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Mithu Sen, one of India’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, brings the linguistic mischief of a poet to her visual work. By Neha Kale.

Artist Mithu Sen

Artist Mithu Sen.
Artist Mithu Sen.
Credit: Lukasz Augusciak

Language, we are told, is a source of freedom. To speak is to be heard, seen and respected. But for Mithu Sen, the linguistic realm is littered with obstacles. Traps can show up when you least expect them.

In her 20s, Sen moved from Santiniketan, a town in West Bengal, to Delhi, where speaking English was a symbol of social privilege. At home, she was a popular Bengali poet. “I was very confident in my language and it was a big shock for me when people laughed at my pronunciation, which was neither Hindi nor English,” she says. “I was humiliated because I got a job at a convent school as an art teacher but [had] to communicate there with my broken English. I pronounced Monday as Mawn-day. They were kids and it wasn’t their fault – but how we judge!”

She shakes her head in disbelief. “Since childhood, I had been a little dyslexic, but after a couple of years [in Delhi] I realised that Bengali, my mother tongue, was leaving me. My poetry became very minimal, like haiku. At one point it became a blank page. I couldn’t document my feelings in the shape of a poem. I just couldn’t express myself.”

Sen, who is now one of India’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, had thought of herself as a poet and had already published one book. However, she was pulled toward another kind of communication. “I started performing gibberish,” she says, with a mischievous grin. “I liked to go into a primordial state, like a baby’s babble. There were witches who spoke in tongues. As a feminist artist, I started feeling more and more powerful.”

Sen is in Melbourne to install mOTHERTONGUE, a major solo show at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) co-presented with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and curated by Max Delany. A few days before we’re due to meet online, I try to assemble a lexicon of Mithu Sen. Patterns recur in her art: black-and-white spirals, the colours red and pink. On her website, spelled out in Comic Sans, is a series of cryptic terms. Unpoetry. Unhome. Unlanguage. She uses the prefix “Un” in the spirit of a gleeful child who scribbles over and rewrites the notes on her teacher’s chalkboard.

Then there are her arresting and witty performances. In UnMYthU: UnKIND(s) Alternatives, at the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, she paces backwards and forwards, engaged in a maddening conversation with the virtual assistant Alexa. “Alexa, do you know Bengali?” she shouts. “No, I am learning,” the AI replies. “Alexa, do you love me?”

“I am teasing,” says Sen, who flits between warm intelligence and a trickster energy during the course of our conversation.

The ACCA show, which surveys the past two decades of Sen’s career, features 40 works and 12 new commissions, including a series of videos and drawings. It unfolds like an illuminated map of the artist’s mind, pinballing the viewer between words and images and associations. In conversation, we talk about the dangers of being described, the problem of being restricted by identity. Sen tells me that she regularly hacks her own Wikipedia page.

“I love playing with new technology,” she says. “If I have a ‘hot’ show with a lot of sexy drawings, the next show I say, ‘I’m only showing my poetry.’ When I am criticised, they say ‘she doesn’t follow a formula.’ ” She pauses. “They don’t understand play is my motto. I will not let go of it easily.”

Mithu Sen was born in Burdwan in 1971 and grew up in small towns around West Bengal, a state steeped in literary tradition. Her mother was a poet. She started writing with her mother at three, maybe four. “She is my biggest hero,” Sen says. “I always wanted to be like her.” An awareness of girlhood’s double-binds came with this early self-expression, as she had darker skin than her mother. “My mum and my sister look very beautiful, their skin is quite fair,” says Sen, whose experience partly informed a 2003 solo show titled I hate pink. “When you are growing up as a girl-child, how you look matters.”

Sen studied painting at Kala Bhavana Institute of Fine Arts, a prestigious art school established in 1919 by the Bengali poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore that is part of the Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan, and moved to Delhi in 1997. Two years later, she received a postgraduate scholarship to study at the Glasgow School of Art. She attended from 2000 to 2001.

The turn of the millennium marked a rising global interest in contemporary Indian artists. “In those days, early 2003, 2004, the global market capitalised on exotica,” she recalls. “It was a different kind of expectation and desire. I remember one of my initial solo shows in New York, Half Full. I made self-portraiture. It got extremely popular. And then I realised, no, this is the biggest trap.” Her eyes flash. “I am not going to feed you.”

Sen’s early work beguiles and unnerves. For Half Full, which showed in 2007 at New York’s Bose Pacia and Delhi’s Nature Morte, she superimposed photographs of her face over lush ink-and-watercolour drawings: a drooping torso, pink entrails, a tiger-skin sari.

Earlier that decade, she began playing with blood, teeth, guts and bone, wringing a disquieting beauty from the body’s grotesquery. Take the harrowing Twilight Zone. The 2003 installation, made during a residency at Delhi’s Khoj studio, invited viewers to lie down in a blue room soundtracked by an old Hindi song. Above the bed was a curtain of fake hair. The work referred to the case of an Indian nurse who had been raped.

In 2000, Sen started Unbelongings, an ongoing series of sculptures made from human hair: a signifier of female identity rendered abject and abhorrent, when untethered from a woman. “I am always interested in these metaphorical invocations,” she says. “Physiognomy. History and cultural values. Politics, pain and pleasure. Scales of emotion.”

