Abhidnya “Abhi” Ghuge’s Flight of the Canyon is a site-responsive installation created with thousands of woodblock-printed paper plates inspired by Indian henna designs and organic patterns found in nature. Born in India and trained as a dermatologist, Abhi is a multidisciplinary installation artist whose work explores issues of power, value, and the fragility of human life.
Jacqueline Chao (JC): Can you tell us a bit more about your process for creating the work? For example, the selection of henna designs, the woodblock printing process, the shaping of appendages?
Abhidnya Ghuge (AG): Different forms seen in nature and found within our human microscopic histopathology inspire most of the designs. I have found it to be the same paradigm, for example, the brain coral is similar to the human brain; the bare tree form is the same as the arteries and capillaries in our eyes and within our brains, etc. Similarly, the henna designs are patterns found in nature. I have been creating henna designs since high school, gathering the henna leaves, manually grinding them on a stone grinder and making designs with the henna paste using a matchstick. Now, I use my henna designs on wood panels and carve them to create the woodblocks, which I use to print on paper plates and fabric.
My printmaking technique is a respectful deviation from the traditional crisp, clean method. I blend the ink on the woodblock and sometimes I leave large amounts of ink on the block to create an expressive quality to the print. I like the feel of thick layers of ink on the thin paper plate as they enhance the embossments and the paper takes on a fabric-like quality, giving it physical weight as well as visual weight. Each paper plate is then sealed on both sides with an acrylic polymer to give it longevity and to create an idea of semi-preciousness. The disposable paper plate is now imprinted with value and is no longer disposable.
JC: What qualities are you looking for that influence the creation of a site-responsive work? Is there a method you follow?
AG: The most important parts of a site-responsive installation are the space and the viewers. Every viewer is given an opportunity to escape momentarily into a new psychological space in my installations as they experience the change in the familiar gallery space.
On the first day of installation, I spend some time sitting within the space and “feeling” it – looking at all the possibilities as I create the piece in my mind. The wire armature is hung and then intuitively the form flows in response to the space and the piece within my mind. Then I start plugging the paper plates into the wire form. The method is like that of painting. The armature is the under painting, followed by outlines of color separations using different colored paper plates, followed by filling in the spaces and ending with paper plates as highlights. Sometimes I edit the piece towards the end. Often, the final form is far removed and infinitely better than the one I create within my mind. That is the celebration I look for!
JC: The work, with paper plates hung precariously with wire, appears to be understood as being purposefully fragile and ephemeral. Could you speak more about this?
AG: Growing up in a poor, underprivileged neighborhood next to the Mumbai slums, I had extensive exposure to the fragility of life. Once a month or so, there would be a suicide in the neighborhood water well or some other way in which a life was lost. Children kidnapped, women beaten up and burnt was common all around me during my childhood. Later, in medical school, I continued to see death, and the helplessness and the loss of hope as families grappled with sudden death. Often, we live like we are immortal and treat others with little consideration. Our haste in judging others in one look and our impatience towards people from other cultures stirs me to create my work using paper plates. My methods are unconventional, forcing people to pause, observe, consider, and contemplate over the brevity of the medium and the print on it as it fades with time and disintegrates, just as we all would one day.
JC: You previously trained as a dermatologist in India and are now an active professional artist and teaching artist. What made you decide to change professions, and what was that transition like for you?
AG: My father and his artist friends encouraged me to create art even when I was in elementary school. I won my first citywide competition in third grade. Soon my family became severely dysfunctional and broken and creating art became my escape. Later my divorced mother insisted that I go to medical school so as to become the sole bread earner for her and my disabled brother. I chose dermatology (which included leprosy and sexually transmitted diseases) because it was a visual discipline rather than internal medicine.
Our haste in judging others in one look and our impatience towards people from other cultures stirs me to create my work using paper plates.
After immigrating to the US, I had planned to study for my entrance exam and repeat my dermatology residency, as is the requirement. However, at that time we lived in Henderson, Texas and drove 45 miles to Tyler every day for my children to go to school. Instead of driving back and forth, I enrolled in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Tyler. I knew instantly that my passion now had a legitimate chance of becoming real. At first I was just happy to have the opportunity to create art. Everyone thought it was a hobby. My relatives in India thought that as a married woman and a mother of two, I was out of my mind to go back to school. For the most part it was an uphill task, having to prove myself to younger fellow students, to the professors and to my family while taking care of our home and raising children. I wanted to set an example for my children to not just follow their dreams, but to work hard towards them, physically as well as with prayer and sincerity. No one took me seriously until 2011 when I was invited by Craighead Green Gallery to be a part of the gallery artists. I completed my BFA (2010) and MFA (2013) from the University of Texas at Tyler.
JC: What currently inspires you? What books or music are you currently reading or listening to? What messages do you hope that people ultimately take away from your work?
AG: People fascinate me. Stories of life and survival inspire me. I am a survivor of a highly damaging and dysfunctional childhood. I love reading about life and people conquering hardships to find solutions, serving and sharing their lives and their gifts with others. I am a fan of musical sounds that play the drums in my heart and lyrics that grip my soul. When I am carving the woodblock, I listen to country music, while printing hundreds of paper plates I listen to hard rock, and during installation I listen to the 70’s/80’s and old Bollywood hits.
Reading is another passion, though now audiobooks have become my favorite. Recently as part of a book club, I enjoyed listening to The Garden of Evening Mist by Tan Twan Eng and The Colorless Tsukura Tazsaki by Haruki Murakami.
Each human life has tremendous value. The duration of time that you occupy on Earth is more important than the actual birth or the final death. I add value to the disposable (“mortal”) paper plates. When they are placed in large numbers they can change the space they occupy. Similarly, WE can change the space we are placed in for the better as we add value to the space we are in and the community that we are placed in.
Abhidnya Ghuge is currently an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Tyler. She has exhibited in solo and group shows throughout the United States, and her work can be found in collections throughout India and the United Kingdom.
Abhidnya Ghuge: Flight of the Canyon is now on view in the Skybridge Gallery.