Tackling Caste—In the Studio with Kirtika Kain

Portrait of Kirtika Kain. Photo by Jeff Liu. Image courtesy of the artist and CJ PICTURE.
Kirtika Kain, Jina Amucha, 2020, beeswax, charcoal, coconut husk, rope, gold leaf, plaster, cow dung, Indian cotton, tar, coconut broom grass, religious thread, human hair, 8 panels, each 110 x 100 cm. Photo by Luis Power. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Kirtika Kain, Jina Amucha (detail), 2020, beeswax, charcoal, coconut husk, rope, gold leaf, plaster, cow dung, Indian cotton, tar, coconut broom grass, religious thread, human hair, 8 panels, each 110 x 100 cm. Photo by Luis Power. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Photo from Kirtika Kain’s studio. Photo by Denise Tsui.
Kirtika Kain, the womb of a jackal, 2020, genuine vermillion and sindoor pigment, crushed cow dung on disused silk screen, 105 x 69 cm. Photo by Luis Power. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Kirtika Kain, the womb of a jackal (detail), 2020, genuine vermillion and sindoor pigment, crushed cow dung on disused silk screen, 105 x 69 cm. Photo by Luis Power. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
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Sydney-based artist Kirtika Kain on India’s caste system and grappling with her ancestral history through art.

 

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist

“I really felt ready. I felt like everything that I had been working towards and everything that I had been trying to make sense of just crystalized in those years,” says Kirtika Kain as we sat with coffee and nut bars in her Parramatta studio in Sydney’s west. We were swapping life stories; comparing notes of being young and unprepared for art school (me), and going in with clarity of self and a few extra years of life experience (Kain). Now, at just the age of 30, Kain is carving a place for herself in contemporary art discourse with a loud and distinct voice. Through a process-driven practice in print making—screen printing in particular—Kain probes the difficult and taboo discussion of caste through an inquiry into her own identity as an Australian-raised woman born into India’s Dalit caste, formerly known as the Untouchables, the lowest rung in India’s segregating caste system.

 

Portrait of Kirtika Kain. Photo by Jeff Liu. Image courtesy of the artist and CJ PICTURE.

 

“The question I asked myself in 2016, in the final year of my undergraduate and just before my Masters, was what is it that I can’t deny?” explains Kain. “And it came back to caste. When I speak about it in this context, it’s always foreign. And it’s especially foreign to me.”

Kain spoke openly about her childhood; the youngest of three in her family, Kain immigrated to Australia with her parents and siblings at the age of three and recalls times of living together in a single room, and of study being drilled as the primary focus above all else. Kain’s father, a beneficiary of India’s highly controversial reservation system, was granted a job as a VIP chef in in well-known government hotel, serving many dignitaries, thus giving their family an opportunity to rise out of Dalit. In Australia, Kain points out, they obtained citizenship rather than a refugee status, a matter she believes would have otherwise led to very different circumstances growing up. “I never really learned about caste or knew about it, because the focus was always to study. But to find out what it actually means and the history behind it, the biggest question I asked myself about caste was: where do I speak? What language do I use?”

Before entering Sydney’s National Art School at the age of 24, Kain studied psychology at Macquarie University, during which time she began oil painting and also became heavily involved in theatre. She describes the rigor and discipline of her theatre tutor as a cathartic experience, but also her biggest breakthrough in learning how to grasp an understanding of the choices she was making. “It really plunged me into looking at everything that I had held,” says Kain. “And I guess just facing that failure really put my ego right in front of my eyes.” While painting was at the roots of Kain’s interest in art, it was print making that stole her heart in art school. “What I really enjoyed about [print making] was how it was like an experiment. It’s like this set of rules that you’re given, and once you learn them, you can do anything you want with them,” she smiles.

