I saw Shailee Mehta's solo show ‘Mudbath’ at Indigo + Madder on the closing day at the end of July. The show featured a range of recent works, a combination of oil paintings on canvas along with forays with pencils on rice paper. Mehta foregrounded the female body and was able to energise the space with an emotional intensity that was bold yet meditative. Walking through the gallery, I could feel the images with multiple senses beyond the visual.
The lyrical figures that Mehta depicted over and over again, fell somewhere in between an imagined fantasy world and lived reality. Brown bodies crafted artful, gently yet boldly. Brown bodies in motion, at rest, experience pleasure, immersed in acts of love and care. The deep skin tones, with golden glows, the contours of figures, and the folding of flesh evoked a beautiful softness whilst at the same time being raw and liberating. The works hinted to a narrative that was simultaneously rooted in the privacy of the personal, the comfort of a community and the freedom of experiencing the natural world. It was like a symbiosis of the self and the world, the familiar and the unfamiliar, merging into one.
Certain visuals and references particularly hit home, and I projected myself into the bodies on display. The ‘case for sita(phal)’ miniatures (custard apple or 'sharifa' as I called it growing up) felt like scenes from my own life. I could instantly taste the fleshy, slightly sweet fruit on the tip of my tongue, having been transported back to my childhood in Delhi, standing in the kitchen on a warm afternoon and ravishing each teardrop-shaped sliver. It is slightly cumbersome and time-consuming to eat, with all its seeds and the stickiness of the off-white flesh. Yet, at the end of the process, when the grainy white pulp has been extracted from each curve and crevice, all you have remaining are a pile of polished jet-black seeds and the dull green peel that is ready to fall apart after having nurtured and held the fruit through its growth, there is a sense of deep satisfaction that surpasses the joy of having consumed any other sweet snack that comes easier (even if it is more decadent). Perhaps, more pleasure is derived from the 'work' put into the task.
In other vignettes, it was the striking use of colour that enhanced the emotional tonality and intimacy of the images. In ‘Like the red of the forests’, two figures, one seated and the other standing behind, appeared in the frame. The upright figure embraces the other, hands framing the shoulders and neck, eyes closed. There seems to be an allusion to longing, holding tight and not letting go. The red palette allowed for the spark, chemistry and emotional vibration of the figures to become palpable, spreading themselves beyond the bounds of the two dimension canvas. Similarly, in ‘Carving of a secret’, three figures sat low, seemingly squatting along a meandering golden body of water. Their skins, tinted blue with hints of purple, evoked a calmer, more peaceful sense of co-existence and comfort. Whilst these interpretations were my own, the use of colour allowed for multiple such readings, with the potential of sparking a deeper affective register for each viewer.
Experiencing Mehta’s work was akin to being faced with an unfamiliar version of the self, an encounter with the uncanny which is at once recognisable yet also disconcerting. It allowed me to connect with and ruminate on parts of my own existence and the experience of inhabiting my own brown body, flesh, bones and desires.
Shailee Mehta is a painter living and working in Goa, India. Her paintings are inspired by a combination of autobiographical memories and collective experiences. She is particularly keen on exploring figuration through female bodies of colour to represent marginalised narratives of female agency. You can find out more about her practice here.
Indigo + Madder is a Fitzrovia-based contemporary art gallery representing local and international artists to initiate impactful cross-cultural discourse. You can find them on Instagram to stay updated.