Artist Interview: Kavita Issar Batra (Singapore)

How does your Indo-British heritage and upbringing influence your practice?

It made me aware of and sensitive to identity, belonging, and cultural differences from early on. My childhood experiences were, of course, due not only to the choices my parents made but also enriched by the extended family on both sides and the social and geographical diversity that traversed between India and the UK.  Perhaps that’s why I am more of an observer and a listener. Art has given me a language that transcends cultural, religious, and socio-economic differences. My mixed parentage also made me open to possibilities and learning to go with the flow, which are important parts of my art practice too.

India, the UK, and now Singapore are all inextricably a part of me. I feel a ‘belonging’ in each of them – India where I grew up and my family are; the UK where I matured and became my own person and Singapore where art became a way of life. Each continues to both challenge and nurture me.

Tell us more about your fascination with nature, and nature as the main source of inspiration in your art-making.

I had a simple, carefree, and idyllic childhood, with access to books, a few toys, friends, and my imagination, running about on a fairly remote Himalayan mountainside. My mother worked in a premier boarding school, allowing for my brother and me to have a stable and good education. My father’s postings in the army meant school holidays were spent wherever he was.

At 15, I moved to New Delhi — a drastic culture shock and change in environment as you can imagine. I spent the next five years there finishing school followed by a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. I then moved to the UK, where I studied further, worked, eventually married, and had my children. We moved to Singapore as a family over ten years ago with my husband’s work.

Looking back, what ties all these places and countries together is the rhythm of walking and the importance of being close to nature, within and beyond the urban setting. In the mountains, we had to walk to go pretty much anywhere and also for recreation.

In Delhi, I walked with my dog every day for an hour in the late afternoon around the housing estate/colony we lived in. In the UK, for all my moving about from town to city, I always came back to my grandmother and her farm. Once in London, Hampstead Heath and the various parks were regular haunts. In Singapore, the roads and the pavements in the locality I live in and the Singapore Botanic Gardens have become my beat.

It is only after moving to Singapore, in the past eight years that the natural litter on the streets began demanding my attention and has kept me a willing captive every day since. It has been an amazing teacher in the ephemeral nature of being, acceptance, staying present in a moment, the awe-inspiring complexity and simplicity in our immediate surroundings, botany, chemistry, the principle concepts of art-making and observation. I see us in these ‘dead’ objects, no longer connected to a life source once they fall from the plant or tree. However, there can be a long time before they actually disintegrate. The only certainty once we exit our mother’s womb is that we will die, with no idea how long or short the journey. Walking, recording moments of connection with my handphone camera, and sharing them has become a rhythm no matter where I am in the world. It is a practice of its own and yet it is like my daily mental sketchbook, marking time till I can be in the studio again.

You mentioned that creating monotypes with found objects is cathartic. Could you tell us more about this process?

The objects give a starting point to a work, they lend their shapes, sometimes just leave traces or texture, while others literally remain as part of a work. My thoughts, emotions, and responses to my environment or experiences I have had, colour the works and the ‘feel’ of them. My mother, diagnosed with a non-curable form of cancer in 2013, has had so many seemingly insurmountable complications over the years, thankfully she prevailed, astonishing the medics. Mid-age, walking the tightrope between children and parents, a rite of passage so many of us traverse, I have learned much about myself. Through it all, I found incredible comfort and strength from the morning walk communion with the ‘litter.’ Documenting and sharing these images on social media gave my parents a connect with me beyond the phone calls.

My mother’s health situation taught us to take each day as it came. Two of the works in this exhibition were created after one such time when I had spent a couple of months nursing my mother in hospital and at home. She needed surgery but developed complications and we were at rock bottom. The doctors eventually did operate, after which we took her home to nurse and keep comfortable. Slowly she came back and brighter than before. The elation, wonder, and gratitude I felt were so overwhelming. I kept the rhythm of walks whenever I could and the pavements continued to shore up my spirits. When I returned to my studio in Singapore, Musings was one of the first works that emerged. The natural and urban litter that imprinted their shapes took on anthropomorphic qualities and here speak of venturing into the unknown, the choices that present themselves, and the ‘snakes and ladders’ quality to these, which can lead equally to great highs or lows.

