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Sri Lankan–Australian sculptor and ceramicist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran refuses to be pigeonholed.

By Andy Butler.

Sculptor and ceramicist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran.
Credit: Manolo Campion

When I ask Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran how he’s going, he’s honest: lockdown sucks. We’re both in the throes of it, Nithiyendran in Sydney and me in Melbourne. We don’t squabble over which city has struggled more or compare the severity of our cabin fever. It’s simply a relief to pierce the isolation with a long chat with another art tragic.

We’re Zooming first thing on a Monday morning. He’s at the start of his working week, chatting from a couch in his Sydney-based studio. A large kiln stands behind him. “I normally do six days a week in the studio,” Nithiyendran tells me. “When I get to Sunday, I do the vacuuming and things at home, but I’m not sure what to do with myself.”

The rise and rise of the Sri Lankan-born ceramicist and sculptor has been a short ride in a fast machine. Since his first solo exhibition of ceramic works in 2013 at Sydney’s famed artist-run gallery Firstdraft, he’s become one of Australia’s most visible artists. His exuberant and distorted figurative sculptures have become ubiquitous.

“The way I see it is, I think really what I’m primarily interested in is histories of figurative representation,” Nithiyendran says. “A lot of the references and research I do are looking at the very early forms of human representation, as well as religious imagery and idolatry.”

While he’s best known as a ceramicist, the foundation of Nithiyendran’s work is drawing and painting. He grabs a large visual diary filled with pages and pages of drawing. They have the same distorted figuration that characterises his sculptures.

“I’ve been using these books since high school, [they are] where I figure out a lot of my works,” he says. “They’re not really for anyone. If I need to get the ideas flowing, I always consult the diaries.”

Nithiyendran grew up between cultures after his family fled Sri Lanka in the late ’80s and landed in Western Sydney’s Auburn. His childhood was spent moving between a Christian church and a Hindu temple. While he’s not religious anymore, it’s something that still fascinates him.

“Do you remember those little prayer cards you’d get at church classes?” he asks. “Like Mary and Jesus were white AF, and I always think to myself as an adult, I can’t believe that this is the image you’d get little brown kids to aspire to on this really fundamental level. If you can have diverse Wiggles, surely you can have brown Jesus.” He lets out a bellowing laugh.

As in his work, Nithiyendran approaches these sorts of conversations with a clear acuity and an easy charm. Many of his sculptures sit in that tension between a grin and a grimace, which makes them feel as if their exuberance and polychromatic energy is a facade for anxiety.

We talk about what’s happened to our peers over the past 18 months. “It’s really difficult for artists who aren’t established in this time. I’m lucky that I can have online commercial shows. But for people who have more developing practices, it’s really disappointing,” he says. “The artist-run initiative culture in Sydney has just been decimated. We do have a pretty good commercial gallery infrastructure here, but that model only suits certain types of practices.”

While there certainly are many ways of being an artist, and the resourcefulness of artists who work outside the commercial scene is abundant, Nithiyendran’s career is a case study of an artist’s capacity for deep growth when their vision and ambition is met by the resources and opportunities required to build a life in art.

Over the past year he has had three significant exhibitions in Australia. In September 2020, his mammoth Avatar Towers in the vestibule of the Art Gallery of New South Wales welcomed visitors back into the building. In March 2021, his first permanent public sculpture was unveiled at the entrance to Home of the Arts on the Gold Coast, co-commissioned by the Melbourne Art Foundation, and in June this year, Earth Deities was shown at Dark Mofo in Hobart.

Avatar Towers occupied the AGNSW’s ornate vestibule and has since entered the museum’s collection. It’s emblematic of the conceptual and material concerns that drive Nithiyendran’s practice. A sprawling 77-piece installation of ceramic and sculptural works, his lurid sculptures contain multiple distorted faces, with forms inspired by everything from a South Asian sculptural vernacular to emojis, dicks, religious iconography and hair.

The work’s loud precarity and how its mishmash of forms gesture towards our attempts to pictorially make sense of ourselves reflect how we live our lives today. It has a calculated imbalance, bringing together a cacophony of references that feel like they could fall apart at any moment.

“I’m interested in inconsistencies and openness and this idea that meaning is actually hard to grasp, which is actually what life is like. So I often think about multiplicity, irregularity, imbalance,” he says. “It’s a constant process of thinking about what plurality means in a global context. These are the kinds of things that are iterated in the work, with multiple faces, species, images, colour.”

When Nithiyendran’s work is shown in Australian art museums, it butts against the woefully distorted sense of our nationhood and geopolitical context that’s reflected in public art collections. While Avatar Towers was inspired by the Asian collection at AGNSW, Nithiyendran is wary of reductive readings of his works.

