On a journey to decipher the layers which form the crosshairs between art and music, we took a trip into Rithika Pandey’s mind to see how her daily playlist influences her creative practice. Pandey is a visual artist based in the UK and is in the midst of graduating art school, as the world around her seems to crumble with the weight of a global pandemic. We spoke to her about the evolution of her lifelong journey as an artist, from growing up in Ghana to studying in India and now the UK, and how her myriad experiences inform her work.
We’re big fans of your work, but for those of us who aren’t familiar, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your work and your practice?
My work is currently exploring displacement as a context. Since 2018, a lot of things happened, which led me to move away from India to the UK. My perspective shifted towards understanding how I relate to the changes in my environment and what parts of me resonate with the space that I’m currently occupying. It was an emotional experience, suddenly moving 7,000 miles away from home. I’d never been to Carmarthen, Wales before, and I didn’t know anyone who’d spent time here, so it was very uncertain and unsettling for me. Before coming to the UK to study, I traveled to Scotland with my sister, and that trip helped get me acquainted with the new surroundings. The entire experience of exploring different landscapes helped me think about what I want to say and what parts of my work I could use to help me recognize myself through the paintings and installations I create. It’s been a very interesting journey since then, and there have been many ups and downs, but I give credit to the people I’ve met, the mentorship I’ve received, and the friends that I’ve made.
How did you end up moving from India to Wales?
When I finished my second year at Srishti, I arrived at a point where I was going through some personal stuff, and I figured that my environment wasn’t the right place to help confront these feelings. So, I decided to take a year off. Initially, I applied to some study-abroad courses to travel, but financially I don’t think that could’ve worked out for me. I knew this gap year was essential for me to develop my practice, and I realized I could do residency programs abroad. So on a whim, I applied to a couple of residencies in Europe, and I got it. It was insane. I ended up in Portugal for a bit, in the middle of nowhere. That’s where it all started.
I then went to this beautiful space in Spain shortly after. I met and had insightful discussions with artists along the way about developing my practice formally, and how to make the colors for my paintings deeper and richer. Francesco Clemente’s work is heavily saturated with color. I was introduced to his work by an artist during my residency in Spain. Initially, my works were very black and white, and there was not really anything that I expanded upon. All those experiences made me reflect upon the things I wanted from myself and what I wasn’t getting by staying in the same place. Being in the middle of nowhere was very conducive to me. I did an extensive research and found out about this school located in West Wales and began sending them emails. Everything worked out, and I ended up going there. It’s been incredible being in this space because they gave me a huge studio and the freedom to explore all the ideas I wanted. My mentor, Catherine, is an angel and has helped make this entire experience so beautiful.
Oh no I’m just not ready for another emotional burden, 2020, acrylic on paper, courtesy Rithika Pandey
I want to know the story behind this moniker you’ve donned, ‘Chashmish kahi ki’, because it’s usually used in an insulting way.
I will be honest with you, school was shitty because I was always teased about being the tallest girl in class. I used to wear glasses, and you know how boys are with anyone who’s even slightly different from how they are. I was called ‘Chashmish kahi ki’ for almost a year. I don’t care anymore. I was sort of going through this identity crisis in my first year at Srishti, and my sister told me, “Why don’t you use the pseudonym ‘Chashmish kahi ki’ and embrace it because it’s integral to your identity”. So I ran with it, and the rest is history.
You sent us a playlist with 143 songs! We loved that you went all out. It’s quite expansive with musicians from across the spectrum. Anyone in particular that really helped shape your taste?
So my music taste developed because of Haruki Murakami. I started listening to jazz more while reading his books, so Chet Baker, Curtis Fuller, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane were constants. They were always on repeat when I was reading his books or cooking spaghetti. I would listen to the classical music he had on his playlists. It started with that initially and then came A Tribe Called Quest. They have been my absolute favorites since my practice became the way it is now. One of my mentors introduced me to ATCQ, and I just resonate with that music so much. It’s like their tunes are so renegade. It’s almost as though they don’t give two shits about the world; We’re going to do what we want, and you’re going to listen to us. Excursions is one of my favorite songs.
Do you enjoy working with music in the background, or do you prefer to work in silence?
