Selected works by Hema Upadhyay

Hema Upadhyay
Killing Site


Acrylic, gouache, dry pastel, photograph on paper, aluminium sheets, resin

183 x 122 x 61 cm
Baroda born and Mumbai based Hema Upadhyay uses photography and sculptural installations to explore notions of personal identity, dislocation, nostalgia and gender. Upadhyay’s work Killing Site draws on the theme of migration and human displacement across Asia. The top of the work is based on Mumbai’s dilapidated shanty towns, here appearing upside down and protruding out like a canopy over Upadhyay’s decorated montage. Upadhyay draws on her own personal and family history of migration to express her concerns and this is expressed through the way she portrays herself in her works. The upturned slums reference the repercussions and socio-economic inequalities that emerge as a hidden consequence of the relentless tide of urban development in the city.


When the body meets the city

In the very act of representing female subjectivity, women artists might end up creating an image as exotic as the ones routinely produced by patriarchal culture. Hema Upadhyay, a Baroda-trained artist who has just exhibited her work at Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, brings her own artistic resolutions to bear upon the investigation of this challenging genre, writes NANCY ADAJANIA.

BY its very nature, self-portraiture as a genre carries within it the risk of obsessive narcissism. Thus, the self-portraitist could end up exoticising the represented body. This is especially true of the female self-portrait, which must take its place in a context of female images that are framed and commodified by the dominant male gaze. The danger here is that, in the very act of representing a female subjectivity, women artists might end up creating an image as exotic as the ones routinely produced by patriarchal culture. Women artists like Anju Dodiya and Pushpamala N., have intelligently confronted this risk of narcissistic self-absorption, by repositioning the self-portrait within a larger socio-cultural landscape while liberating it from the male gaze. Hema Upadhyay, a 1972-born, Baroda-trained artist who has just shown her work at Gallery Chemould, Bombay, brings her own artistic resolutions to bear upon the investigation of this challenging genre.

Upadhyay begins by questioning the idea of self-representation as a glorificatory act. She de-magnifies the body and amplifies the urban landscape. The artist's strategy of miniaturising the body in scale and space can be interpreted as an argument against two supposedly opposed, but curiously analogous, paradigms: on the one hand, the fetishistic images of larger-than-life women's bodies reproduced in the patriarchal visual culture of the billboard, and on the other, the static canon of feminism that has, paradoxically enough, engendered a fixation with women's body-parts in contemporary feminist art.

Upadhyay's sleight-of-hand takes the generic imagery of mass culture, which ascribes a use-value to everything from diapers to pension bonds, and stands it on its head. Observe these images of colloquial surrealism: Upadhyay paints the close-up of a mouth with sparkling white teeth. Formally, this image may simulate an advertisement for toothpaste, but its real action lies in the fact that the artist portrays herself the size of Thumbelina, broom in hand. As the artist-protagonist sweeps the black foam away, it could be perceived as an archetypal motion of cleansing.

Or when the self-portrait of the artist, along with her doppelganger, is shown climbing a ladder that goes through the heart of the clouds, this could be interpreted as a rite of individuation. Upadhyay attempts to strip away the consumerist insecurities that are programmed into mass culture imagery, and to uncover the archetypal possibilities of transformation that lie concealed beneath them. I would argue that consumerist aspiration is a kitsch avatar of true individuation. What Upadhyay does is to deliver herself from these kitsch avatars and to re-birth herself.

We have scrutinised the way in which this artist de-fetishises the genre of self-portraiture, but this conclusion leads to another pertinent observation. Upadhyay superimposes photographed cutouts of herself onto her painted landscapes. This pictorial conceit makes the viewer speculate about the "real" environment in which she was photographed in the first place. This "real" environment belongs to her city of adoption, Bombay. A mayapuri, where space is legitimised only as real estate, and any other definition of space is bulldozed out of existence. Where the landscape proliferates with duplex slums and sky-scraping monstrosities. Where the pavement is home to most people and the bulldozer their ultimate annihilation. Where citizens' rights are sold in black, and basic entitlements are curtailed in the name of globalisation. Here, real space is built of fake concrete and fictive spaces concretise into the real.

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Can Flowers Say it All?

By Amrita Gupta-Singh

In an exclusive interview done for,
Amrita Gupta Singh focuses on the life and works of the internationally acclaimed artist Hema Upadhyaya. In this candid interview Hema Upadhyaya talks about her being a feminist artist, contexts of her works, international curatorial issues, market and about migration and memories. Excerpts:

Amrita Gupta-Singh: You have established yourself fairly soon as an important artist in the contemporary Indian art scene. What were your first forays into Art and how has the journey been?

Hema Upadhyay - Well, born and brought up in Baroda, my introduction to Art (besides drawing and painting at home) was also through my grandfather, Kishoomal Hirani. He would make our holidays constructive and creative. (Visiting the zoo/ play gardens, Kamati Baugh/ art competitions and other such places of entertainment) One holiday, he took us to the Faculty of Fine Arts Fair. I did not know where we were, but I remember entering a room with a lot of people dressed as animals... a masquerade of sorts? I remember a Giraffe head that came so close to my face... I jumped away.
With time, my creative ventures adorned my bedroom walls. This was followed by a time when I wanted to become an airhostess.
I joined the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, in 1991,

AGS: Studying at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, how has its pedagogy shaped your artistic sensibilities? You wanted to join the Applied Arts Dept. first?

HU - Faculty of fine arts with its course structure for various categories was very strong. Be it right from the practical, theory to personal interaction with the teachers only shaped up my language further. For me the first two years (1991-92,) were more of just following the practical lessons and doing and redoing a lot of things in want of understanding it better. I can better put it by saying that I was learning the skills. During the four-year course of study, I was introduced to a lot different materials for which, till then, I could see no creative purpose / value. And a lot of work followed. It was only in my third year of study (1992-93) that I became aware of my continuous use of these materials, and the narrative in my work. The exposure to different materials, languages, people, teachers, and theories made me more aware of my own work and the purpose of it, and that of the materials and language I wanted to use.
In fact, I wanted to join the fine arts, because I wanted to do Applied Arts (only for the craze of advertising and the glamour that goes with it). But, that was not to be. I was admitted into Painting and, with a lot of convincing from my parents, I joined classes. With one condition: that I would re-apply for Applied Arts the following year. But, I never did re-apply.

AGS: You work across mediums, painting, photography and installation, a post- modernist practice. Did this way of working develop in art school, or was it a later artistic extension to situate your ideas, after your shift to Bombay?

HU - It is both and many more elements that govern it. For me Baroda was more like the place which made me realize the power of saying what I wanted and with what language. It certainly gave me the choice of language as well because it trained you so well with various materials mediums etc., though my shift to Bombay made a drastic change to my attitude to art and my own position as an artist, and an individual vis- a vis the city. You can see this very clearly with "sweet sweat memories" and later on with Loco-Foco Motto'

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