Jawaharlal Kala Kendra
Set in the gloriously restored Jawaharlal Kala Kendra (JKK) arts center in Jaipur, the first Indian Ceramics Triennale (ICT) kicked off on a sweltering August evening. Collectors, artists, students, art critics, and gallerists gathered on the sprawling grounds surrounding architect Charles Correa’s multipart structure resembling a red brick fort. In one courtyard space, the architecturally scaled To Purify Space (2018), by French ceramist Jacques Kaufmann, set the tone for the exhibition. Inspired by landscape-scale ceramic works he had seen in Rwanda and Ceramic Houses, written by the Iranian-born architect Nader Khalili, Kaufmann built a structure embodying the “spiritual purification of space.” His earthen house, fired by burning wood embedded in its glazed womb, demonstrated how manmade clay objects, even today, can evoke something primal that appeals to the very root of one’s being.
The reimagining of clay—a material fundamental to the earliest human civilizations—came to life in “Breaking Ground,” with 47 artists from India and around the globe, chosen by the Contemporary Clay Foundation, an artist-driven initiative, in conjunction with Pooja Sood (Director General of JKK), Ray Meeker (co-founder, Golden Bridge Pottery, Pondicherry), and gallerist Peter Nagy. A collateral solo show of works by the late Kripal Singh Shekhawat (1922–2008), hosted by the Delhi Art Gallery, introduced the governing framework of dissolving boundaries and exploration across disciplinary divides. Trained as a painter, Shekhawat challenged the hierarchy of art and craft with a revival of 17th-century Jaipur blue pottery. His exquisitely painted pots, covered with luminously colored flora and fauna rendered in mineral pigments and natural dyes, reveal a uniquely personal approach that combines traditional Indian mural painting and the Japanese Nihonga style.
The artists featured in the main exhibition pushed further into unexplored terrain. For them, the potential of the medium has grown beyond functionality; yet their emphasis is not on materiality alone, but on materiality in conjunction with concept. Russian-born, India-based Saraswati Renata Sereda, for example, presented a group of playful constructions (Anti-Gravity, 2018) that resembled strange robotic creatures, or perhaps fragile buildings, all evoking a sense of unease and precariousness. Present-day uncertainty and disconnectedness also featured in Looking For Tomorrow (2011–13), a collection of futuristic, missile-like structures by the duo Thukral & Tagra.
Savia Mahajan’s Liminal Occurrence (2018) and Dipalee Daroz’s Relics of Future (2018) provoked a disturbing urgency, linking human origins and eventual demise. Mahajan’s sea of white, fossil-like forms resembling pumice stones and Daroz’s freakishly asymmetrical configurations (stained black, brown, and yellow ochre) deliberately eluded recognizable shapes. Yet there was something resonant and primordial in their formlessness, which placed time on the threshold between past and future, forcing viewers to confront the finite nature of existence.
In Do you know, what’s behind? (2018), Danijela Pivašević-Tenner used materiality as a way to critique our obsession with commodities. Layers of poured terra cotta coated and obscured items of furniture, transforming what should have been a living room into a startlingly cracked, inhospitable terrain. The jarring juxtaposition challenged our reliance on products to define our lives. In Madhvi Subrahmanian’s Forest of Shadows (2018), the shadows cast by small clay trees mounted against a wall obliterated the presence of the sculptures themselves, capturing the transient significance of objects and our fickle relationships with them.
Ingrid Murphy’s seamless commingling of ceramics and technology brought memories and images back into sharp relief. Ceramic plates fitted with QR codes acted as screens for video images of Jaipur, while terra-cotta cups lined with gold conductors served as speakers playing back a hubbub of sounds captured on the streets.
While the exhibition did not feature the strongest works by established artists like Benitha Perciyal and Tallur L.N. or resonate with the same intensity throughout, it established a sense of community and kinship among emerging, mid-career, and well-known practitioners. This idea of community was very important to the initiative. Much like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the Indian Ceramics Triennale enabled young artists like Vishnu Thozur Kolleri to break stereotypes. Kolleri’s radical installation, Resonance Tower Phase 1 (2018), consisted of megaphone-shaped terra-cotta sound amplifiers and a mounted instrument console on bamboo poles, which viewers could activate.
By embracing a spectrum of majestic and delicate, performative and static works (installed indoors and out), “Breaking Ground” expanded the boundaries of appreciation for ceramic sculpture. Many of the works, far from being overly conceptual, were memorable for their ability to touch the very core of what it means to be human here and now while echoing with past associations. These practitioners demonstrated that ceramics has become a nuanced art form, constantly on the threshold of change. Aarti Vir, speaking about her ceramic arch Shadow Crossing (2018), calls this zone a place where “the transient transformative moment of the unexpected transpires.”