Nepali Times

ashmina Ranjit paints for women's causes. Last year she portrayed feminine characters in her installations. This year it is sexuality-female sexuality- that she interrogates through an exhibition entitled Hair Warp. Her work on show last year was vibrant and well conceptualised, and so is her current exhibition. The show, a mix of installations and paintings, is on at the Nepal Association of Fine Arts (NAFA) in Balmandir, Naxal, until 15 December.

The visitor to the exhibition is first confronted with scenes of bare legs, a woman wearing a red sari, hair being shaved, and a diyo being snuffed out in a video installation. And they compel you to view them in our cultural context. For, culturally, a red sari is the symbolic representation of marriage, and (one could say) bare legs of post-marriage lust and sensuality. The shaving of a female head is an obvious reference to widowhood, while the snuffing out of the diyo stands in for death. In charting the stages from the consummation of marriage to the separation by death, she talks about the suppression-self-inflicted or otherwise-of a woman's sexuality.

Though this video installation lacks artistic finesse and the sound of hair being shaved off is rather putting off, it helps one enter Ranjit's work. For hidden within paintings that are seemingly of hair, braided and loose, you can discern female figures-some lissom and voluptuous and others merely allusions to the female form. And you could well have missed noticing these figures, and maybe even what the exhibition is about, if the video installation hadn't set the stage for them. These preliminary hints guide the viewer to stop, instead of moving hastily towards the next painting, move back and forth, and stare hard at the paintings in search of women lurking somewhere within the plaits of hair, even if there isn't one.

The paintings-every last one of them, from beginning to end- relate to the title "Hair Warp" and its symbolic implications, and so do the installations. The works are mostly monochromatic-charcoal in some, pencil in others. The vibrancy in the exhibition comes from a few works that break the pattern. These have a splash of bright red, usually to paint the ribbon binding the hair, which adds a surprising and thought-provoking note to the otherwise subdued charcoal black-and-white hues of the exhibition.

Like I said, if you set your mind and eye to it, you could find female figures in all the paintings, but you don't have to stare too hard in others. In one painting in particular, you can see, within the curve and twist of hair, a woman with exaggerated breasts contorted into an awkward and constrained position. It is almost as if someone has fettered her and her sexual craving. In another painting, two braids of hair form the labia-red and enticing. And you are shocked by the boldness of the artist.

The execution of all Ranjit's works is, however, nothing to write home about. I don't mean the usual illiterate gag "I can draw like that", though few visits to exhibitions, this one included, are free of the annoyance of hearing someone say just that. But does it matter that the execution is mediocre? When modern art has been pushed (I would personally say, relegated) to the conceptual level, maybe the question of skill become unimportant. Concepts rule in this realm. Moreover, the means Ranjit uses to make her statements doesn't place a premium on execution.

If you believe the medium should be subservient to the theme, this exhibition is for you. Otherwise, you may be frustrated by how Ranjit paints hair. She works hair that is braided, silky, flowing and texture-less on textured Nepali lokta paper. Not all are painted on lokta, though, and looking at these works I feel that she should have stuck to plain paper all through, as this would work better in expressing the qualities of hair she explores. Charcoal on lokta just doesn't work for the kind of textures she's trying to convey.

Ranjit has worked some relatively large paintings in this exhibition. These works, displayed on the terrace of the NAFA building look imposing and add to the ambience of the bohemian, and, dare I say, slightly kinky, artiness a place like that should have. And they certainly make you think about Ranjit's critique of patriarchal society and its exploitation of female sexuality.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)