Honey, I shrunk the 18th century! (1)
On the occasion that I arrive at a creative block, I put an end to the thinking and embark on the making of…soap. Between February and April, I sculpted soap-clouds, palace archways and flowers from 17th and 18th century South Asian folios. I painted over each soap with colour pigments and produced such a range of delightful scented soapy translations of paintings that are rarely ever on public view. The spontaneity of making and doing rather than over-thinking has always cleared the path for fresh ideas. In this instance it led me to painting pop-ups!
Pictured: Soaps inspired by my colleague, Nicolas Roth’s historical-horticultural explorations. He often identifies precise botanical details across numerous paintings for me. Images and captions below, his.
Iris, narcissus, and hyacinth etched onto soap-surfaces and painted over with metallic and matt soap-pigments. All soaps can be viewed on Instagram.
‘Constantinople’ or ‘Double Roman’ narcissi (Narcissus tazetta ‘Constantinople’) adorning the inside cover of a Shāh Jahān-era Mughal album [on the left] and as seen in Tavira, Portugal, two weeks ago [on the right]. Source: Bodleian Library MS. Douce Or. a. 1, inside lower cover [image]"
A double blue hyacinth from an 1847 manuscript of the dīvān of the Ottoman Sultan Selim III (1761-1807) who wrote poetry under the pen name ‘İlhami,’ on the left, and ‘Royal Navy’ in the garden today, on the right. Source: Divan-i Ilhami, fol. 5a, Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi Y765, via Harvard Fine Arts Library, Digital Images & Slides Collection 2005.10679
In an upcoming interview with The Irregular Times (Issue 4, May 2023) that excavates my dual roles as critic-perfumer, I elaborate on the aesthetics and purpose of this material - is it just soap, or is it a piece of art history made available to the public to have and hold? Could this work as a gesture of reparation?
I keep reminding my readers that my artworks are to be used and enjoyed rather than stared at. I joke about how I am taking “Art History” out of academia and down the drain, one soap at a time, but last month, I gave a curatorial tour of Bagh-e Hind to someone who hoards a special edition of a soap-art I had made in 2022.
This edition was a translation of the “Smoke” chapter of our project (pictured). A charcoal-black and Prussian-blue coloured bar intensely scented with my “Smoke” perfume and painted over with firecracker explosions replicating a night of celebrations in an 18th century Mughal painting. My guest not only refused to use the bar but insisted on preserving and displaying the work of art in an elegant glass case! Very well, that’s cool too!
After making a series of reparation-soaps that make it possible for the public to hold the essence of our otherwise inaccessible art history, I began painting rose bushes, marigolds, banana trees, and those special red tents that feature across many of our Mughal and Rajput paintings, on paper.
These pop-up rose bushes and so on, are approximately the same size as they would be in the original folios, so once I’m done, I really do feel as if I am holding an authentic cut-out of art history in my hands! This DIY approach to institution-critique has induced such giggles— sometimes, dumb and cute is appropriate.
Pictured are details of taro leaves planted with larkspur and poppies, and marigolds from an 18th century court painting from a private collection that is on view at the Smithsonian till mid May. June onwards, it is likely on view, at The Cleveland Museum of Art in the exhibition “A Splendid Land: Paintings from Royal Udaipur”, curated by Dr. Dipti Khera and Smithsonian’s South Asia collections in charge, Dr. Debra Diamond.
After “Splendid Land” comes down, such paintings, private and public, are likely to never to resurface again. We will all go back to enjoying(?) their pixelated representations online or in one or two publications, but given the way museums tend to (mis)handle copyrights, even virtual access to hi-res scans is not guaranteed.
“Your art history is none of your business” is what the Smithsonian PR recently implied to me when I made soapy-interpretations of “Splendid Land” based off their publicity images. That’s why it makes sense for me to paint and place these pop-ups alongside other synesthesia-translations of history-paintings I continue to make— perfume, incense, specially designed glass flacon— all of which expand the experience of early modern South Asian history as cohesive multi-media, multi-sensory installations that I can share with the public. This type of vengeance-reparation beyond the grasp of such institutions makes me laugh!
Perfume translation of this painting is available on request. A detail from "Thakur Sirdar Singh enjoys pleasures with women in the garden courtyard of the Dodiya Haveli", c. 1740-43, Udaipur, opaque water colour on paper, 36.7 x 23.5cm, Private Collection.
About that creative block— by March I dumped all my ambitions, shrunk my engagement with art history down to “my cute little hobby” and found happiness.
While all of this is fun, I do occasionally encounter cutthroat pirates of the academic sea. Bagh-e Hind, an open access project curated with gardener-historian Nicolas Roth, maps Mughal era olfaction through specific plants, flowers, perfumes and their connection to the historical material of the period. Our garden is a space of generosity where we invite pollinators to build on our ideas. However, the exclusionary politics of citation has been interesting to observe since we launched in 2021 because it is unsurprisingly mainly brown academics who close ranks and reinforce gatekeeping at home and aboard. By feigning ignorance and not citing our intellectual labour, they restrict any form of enquiry that their readers may take beyond their own words.
Anyways, inventiveness outwits such impoverished pirates. While scholarship in the form of text in the public domain can be easily pilfered, scholarship-as-art cannot. It is my belief that creative practices strong on integrity, form and substance can thrive no matter what, so I’m going to leave you with all these fun photos of my latest!