.
Kharkar came to England and he painted pub scenes of men, presenting a less appealing environment, lacking in colour, unlike his paintings of India, which he painted in bright and bold colours. He had a bias to his own sense of place and painted it in a more positive light. He came out after his mother died and when visiting England saw how men were free and living with each other. He seems to have become more confident and open to discussing his own sexuality, especially in his own future work.
His work presented his liaisons with men, depicting his inter-generational trysts, more so with older men than younger. What you see in the foreground of his paintings was not always the whole story, blurred figures in the background could sometimes allude to the existence of the alternative gay life (Green Landscape 1995).
Kharkha exhibited internationally and has been compared artistically to Hockney, however, observing the mis-en-scene of India, not the heavenly sexualised paintings of men in Los Angeles. His view is of presenting his own life and that of people who were associated to him, in his life, including his lovers and people who sometimes wouldn’t fit into clear binary categories of gay or straight.
He sadly died of cancer in 2013, but before then, was able to present his fight with cancer in his paintings, very much in the raw. He also depicted first hand accounts of the social history of India, presenting paintings of people caught up in the Hindu and Muslim fight, referring to the battle over the site of Ayodhia, a place considered by Hindus to be the place of Rama’s birth, with a mosque standing on it.
A truly fascinating exhibition of bold paintings of someone who had more to his character and a man with a sense of humour.
My favourite were Man with Bouquet of Plastic Flowers (1975), Man Eating Jalebi (1975), You Can’t Please All (1981) and Two Men in Banaras (1982).
Catch you later.