That really is subjective. When I’m in my studio, it’s critical that music blasts off the speaker, but sometimes I appreciate complete silence. I feel like I’m always oscillating between these two spectrums. I think it depends on how I’m feeling at that moment. When I’m annoyed, I make sure I have The Smiths playing out loud. One of my favorite songs to listen to while I’m angry is, What Difference Does It Make by The Smiths, which really comes out in the colors that I use. When it’s completely red, it means that I’m working through a lot in my brain. Back in the studio, there were days where nobody would be around, and there was this beautiful silence, which was almost musical. So I would say that it is very subjective.
Do you have an all-time favorite album artwork?
The Low End Theory album artwork is lovely. Even the album artwork for Wilco’s Schmilco that Joan Cornella designed. Eric timothy Carlson’s design for Bon Iver’s i,i and 22 a million is too beautiful. I also like The Pharcyde’s album artwork from Bizarre Ride to The Pharcyde, which was terrific and very psychedelic in nature.
If you had the chance to reimagine any album artwork across time, is there something you would want to work on?
I would have to go way back. I listen to a lot of old Hindi songs on Spotify. Some of them have interesting album art. I think my reimagination of those album covers would be a contemporary take on their old school bollywood aesthetic. I’d be interested to see how my visual language would fit those songs’ timelines. Barsaat Ki Raat has a fascinating soundtrack, and I listen to the songs quite often. It’s album cover is interesting although I’d be excited to develop something that goes really well with how the songs flow.
I wanted to go back to something you mentioned about the residency in Europe. You use color in your paintings very boldly, and that can be challenging for a lot of artists. Can you tell us how that breakthrough happened for you?
So initially, my works were white paint on black sheets of paper. I was sort of building on the visual language that I’d developed in Bangalore. I painted a whole pillar black and drew on it with chalk at Cubbon Park Metro station. That was my first breakthrough in what I wanted to say as an image maker. I sort of continued with that for a couple of years and realized that it wasn’t working out. I knew there was a fear inside me of using color, so it took me a while. During my residency in Spain, Simon, the host, showed me works by Francesco Clemente and Mimo Palladino. He told me that I have to look at how I’m ‘fabricating’ my paintings, so he gave me an example of how Francesco Clemente traveled through India, looking at the Hindu miniature paintings of mythological stories from our religion. They take the pigment, add a little water, and keep it as saturated as possible. I started looking at those paintings and realized that I could do this. I could use these as references and begin somewhere. For example, in Clemente’s work, I’d notice that he’d use red through the borders. So, I started by using that particular red in the foreground instead and other colors for a border. I formed my work through testing out ideas from these inspirations. Later, I discovered Francis Bacon and have been in love with his work ever since. His colors are just sublime; you feel so much and so little at the same time; I absolutely love it. That’s what made me fearless, and I’ve been dismantling my fears in whatever way possible, ever since. Even looking at fear through the lens of color and what color would it be?
Even now, I have fears about which new color to use, but it’s just a way of working through things, having a conversation with yourself, and finding out what makes you anxious.
The Story Where I Loved You from a Unique Standpoint, 2020, acrylic and gouache on paper, courtesy Rithika Pandey
Bacon is a very powerful artist, and I see how that’s inspired your palette as well. Do you find a lot of your inspiration from older artists, or do you have a range like Renaissance to Contemporary?
Renaissance has a huge scope of finding particular visual narratives to incorporate in my work. If you look at one of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings based on a story written in The Decameron where a knight falls in love with a beautiful woman, but she doesn’t love him back. He built this impressive panel of paintings amongst which is one panel where a dog bites a woman running in anguish. She was actually a phantom woman, and it is such an interesting & poetic image. I don’t want to replicate that but take the image and fit it into my contemporary perspective. In Renaissance imageries, if you look at works by Delacroix, Reubens, Botticelli and many others, they have such a compelling visual language that can be brought into the contemporary space. Histories and traditions can be dismantled and looked at in different ways.
Interestingly, you mention the dog in the painting. Something I notice in a lot of your works is that you have a lot of animals, lots of big cats and snakes, symbols of violence, knives, and blood. It’s like a vocabulary you’ve created, like a set of glyphs. How does this symbolism translate?
