*Featured photo: OVERFLOW, 2022, 95 cm X 128 cm (component 1), 95 cm X 32 cm (component 2). Stitch-resist dyeing and running stitch with plastic on handwoven silk. Pic Courtesy- Neha Puri Dhir, copyright Neha Puri Dhir
Indian-born fibre artist, born in 1982, Neha Puri Dhir, trained at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, then went on to obtain a Master’s degree in Strategic Design at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy, and a Master’s degree in Design for Textile Futures at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, UK.
After a long journey of experimentation with different textile techniques, the artist became fascinated by the ancient Japanese technique of Shibori, which, as Puri Dhir states, brings with it an element of surprise and unpredictability that makes the result magical and inimitable.
Neha Puri Dhir’s works embody the refined sensibility and aesthetic consciousness of the artist whose work reveals an ability to transcend the pure and simple aspect of the work itself, allowing it to resonate with the public by making the invisible visible and succeeding in communicating the essence of the creative act.
In this interesting interview exclusively for our magazine and in collaboration with the International Art Textile Biennale (IATB) of which ArteMorbida is a media partner, the artist talks about her professional career and the foundations on which her research is based.
You are an established and experienced artist in the field of fiber art. What kind of research characterizes your production and what mainly influences your imagination and artistic practice?
To talk about what influences my art, I’d like to share how my journey as an artist began. I started my art practice around ten years ago after being professionally engaged with industry, craft and art/ design education sector. It primarily started with a desire to find a creative impression stemming from the varied personal experiences. Honestly, I only had the end in mind which was to create an honest expression in form of art, but I was unsure of the means to that end.
For me, the genesis of an artwork may just be an article that I read somewhere or travel to some mundane destination that has initiated some introspection or thoughts. To give you an insight, one of my recent works titled ‘Dolphin of the Ganges’ was conceived after I read a disturbing article about how the dolphins which once thrived in the beautiful Indian river ‘Ganga’ are on the verge of extinction, thanks to all the ecologically destructive human activities.
In 2015, I created a series of works titled ’Shūnya’, which explored the concept of void or nothingness. Almost all the artworks are in monochrome, as the basic colours of black and white (beige in this case since it is the natural colour of silk) depict nothingness beautifully. These artworks came from a state of internal peace and I believe it shows in the works.
I am particularly fascinated by the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi which essentially means celebrating the imperfect or incomplete. I believe, my art aesthetics resonate with Wabi-Sabi the most and the visual language unconsciously revolves around it.
I feel the creative expression that originates from your own emotional stimulus makes your work irrefutably personalised and truthful to your heart.
As an individual, I am often moved by stories of struggle and resilience, especially women. It is inspiring to read about people who continued to hustle and succeeded despite all the odds. These stories are what overall motivate me to wake up every morning and pursue my passion.
During your education, you have lived and studied in various countries around the world, such as India, England and Italy, immersed in varied cultural realities. How are these experiences, these aspects of your life, reflected in your work?
Firstly, I feel extremely privileged to have got the opportunity to study in some great institutions in India and abroad. Exposure to different cultures is such an enriching experience for any creative soul and whenever I find time to teach, this is still the first thing I emphasise to all my students. Culture is such a huge institution in itself and its beauty lies in the fact that, we, most of the times, underappreciate its influence in our day to day lives, actions and thoughts. Living in different countries definitely made me embrace this aspect and shaped me more receptive as a person on a whole. I think it has made me more empathetic and today my work transcends geographical boundaries not just in presentation but in conceptualisation.
Historically, art has always been closely associated and influenced by various socio-political issues of the times. Since I got the opportunity to travel and live in different countries in more impressionable years of my life, let’s just say, it has widened my sphere of influence. For example, despite living in India, forest fires anywhere in the world disturb me as much and say a news on coral regeneration across the oceans brings me as much joy. Many of my works today are influenced by global issues in isolation and also challenges that are common to the world at large. Also, I feel this is an ongoing learning in my life. Like, I remember when I visited Latvia for an art residency in 2016, the exposure to post-war demography and architecture left an indelible mark on my mind. I’d say more than the varying pedagogy of the institutions that I studied at, as you rightly brought out, it is this exposure to different cultures in the form of interaction with people, which I find etched in my work in more ways than one.
Let’s talk about Shibori, an ancient technique that you use as your tool of choice in creating your works. Can you tell us what it consists of and how you manage to transpose such a traditional technique into a contemporary key? What fascinates you about Shibori?
When I embarked on this journey as an artist, I experimented extensively with various textile construction techniques which I had explored as a student and later as a professional. Amongst them, I realised, I resonated most with resist dyeing especially the ancient Japanese technique of Shibori. I see that realisation as an ‘aha’ moment in life and there has been no looking back after that. I remember being first introduced to Shibori at my alma mater; National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India in a workshop conducted by stalwarts such as Aditi Ranjan, Yoshiko Wada and Jack Lenor Larsen. Resist dyeing intrinsically brings in uncertainty and a magical unpredictability to the creation. However imaginatively one may plan out the patterns and colours in Shibori, the result always has an element of surprise, as if Shibori has a language of its own. This is what fascinates and entices me while also rendering every work inimitable even by me.
I started my art practice almost at the same time when I got married to my husband who is a pilot in the Indian Air Force. Being with him, life has been unpredictable and full of uncertainties. To begin with, we have to re-locate frequently due to his postings. In fact, I am currently in process of shifting bases. This definitely adds to the complexities as I almost operate out of a studio on the move but somewhere it does add many dimensions to my work. I sometimes wonder, probably this is why I am able to associate with unpredictability inherent in Shibori and philosophies such as Wabi-Sabi that celebrate the impermanence.