 

Kirtika Kain, Jina Amucha, 2020, beeswax, charcoal, coconut husk, rope, gold leaf, plaster, cow dung, Indian cotton, tar, coconut broom grass, religious thread, human hair, 8 panels, each 110 x 100 cm. Photo by Luis Power. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Kirtika Kain, Jina Amucha (detail), 2020, beeswax, charcoal, coconut husk, rope, gold leaf, plaster, cow dung, Indian cotton, tar, coconut broom grass, religious thread, human hair, 8 panels, each 110 x 100 cm. Photo by Luis Power. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

In her studio, strewn across the floor, leaning against the wall, anywhere there was space, Kain had screens and works, papers and materials. “I’m interested in my silk screen as an object,” she tells me. Excitedly, she points at a work on the floor, “I know you’ll love these materials. A mix of refined beeswax and charcoal.” She was right; having just spoken about my own work from art school days, we had bonded on our shared fascination with materiality. Beeswax and charcoal were mine. For Kain, it is rope, human hair, leather, brooms, gold leaf and more. With this, she would bring in more alchemical mediums such as tar and plaster. It seemed there was no limit to her trove of material possibilities. Often incorporating objects and tools related to Dalit livelihood, Kain’s silk screens—both the resulting work and the screen itself—become physical manifestations of her reclamation of these materials.

I asked her about one peculiar-looking item on the floor. “It’s cow dung, which I’ve put in the work,” she tells me. “I actually purchased it online, and funnily enough, the people who sell this only sell it to those doing a very particular ritual, which is described in text only to be conducted by the higher castes. I found this to be quite ironic.”

 

Photo from Kirtika Kain’s studio. Photo by Denise Tsui.

 

Text is another critical element with a central role in Kain’s practice, both as a visual component and conceptually; evident in the small pile of books on her desk and the many articles and essays printed on paper scattered around her studio and pinned to the walls. “Sometimes I feel like I respond more to the words. I feel like when I make [art] this is just breathing, albeit sometimes it’s a bit more of a struggled breathing,” she explains. Citing the writings of Arundhati Roy as an ongoing source of inspiration, Kain describes the words of Roy and other similar authors as “the spark” to her artistic fire. “I think sometimes just coming back to a sentence, to books that I can hold in my hand, and relate to it on just such an immediate level, is a way for me to understand this huge cloud of politics.”

“I think the great brilliance I see in writing is not in its solidity but what it leaves out almost, because that’s when we come in and fill out all the blanks. And sometimes it’s not an assertion, but almost the opposite; of stepping back and allowing people to feel the embrace of what they are writing,” says Kain. At the time of our meeting in March, she was reading Caste Matters by Suraj Yengde but waiting for her among her small pile of books was Babytai Kamble’s The Prisons We Broke, the first autobiography by a Dalit woman in Marathi. The book sat delicately on her table, yet it seemed already to hold so much heaviness waiting to be unpacked by Kain.

 

Kirtika Kain, the womb of a jackal, 2020, genuine vermillion and sindoor pigment, crushed cow dung on disused silk screen, 105 x 69 cm. Photo by Luis Power. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Kirtika Kain, the womb of a jackal (detail), 2020, genuine vermillion and sindoor pigment, crushed cow dung on disused silk screen, 105 x 69 cm. Photo by Luis Power. Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

 

“I think it’s very easy for me not to make work about [caste], very easy not to be involved,” says Kain. “But I feel like there is an inevitable responsibility because I am out of that community. And I will never say that I have lived with discrimination because I haven’t.” For Kain, as she digs deeper into her ancestral history and the provocations of these roots, she is even more certain of a feeling deep inside that has become a driving force. “And even me, as a Dalit who hasn’t lived this, I often think, but who am I to speak? And then I stop myself and say, well I don’t have that experience, but somewhere in my cells it exists. I know it’s there because I can feel it.”

But she is left wondering, what would happen to her voice if she was making art in India? As we discuss the problems we perceive in the art world’s elitism, Kain shares her experience of one trip to New Delhi where she saw this segregation first hand. “So I know that if I were to continue, I’d have to be really wary of that.”

Australia will just be her first step, her home, her base. “This is my home and this is my locality, but I must think beyond this locality, beyond this comfort,” she tells me. “So I’m not quite sure, but I will tell you that I was born in Delhi, and I really look forward to the day that [my work] can be seen there, when it can be visible.”

 

 

 
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