Srotoswini Sinha’s perception of perception

Indian artist Srotoswini Sinha, who identifies as they/them, makes a splash in Venice with her video work. Holding a BFA in art history at Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati University in Shantiniketan, 150km from the megalopolis Kolkata in West Bengal, they are a diverse artist, whose works ranges from drawings and sculpture to painting, culminating in big scale video installations. As they are finishing an MA in Visual Arts&Curatorial Studies of NABA (Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti) in Milan this year, they got awarded the first art-frame magazine award in connection with the We Art Open International exhibition 2024 of No Title Gallery in Venice. They were also one of the final five selected finalists in the section Hdemia (for visual arts students, high schools, academies and universities). In this interview we dive a bit deeper in the understanding of the position of this young and versatile, emerging artist.

Srotoswini Sinha (2020) Failed Rohrschach, make-up

Srotoswini convinced the editorial team of art-frame with their balanced diet of visual form, video and colours transformed in a painterly way, not innovating posterize/solarize filters which have been there (and overused) since the 70s but applying them effectively turning the footage into a canvas of colours. Poetic text daring to border on narration and interesting layers of sound complement this mesmerising 10min sequence they call WordCount. They describe it as a collage of irrelevant sounds, visuals and texts to emphasise the unnoticed in a crowd (sound design by @_malattia, editing by @rmgpless) and it is meant to be exposed as a large scale video installation. At WAO, who teamed up with CREA – Cantieri del Contemporaneo deploying a first-time team of young curators the small screen they came up with was not giving the artwork enough space to shine, but the potential was palpable.

Shantiniketan, Kolkata & Milan: Born in Kolkata, a city of roughly 15 million people, Srotoswini Sinha studied in Shantiniketan, a quieter place tied to the Tagore family and finished her studies in Milan, in Europe. Debendranath Tagore, who bought 20 acres in West Bengal in the 19th century, built a guest house there and named it “the abode of peace”, and saw his son, the first Asian nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, founding an academic institution there – the Visva Bharati University, in 1921. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2023, it thrives on tourism and has numerous festivals and is also the birthplace of Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen. In stark contrast Milan is a small city for Indian standards, but is of course a landmark in education and academic studies for visual and other arts. The University of Milan got founded actually after the Visva Bharati University, in 1924, from the merger of two institutions that boasted a great tradition of medical, scientific and humanistic studies, but which were only active since the 19th century. How do these cities and their approach to contemporary fine art compare for you, how was your experience concerning being able to find and participate in communities focusing on art and handicraft in all three of them?

Growing up in a household surrounded with art of almost all forms, I was always exposed to a variety of different styles and types of visual and auditory cultures. In Kolkata, being a city known for its arts and culture, I had never felt the lack of inspiration. Theatre, music, fine arts, dance, Kolkata showcases it all. Living in a city crowded with art I had always dreamt of moving to the countryside, away from all the extra hustle-bustle, to a place where I would be surrounded with artists, exchanging thoughts, sitting under trees and waking up to breathe fresh air. I moved to Shantiniketan to pursue my higher studies at Kala Bhavana, one of the most famous art institutions of India, known for its interdisciplinary, new media and cultural practices. Studying there, I understood the true meaning of community that I kind of miss in Italy, being a brown artist who doesn’t speak the language. One of the major things that affects me is the lack of “intellectual” seminars regarding arts and culture held in English. I strongly believe that this field should be more accessible to the public as art is for the public. I feel like there is a lot unsaid when it comes to sharing what I know, me being a person who loves to exchange ideas and experiences with people. Italy gave me a new perspective of the Western Art World from a first person point of view that was little known to me when I was living in India. My experiences from the places I have lived in helped me to understand my roots and how to explore the idea of displacement. My works and I, in general, are perceived as just another brown person’s struggle to move around the world in a search of belonging, but I try my best to make the experience into what would help me to make my own practice into something that I always imagined it to be.

Srotoswini Sinha, Darjeeling, photography, courtesy of the artist

You have only exhibited since 2020 and already have a string of successful participations and awards to show, demonstrating an appreciation of your work – like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala. How did your upbringing in a family of supportive art teachers and your choice of profession coalesce - where did your own calling begin and where do you wish to steer it?

My parents, being artists, have always supported me in whatever I wanted to pursue. From music to dance, theatre and finally fine arts and even tattooing, they never stopped me to follow their selected path but gave me advice to become better with each and every step. I believe that I am privileged in this sense. I know a lot of people, friends and family, who could not pursue what they wanted to do just because they never got the support, the apparent faith for a free fall. When I was 4 years old and didn’t understand anything, I used to see my parents work and say “I will be an artist someday”. Little did the little me know that I would come this far: I started to achieve almost all my childhood dreams from a very young age. I wouldn’t say my aspirations were anything childish, but my parents made it possible. I worked hard, yes, but they were always behind me to say that they would always be there for me no matter what. My plan was to study and study and study to later use the theoretical knowledge in my practice. I didn’t know that I would be doing tattoos while exploring through a variety of media! I don’t treat this as a commercial practice, rather an extension of my general practice. It amazes me how people want to keep my art on their bodies forever, even after their soul leaves! It is even bigger than when I sell my literal thoughts! I would want to continue expanding my horizons while experimenting with various media. I know that it isn’t an easy path or process, but I will keep trying until I reach my personal goal, the childhood dream of being known as “an artist”.