“Sometimes there’s a lot of hyperbolic language elaborated around artists making work from some sort of minority position, about challenging mainstream narratives, developing counter-narratives,” says Nithiyendran. “I don’t see my work doing that. You can certainly project a counter-narrative onto it, but I’m quite careful with the language I use to talk about my work. I don’t want it to only be framed in relation to whiteness or Eurocentrism.

“It’s reductive. It’s also easy to understand here. People frame [work] in an oppositional or binary model, of East and West, as if there’s clear-cut distinctions, because it’s not hard for local audiences to grasp.”

Nithiyendran studied painting and drawing at UNSW Art & Design and started making ceramics at the end of the course, when he was still trying to find ways to meaningfully unlearn what he had been taught. Teaching at the same institution, Nithiyendran encourages his non-white students to feel empowered to make whatever work they want. “I tell them that you can just be autonomous in what you make. You don’t need to frame your work solely around your identity as ‘the other’ or about ‘diversity’ because that’s what the art world here expects of you,” he says.

“I remember at the time I found it really difficult to reference any kind of things that were connected to my ancestry. I didn’t really understand how to do that meaningfully. I think for people who come from refugee or migrant backgrounds, if they feel obliged to reference those things in their art, there can be an element of disconnection. There’s an idiosyncrasy to the experience that makes it really different from what you’re taught it should be, but I just didn’t understand.”

What did come through was a strong interest in Creation stories. He was thinking about fashioning human images, figuratively and literally, from clay. The political dynamics of sexuality, gender and race were, he came to realise, “incredibly intertwined with Creation stories. Even though that’s kind of such an obvious point”.

Nithiyendran’s 2016 exhibition In the Beginning… at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art was a knockout. I remember being floored by its vibrancy, irreverence and the real curiosity in trying to understand the world.

“There’s this assumption that if people of colour are working with collections, they’re engaged in institutional critique, but that wasn’t what I was getting at,” he says. “I was thinking about the fact that all of these objects in the university’s cultural collections, across a whole range of departments, disseminate and create knowledge. I wanted to create an experience that was about the birth of knowledge and a porous world.”

An opportunity to be supported in a museum context so early in his career was a boon for his creative and professional growth, and he says this experience was fundamental in deepening his thinking about his work.

Mud men was on at the same time at the National Gallery of Australia in 2016, inspired by their Asian collection. He recalls the experience of walking through their Asian display. “It felt like you were transported into these other worlds through these ‘exotic objects’. In a lot of Australian contexts, the Asian collections are divided by faith. You have the Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist sculptures. But in the context of Asia that doesn’t make sense. Because a lot of these countries are multifaith, with religions mingling. They all influence the other.”

For Mud men, he imagined what large-scale figurative sculptures might be when they more clearly reflected the intermingling of faiths, value systems and cultures; of what Creation stories might be if we could clearly pinpoint the ways that beliefs travel and shift across time and place.

Since 2019, Nithiyendran has been supported by the Sidney Myer Fellowship, a tax-free grant of $160,000 over two years for mid-career artists. He says that financial security, even if temporary, has been a life-changer.

“To get these larger-scale commissions, or permanent public sculpture opportunities, you need to be able to demonstrate that you have the ability to deliver,” he says. “Some people don’t realise the thing you need to build that kind of practice is some capital behind you.”

He used the money to develop relationships with collaborators, paying for the time and expertise of lighting designers, producers, architects and fabricators to develop larger and more complex artworks for the first time. His initial collaborative experiments led to the public commissions over the past year.

Nithiyendran’s main concern now is to build more momentum to exhibit internationally, especially around South and South-East Asia, where his work isn’t read solely through its relationship to a European centre.

We touch on other artists who can speak to a global audience from an Australian context, such as Khadim Ali and Simryn Gill. They’re both diasporic artists whose work is done a disservice if reduced to identity, diversity or counter-narratives. Ali and Gill are both much more established than Nithiyendran – Ali’s work is in the Guggenheim Collection and Gill represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 2013.

While Ali, Gill and Nithiyendran are wildly different artists, their work can give us insights into Australia’s broader geopolitical context, where our closest neighbour is Indonesia, and 18 per cent of our population claim an Asian heritage.

This regional and global context is more apt for Nithiyendran’s practice, in which he unpacks the ways symbols emerge and shift in cultural exchange. He says there’s “a real groundswell of [Australian] artists of colour in this generation” who are thinking deeply about escaping the binaries of East and West. And as one of those artists, Nithiyendran says, “I’m still trying to figure that out.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 9, 2021 as "Figuring it out".

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Andy Butler is an artist and writer. He is the exhibitions curator at West Space in Melbourne.