The second work You float better when you trust the water is about just that.  In this instance, giving her the care she needed and then trusting the universe to steer the onward direction. The title references my fear of water and swimming, which I have worked hard at overcoming. Not yet a strong swimmer, the analogy played in my head when dealing with the unknown. This work has a positive feel to it, the bird has its wings spread ready to fly again. Walking near my parents’ home, I would come across these cattle egrets feeding among the grass and rising up effortlessly. In Singapore too, on my walks, I regularly come across a couple of Chinese egrets along the storm drain.  I love their elegant form so when this leaf made an imprint like a bird, it felt like the universe was truly connected. With the Covid crisis, where humanity is set adrift into a storm with no shore or calm in sight, these artworks took on a new meaning.

Could you expand on your application of sumi-e ink in your work and its significance?

In 2017 a friend and Italian artist, Mauro Degiorgi, who had honed his sumi-e skills in Japan, ran a series of sumi-e workshops at my studio and this was the start of my experimenting with imprinting over sumi-e ink and brush images on rice paper. I found the strokes were good for creating the gestural figures I see in the bits of twine, paper, and wire strewn around, in the way leaves can be anthropomorphic as also human hair when it falls on the floor. Each of the different substrates I imprint onto gives varying results. Rice paper tends to be more delicate and immediate. I felt a connection between the monotypes with Chinese and Japanese ink painting. The latter is also heavily inspired by the natural world around us, quick gestural strokes full of emotion. As with the monotypes on rice paper, there are no second chances. The work Storms make trees take deeper roots is part of my Pavement Poetry series. Here the leaves imprint zoomorphic shapes, which along with the gestural ink marks, create an idyll unlike the world inhabited by the penguins. The work is about creating a kinder, more thoughtful, and less human-centric world to give all beings a better chance of survival. This series of works is a homage to Singapore and the region that has been home for over a decade.

Are there any artists or works of art that have impacted your practice?

My story has been one of serendipity and as the Buddha said, ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.’

Not having had the opportunity or option to study art for the final years of school or beyond, I drew and painted for my own pleasure. In England, I discovered community courses, taking up pottery, then later watercolour, and making stained glass.

After my son was born we moved house and our next-door neighbour was an octogenarian Jewish artist Lily Freeman who had escaped from Austria during the war at age 18. She reached the UK in 1940, where she met and married her fellow refugee husband and they worked in the meat trade. He tragically committed suicide; she raised her daughter and finally returned to art school midlife. She was an established exhibiting landscape painter in the Hampstead area, teaching at the University of the Third Age too.

Despite the age difference, friendship flourished, with her encouraging me to paint, listen to my inner voice, and not be limited by circumstances or the thinking of others. I also met a Spanish artist Ruth Perez who introduced me to working with mixed media, which I felt an immediate affinity for. It reminded me of how when I was younger I would use the membrane from boiled eggs to create texture and fashion little flowers that I would add into my gouache and watercolour works.

The move to Singapore was a blank slate; as it turned out, it brought me to James Holdsworth’s doorstep, spending three years going back to basics and working my way back to painting. When James returned to the UK, I met Australian artist David Kelly at his exhibition in Singapore. Over the next four years, David became my teacher and mentor, coming every few months and running workshops from my studio. The organic litter had already become my muse. In the beginning, my work responded to the multitude of colours, the textures, and the repeated patterns in nature on a macro and micro scale.

Then I began to notice the natural imprints leaves, stems, seedpods, flowers left on the pavement surfaces. Neither the objects nor the surfaces they fall on has a choice in what has happened to them. They are subject to the elements – rain, wind, light, and heat – as much as we are. Technically ‘dead,’ they undergo further transformation before they turn to dust or mush. Along the way, they might imprint a poignant likeness of themselves. These speak of a desire to remain and be remembered much like we do. The marks over time fade and are erased from collective memory. I found myself bringing some of these found (never plucked) detritus back to the studio and imprinting their shapes into my artworks, giving them a longer-lasting voice. Primarily on a plywood and canvas substrate, these works have a mix of abstraction and landscape about them.

Merryn Trevethan, a friend and Singapore based Australian artist introduced me to Gelli plates in early 2016 and since then I have experimented extensively with them working big and small, on paper, board panels and canvas; layering, using the found organic materials I bring back from my walks to create shapes and textures. Having no outcome in mind, using materials at hand, it is all very serendipitous, leading each work to be individual and unique.

I admire the work of Paul Klee, Frans Hal, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Impressionists such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Signac, Edvard Munch, Ram Kumar, Nasreen Mohamedi, Zao Wou-Ki, Anselm Kiefer, Peter Doig, Maruyama Ōkyo, Katsushika Hokusai, Han Sai Por, Hong Zhu An, Delia Prvacki, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jenny Saville, Cheong Soo Pieng, and Lim Tze Peng, among many others.