So, Shibori or resist-dyeing primarily entails shielding certain parts of a fabric from the ensuing exposure to dye. The shielding may be achieved by a number of ways, one of which is by stitching the fabric together in a pattern and stitch-resist Shibori is what I use predominantly. The stitching pattern is then revealed magically when you open them post dyeing. I’ve embraced the basic concept of this technique, however, most of my work involves multiple levels of stitching, dyeing, discharge-dyeing and overdyeing which is a contemporary adaptation of this technique. I primarily work with hand-woven fabrics sourced exclusively from weavers in craft clusters across India whom I was associated with during my post-college years. Today, I also look at my work as an homage to these industrious weavers and as a small means of supporting their exemplary work.
The second edition of IATB 2023 is being held this year. How important is it for an artist to have access to such a prestigious event?
I can’t emphasise enough on how important and enriching, prestigious events such as IATB 2023 are for any artist. The opportunity and audience that they promise is of immense importance for an artist to grow. These platforms bring together like-minded people from across the world that it is bound to influence in one’s life and work positively.
Since the show is going to travel and showcase at eight venues in Australia, it is equally attractive to the participants and audience both. I am very excited to be a part of it and look at it as a wonderful opportunity to understand the magnificent work in the field of textile art being created globally.
Having worked with textiles all through, it is now an emotion for me. If you think about it, it is the first and the last thing that touches the human skin. Time and again, textiles proved to be the leitmotif that enabled better understanding of history and cultures. So, it is extremely gratifying to see Art Textiles gaining ground as a mainstream visual art. Shows like these provide an opportunity to explore the gamut of possibilities that textiles offer as a medium.
Can you talk about the genesis and significance of the work you are exhibiting at the International Art Textile Biennale 2023?
The work which I am exhibiting in IATB 23 is called ‘Overflow’. The artwork involves stitch-resist dyeing on handwoven silk with some running stitch using plastic as a thread. The artwork, the process and the concept are all conjoined with me.
This work was conceptualised after a recent family trip to the once-pristine Andaman & Nicobar Islands in India. It is a beautiful and serene group of islands, but it was deeply disturbing to see the ocean being neglected and the growing infestation of plastics. The selfishness and greed of humans as a species was what I found to be insufferable. It was a feeling of despair when I realised that the way we are headed, we are only going to leave ruins behind for our next generation. So, this work is an expression of angst, of disquiet which I experienced when I saw the insensitivity with which we are exploiting our environment.
It is distressing when you read about such things from across the world. There are oil spills occurring every now and then, we are overfishing to the degree that it is causing mass mortality of aquatic life while our oceans have always been emblematic of vibrancy.
Is the process of creating a work an instinctive thing for you or is it more the result of a precise project?
I see my work only as a means of giving a tangible form to what has touched my heart and mind. It may sometimes manifest into a large body work or may just be one isolated artwork.
Like my debut solo show in 2014, was called ‘Amoolya’. I’d say I took it on as a project to showcase my concepts with Shibori. It was beginning of a journey and a series where I experimented with basic geometrical forms and explored interaction of fabric with colours. Since then, I feel I am continuously growing as an artist and have a long way to go. But my work will always be a mirror to my mind and it will be born out of an innate emotion or instinct. I do give myself a project sometimes when preparing for a solo show like ‘Shūnya’ because of the sheer size of the body of work required.
Sometimes you come across stories, which for reasons unknown have a lasting impact on you. Like I remember learning about Boro, a class of Japanese textiles that have been delicately mended or patched together by poor Japanese households. It is intriguing to see the concept of sustainability celebrated in its purest form as nothing is wasted.
Something which probably started out of poverty, paved the way for such unique aesthetics. I was so enthralled learning and looking at those pieces that I created a series of one-of-a-kind wearable art garments inspired from this Japanese practice. As an artist such impactful stories find a way for a creative expression out of you.
These Boro inspired, one-of-a-kind garments, have primarily been developed using fabric samples that were part of my resist dyeing explorations. I brought together this collection with a self-given constraint of using only the material that was already available in my workshop instead of sourcing anything more. This approach offered me a distinct perspective to handle material more judiciously. The essence of this series has been straight cut garments that showcases the fabric surface in its unadulterated form. The purpose is to enable viewers to appreciate the wearable art in its pure and pristine form.
Are there themes, ideas, goals that you feel the need to develop or deepen in the continuation of your artistic career? What plans for the future?
I feel life is all about learning and growing as a person. There is so much to experience in this beautiful world; so much has happened and so much is yet to happen. I treat my art as an inherent part of me, it will grow and evolve with me. There are always short-term goals or targets one keeps working for and it is these small steps which manifest into bigger transformations.
I would admit that being a mother of a five-year-old daughter, last few years, it has definitely not been easy to diversify or take advantage of whatever opportunities that came my way. But in future, I see myself collaborating with artists working on other mediums, architects creating conscious spaces. I think, that’ll add a new dimension to my work and may lead to a unique collective visual language. I have always been a people’s person and the idea of multi-disciplinary collaborations excite me. At the same time, I would want my work to get stronger conceptually and simpler visually.
Also, educating the creative minds has always held a special place in my heart and along with my art practice that is something I intend to continue doing whenever I get an opportunity.