Srotoswini Sinha, WordCount (2023), booklet, courtesy of the artist

You identify as they/them, and the pronunciation of your name has been an obstacle to many it seems, also in India, causing you headache. Can you explain and clarify how you want to be perceived and called and outline some parts of your journey. When did being non-binary become important for you, and maybe your work in the arts?

I love the mountains, so do my parents. Srotoswini means a river, to my parents it means a fast-flowing mountain river. I have always felt as if I have to live to acknowledge my name, the meaning behind it. Perhaps I am reaching that already. Since my kindergarten days no one could pronounce my name, though it is a common noun but an uncommon name for a typical Bengali household. It has been Sroto ever since. It means nothing but it’s me. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy for people from an entirely different continent to say it correctly, but it is my identity after all. I love to see my name being associated with my works, my progress, my struggles, and I’m most certainly disappointed when it is not. Same goes with my pronouns.  Art is political, it is queer, and so am I. I trust it to be accepting of the queerness that it deals with. I wish to see a place where I am accepted as I am, along with my identity. I hope to acknowledge the meaning behind my name, a fast-flowing mountain river. Perhaps there would be a time when no one would stutter while saying Srot-oh-shee-knee.

Srotoswini Sinha, WordCount (2023), immersive video installation, still, courtesy of the artist
Srotoswini Sinha, WordCount (2023), immersive video installation, still, courtesy of the artist

WordCount: perception and the I. The prized artwork WordCount is one of your first video works, what interested you in the footage you chose, and how did the collaboration with the editor and sound artist come together? Where does your focus on the I in a crowd, and “the unnoticed” aspects, come from, and can we find it in other examples of your work?

WordCount is a 4 channel video installation focusing on the coexistence of people in a crowd. Here the crowd is looked upon as a single unit. People tend to lose their individuality and go with the flow of the crowd. The irrelevant texts, visuals and sounds tries to trigger individual experiences of people inside a crowd taking notes from their own personal socio-political and cultural histories. The human body as the self is an archive of such memories, and its position keeps on changing to search for a sense of belonging in the places that it moves through, while being inside of a self-reflective crowd. I wanted to trigger the thoughts and memories of individual people, the “I” in the middle of the collection of “I”s, that is usually compromised while going with the flow. Using visuals that I collected while travelling through Europe and India where the situations seemed to be talking about crowds, of people, thoughts, circumstances and other things, I collaborated with Mattia for the sound. He used some of his own collected sounds while he was travelling and combined with some of the very common sounds heard in India to provide the viewers with a clue to dig deeper into their lost memories. Roberts helped me with the editing to create a visually jarring image of the daily routine to attract attention. The idea was to make it seem more and more chaotic with a lot of things happening to create an artificial crowd with the unease accompanying it. My research question is to look into individual experiences or personal perceptions. This actually happened during lockdown when I was done with answering me about myself and wanted to know how other people and even things might feel about a certain situation. I started documenting my everyday mood and kept the works open-ended for the viewers to find the mood in a collection of elements put together. Currently working with sounds and audio recordings of the mundane but seemingly interesting happenings, I want to keep on experimenting with media to express my thoughts and question the perception of others.

You were the first hand-poke tattoo artist in Kolkata, bringing that kind of technique and your artistic approach into the mainstream. Are there parallels in painting, drawing and hand poked ink which maybe also translate into your video art?

I saw a huge subconscious change in my art style during the lockdown, which included excessive layers and pop-ish colours in my digital works, while my drawings were mostly monochromatic. It was almost as if two different individuals were creating different kinds of works. I kept on experimenting with both. On a fine sunny afternoon I suddenly had an urge to tattoo myself, viewing it as just another medium of art, following my love for tattoos as a mark of current memories. Soon I started doing it professionally. I never use colours, which is kind of similar to my drawing practice, but I saw that my art style kind of resembles the one that I have digitally. My work surrounds the idea of individual experiences where I believe there is a fixed set of emotions but the pathway of reaching it is different for every individual. Perceptions are different, and so is the reaction to it. Tattooing is a part of that experiment of documenting individual experiences of feeling pain, the ultimate feeling from being poked with a needle. Someone sang while the other compared it to meditation, and I keep on documenting. I treat my tattoo designs as a part of my contemporary art practice, where I am showing a person move from one continent to the other in the latter, while documenting the experience of the same on skin through the former. My aim is to move people, to make my work accessible to all, and what better way to do that than to mark a person with my art quite literally. It touches me to think that a person from the narrowest lane in Kolkata is somehow connected to a person sitting in front of a huge cheeseburger at the roadside eatery in the States through my art. After doing 250 tattoos and counting I can assure everyone who questions that every skin is the same irrespective of the colour.

Srotoswini Sinha, hand-poke tattoo, 237 & 234, courtesy of the artist
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