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Generated image of the artwork: The skin speaks a language not its own

The skin speaks a language not its own 2006

In The skin speaks a language not its own Bharti Kher critically engages with the role of popular culture and imagery in contemporary Indian art by using the bindi and the white elephant as potent symbolic metaphors.

The term bindi is derived from bindu, the Sanskrit word for a dot or a point, and also carries the meaning of the numeral zero. It is traditionally a mark of pigment applied to the forehead and is associated with the Hindu symbol of the ‘third eye’. In recent times, bindi have become commercially manufactured and decorative items. Kher uses the bindi as a means of transforming objects and surfaces, and to inflect her art with a range of meanings and connotations from various historical and contemporary periods.

In Buddhism the white elephant is associated with wisdom and with royalty and features in processions and ceremonies across South and South-East Asia. In India, the important and popular Hindu deity Ganesha is shown with an elephant’s head. In The skin speaks a language not its own, Kher uses the symbolism of a dying elephant as a means to contemplate the potentially destructive effects of popular culture, mass media and consumerism on the culture of India.

Story and artwork featured in Sugar Spin: You, Me, Art and Everything.

Bharti Kher uses stick-on bindis as a central motif in her practice. In India, the bindi was traditionally a mark of pigment applied to the forehead of Hindu men and women to symbolise the ‘third eye’. Today, it is commercially manufactured and has become a popular decorative item for girls and women of other religions, as well as in secular subcultures. Kher views the daily ritual of applying this third eye as offering the possibility of seeing the world with fresh eyes. She uses this tiny object to transform various objects and surfaces, allowing the viewer to look at them anew.

In The skin speaks a language not its own, Kher uses thousands of tiny white bindis to cover the surface of a full-sized fibreglass elephant, reclining on the brink of death. The white elephant is revered across Asia as a symbol of dignity, intelligence and strength, and used to carry royalty. Ironically, in English, the language of India’s colonial period, the term ‘white elephant’ is used to describe something very large and useless. Kher uses the symbolism of the white elephant to question ideas of cultural value; the title of the work suggests that such values may be skin deep. There is also a strong sense of vulnerability in Kher’s representation of an Asian elephant covered with a virus-like pattern of stickers.

Story and artwork featured in 21st Century: Art in the First Decade.

In India, the bindi is traditionally a mark of pigment applied to the forehead of Hindu men and women to symbolise the ‘third eye’. In her work, Kher uses thousands of tiny, white stick-on bindis to cover the surface of a life-sized fibreglass elephant, who reclines here exhausted, even dying. The white elephant is revered throughout Asia as a symbol of dignity, intelligence and strength. Ironically, in English, the expression ‘white elephant’ is used to describe something large and useless. In The skin speaks a language not its own, the white elephant and the bindi are used to question cultural value.

Story and artwork featured in Sculpture is Everything.

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