I get very weak when I look at blood, but when I’m painting it, I don’t feel that weak. It’s just a weird relationship I have with this material. I feel it’s just so relevant with this world, I see pain everywhere, and the only way I can manifest it is through these strange relationships between the characters I put through in the paintings. For example, in one of my works, there’s this character killing off a lizard with a sword, but she’s also doing a stand-up comedy routine simultaneously. I think it’s really surreal when you look at how people behave with each other and how our inner anxieties manifest through the ways we project on events or situations or on the smallest of objects. The lizard doesn’t really have to be a lizard, but it may represent something else. These animals don’t necessarily represent animals; at times they do, I see them as metaphors or archetypes of a larger idea. The wounds are quite often literal, but they’re also a representation of some hidden subconscious repression. I really would like to emphasize the word ‘repression’ because it’s very important to acknowledge that most of us are repressing our anxieties, and it just sort of bleeds out in one way or another. With my conversations with others, it comes out in the strangest of ways, and I think that’s what that bleeding is. Sometimes it’s not necessarily blood but tears or words that are gibberish, but it’s really the repressed material that’s oozing out.
I think sometimes it even goes as far as erasure. It’s not repression anymore but just erasing these feelings, so we believe that they’re gone. We do that not only with ourselves but with other people as well.
I can see this in intergenerational trauma as well and how it is passed down. Especially with women, you see it with our ancestors, the struggles, even though the women have erased their memories, it’s still present in their bodies. It passes down to us. We realize something’s wrong and trace back to our roots to seek out explanations for them.My Oh My, What a Year, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, courtesy Rithika Pandey
Your paintings are often made with a defining spatial structure to it. They’re usually situated indoors, sometimes in the style of a diptych and sometimes with windows and doors. Are there deliberate intentions behind this?
I do believe it’s intentional to have these defining spatial structures in the paintings. Since 2018, I’ve had this nagging thought of coming to terms with this gap between what’s going on inside my head, what’s happening outside of me. Sometimes, you can be in this huge space and still feel like you’re in a closed-up room, and you only have a window to that outside space, which are your eyes. These strange questions were swimming in my head, and I think I tried to see these walled spaces, not as imprisonment but as an opportunity to build a space I could genuinely do things in and find my way outside gradually. I think I’m still in that walled space finding my way to a bigger space. It’s all very interesting, the dichotomy of how we live mentally and our lived experiences. It has a very spatial aspect to it.
You have a lot of references and inspirations. How do you go about building your own aesthetic identity?
One of the key elements of my visual vocabulary are the Bloomdidos. They’re the black bodies in my paintings, which are the most significant elements that give the artworks a sense of agency and autonomy when finished. They always share a distinct relationship with every space they occupy in a way that is synchronous and never really separates itself from one another. To add more meaning and complexity to the narrative I seek inspiration from my collection of books such as ones based on Hindu tantric and ritual paintings. It helps in reinforcing the emotional languages to something symbolic.
Just because we’ve fixed what’s broken doesn’t mean the pain gets left behind, 2020, acrylic and gouache on paper, courtesy Rithika Pandey
What does it feel like to graduate during a pandemic?
Shitty! I was looking forward to my graduation show; I have these huge paintings that I wanted other people to experience. It’s a bit depressing, but I’m trying to let that go and not dwell on it too much.
What do you have planned for the future?
I’m planning to do my masters, so I’ve applied for a couple of courses I found, I’m still waiting to hear back from them. I want to grow my practice through my studies, and I want to see what methodologies can be used to bring these works to life.
Is there an artist that you find yourself going back to in these dystopian times?
Well, I’d definitely have to say Solange, a bit of Miles Davis, albums like Cookin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet or Bitches Brew help me cope with things.
My morning rituals are sort of chaotic now due to the absence of a studio environment to make work in and the growing anxiousness the pandemic entails on daily life. But while making breakfast, I make sure to listen to a lot of music. Very recently, Wasteland Baby by Hozier and Morning Matters by Yazmin Lacey. It just sets a lovely mood for the day, and I absolutely love the lyrics to the song.
Surveillance is ubiquitous; my breakfast is encrypted, 2020, Acrylic and found image on canvas, courtesy Rithika Pandey
Words by Shraddha Nair & Akhil Hemdev