Artist Poulomi Desai speaks with Mark Sealy about her practice and the metaphor of the petri dish in the context of control, nurture and care.
When Autograph invited the artist to create new work for our commissioning project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, Desai created a body of images by inoculating petri dishes with bacteria from a variety sources, allowing them to flourish and grow in an attempt to discover how we might control the uncontrollable.
Autograph's director Mark Sealy spoke to the artist about her practice and how Our cultures are the portals - the gateways between one world and the next (2020) intersects with the economics of care and the power of oppositional politics. For more than three decades Desai has developed an activist practice through modes of collaboration, investigation, and provocation.
Mark Sealy (MS): Firstly, thank you so much for engaging with this commissioning process. It has been fantastic watching the series of works come together.
Poulomi Desai (PD): Thanks to Autograph for being part of the mechanisms that during these rough times have unshackled me a little from an already hermit-like protective shield I had created in response to some quite devastating and tragic experiences for myself and friends from Usurp Art, well before Covid-19.
MS: You have always produced work that challenges the status quo. Your practice in many respects is hard to contain as it is unruly, unfixable and always provocative.
PD: My work has always been a discourse on capitalism and the powerful hegemonic conduits through which it reinvents itself. It is often produced as a mix of automatic and entangled thoughts due to my unusual upbringing. I have never deliberately challenged the so-called status quo, as I have never courted the unruly or provocative. I have always been normal from my perspective. Physicist Leo Szilard said something along the lines of ‘it is not that we are ahead of society – it’s just that society hasn’t kept up’. I am not a contrarian for the sake of it. I love and embrace much of so-called popular culture.
MS: This series of images seems to have been produced through a process of both deterioration and growth. There is a tension that lives within these works. It is as if something new and unknown is being facilitated, an alien-like politics that allow for a conversation to be had concerning the nature of change, time, family and community.
PD: My ‘odd’ upbringing made me who I am. Of course, as for everyone, to distil this into something meaningful has only happened over time and because of others like Professor Stuart Hall and the hundreds of poets, writers, artists, musicians and teachers who have helped me. I may have sometimes challenged the status quo culturally, so to speak, although most of the time I have been speaking out against injustice and prejudice, joining political groups to resist oppressive and unjust economic and social laws. I have been trying to develop tools for like-minded people to share. This has sometimes led to me being labelled a ‘loose cannon’ by those in the arts who set the agendas and decide on where capital and credence are invested.
This became a ball and chain for me, a burden. The most important thing I have done in my life is to ensure that I have a shelter and that I have enabled others to shelter with me. I have been trying to create as much independence as possible, to be a voice together with like-minded people; bringing the power of oppositional politics to the fore has remained a priority for many of us. It is the tale of so many children of immigrants and migrants over centuries: so many stories lost and so many still to enshrine in the mainstream narrative for the future. Maybe I have to concede that it was my destiny to become an extreme forceful, eclectic potpourri of a person.
"My work has always been a discourse on capitalism and the powerful hegemonic conduits through which it reinvents itself"
MS: Here the Petri dish has become a micro world that unlocks a much bigger set of issues: a distinct mechanism or methodology that references control, nurturing and care. The work you have produced is incredibly apt for our current time.
PD: The economics of care, control and compliance are evident on a massive scale through decades of control over the global South by the North and the increasing levels of post-colonial violence. The Petri dish used here in my work is a metaphor and a deliberate attempt to bring me back to the micro and to harness some sanity while I live in a dysfunctional and quite angry cocoon with those closest to me that need to be shielded. My mother is central to this new work. She is the main element within the Petri dishes to which all the other entities are attracted. In many ways, this work reflects the reality of both mine and my mother’s present condition. It feels like we are now in a new kind of social experiment, a new form of distance.
See the full artist commission by Poulomi Desai
Read curator Tarini Malik's response to Our cultures are the portals - the gateways between one world and the next.
Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...
Read the introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project
The Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other exhibitions are now in development
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Image captions: 4 - 6) Works from Poulomi Desai's commission Our cultures are the portals - the gateways between one world and the next, 2020. Archival giclée, each 12 x 12 inches. © and courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Autograph for Care I Contagion I Community – Self & Other. 1 and 2) [detail] from commission.
Other page images: 3) Poulomi Desai, The Unholy Trinity, 2014, at Watermans Arts Centre. Serratia marcescens bacteria cultivated with Dr. Simon Park to consume the unholy. Courtesy the artist.