She tells me about a gallerist who showed interest in her work early in her career. “She visited me in my studio and was saying how good I was, that she wanted to give me a show,” she says. “Then she took out two poles of copper and aluminium. She said, ‘Can you use this material instead of hair?’” Sen sighs. “She said hair was very repulsive. I said, ‘Thank you very much, but I can’t do anything with you. You don’t understand what I’m doing.’ ”

The body, for Sen, is an “inescapable part of being a woman”. In some ways, she’s part of a familiar feminist tradition. She searches for frisson, an affective charge: something that only exists beyond language. At Tate Modern, in 2013, she presented I am a poet, based on a corrupted file of an old manuscript that she published as a volume of “glitch poems” that formally resembled Bangla poetry. She performed it in London, Vienna and Delhi, inviting visitors to read the nonsense characters.

“That was one of my earliest works to challenge notions of legibility,” she says. “Our bodies contain some kind of knowledge of experience. It is quite exciting how people read, how the human mind tries to understand and interpret.”

The following year, for the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Sen transformed herself into a fictional character named Mago and lived in a Kerala orphanage for abused girls. Mago, the artist says, didn’t speak the local language, Malayalam. She conversed in an imaginary dialect. “Mago was completely dislocated,” she says. “As if she’d been dropped from the sky.”

The work, a 29-minute video called I have only one language; it is not mine, renders scenes from the orphanage in red drawings that unfold on a white background to protect the girls’ anonymity. It charts a developing bond between Mago and the girls that eclipses the rituals of speech to arrive – even in the presence of trauma – at a point of mutual connection.

When Sen recalls the work, her voice shakes with emotion. “There was the frustration for the girls of understanding where Mago comes from,” she says. “Then, one day a six-year-old girl took me to the toilet. I didn’t know how she knew I needed to go. On Sunday, they eat meat, which I don’t eat. I was given two small pieces and didn’t know what to do. I cried but I ate it. I could not waste it because they would say, ‘What is she doing?’ My practice is like that. I have to completely surrender myself to the situation.”

Our conversation regularly returns to the idea of radical hospitality. Who is the guest and who is the host? What is possible when these roles are reversed? It’s a question, I say, that resonates in a settler-colonial culture such as Australia. Sen nods. “To me, this is the crisis of each individual – one is migration, the other is colonisation. We are extremely overpowered by these two factors in life.”

She explored the fraught nature of guest-host dynamics as part of Unhome, a 2017 project in which she invited locals to spend time with her in the New York apartment where she was undertaking a residency. She brings up the Sanskrit phrase athithi devo bhava, which translates to “the guest is god”. “In Indian hospitality, there are stories and myths that say that as a host, when you have a guest, as an extreme offer, you can offer your wife,” says Sen, who received the inaugural Skoda Prize for contemporary Indian art in 2010. “It happens in the Mahābhārata. Radical hospitality is about tolerance but it is also about power. I see and critique that idea of hospitality. I poke on that.”

She is fascinated by the overlooked and the discarded, things that belong nowhere and plumb unacknowledged registers of emotion and feeling. mOTHERTONGUE features a newly commissioned, revolving version of the MOU (Museum of Unbelongings) 2023. The circular vitrine, conceived in 2011 and presented at Art Basel, hosts strange objects – toy figures, cheap knock-offs, tiny deities – that sit outside history and culture, even as they spark personal, sexual and physical associations. “I am creating a provocation to enter a space in which language can be undone,” she says. “It is incomprehensible.”

Sen remembers being perplexed when her work jumped in value in the mid-noughties. “My gallery tried to tell me, you are very talented, accept these things,” she says. “I found it very absurd. They thought it was my leftist mentality, coming from a state like West Bengal.”

She rails playfully against an art market that treats female artists – especially those from the so-called global south – as both guest and commodity. She refers to her artworks as “byproducts”, distancing them from aesthetic value. She also draws up self-written contracts. “I tell my gallery, earlier I could make one drawing in three days, now I can make three drawings in one day, so the price of the work should be less,” she says, smiling. “This show is also about language and contracts. In the politics of inclusion, you can’t use others. [It’s about saying], ‘I Mithu Sen declare that all the work painted red will be given a 10 per cent discount.’ The whole world is about capitalism. It’s about [countering] that system.”

In a performance titled UnMansplaining, part of the 2019 Venice Biennale, Sen wears a ruffled red sari that draws attention to her complexion. In a riposte to male art critics, she erupts into an electrifying torrent of non-language, commanding the room with visceral power.

“For me, it was successful not because of the many thousands of times it has been shared but how the red visual with the angry woman, the monstrous feminine, was courted,” she says. “They wanted to glorify the exotic Indian woman who became angry, like a goddess. My notion of radical hospitality is about discomfort.”

For Sen, the codes of propriety that govern the art world are part of the larger hierarchy of language that she’s wrestled with all her life.

“It’s the same thing as when I moved to Delhi and realised how not knowing a language like English can become a problem for you,” she says. “Then I realise that it’s not just me as an individual – that many people come to the city, cannot cope, go back. My primary articulation is the first person singular. But I’m always attempting to connect my ‘I’ with a larger ‘we.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2023 as "Speaking in tongues".

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