What’s 18 feet tall, has 24 heads, and hangs out in front of Central Park?
That would be “Ancestor,” a sculpture by Bharti Kher commissioned by the Public Art Fund, which will grace the park’s entrance at Fifth Avenue and 60th Street through August 2023. Steps from the Plaza Hotel and cater-corner from the glass cube of the Apple Store, it adds to the crossroads a reverent, slightly surreal energy.
The statue is brand-new and cast in bronze, but looks weathered, with muted colors and surfaces appearing to crack and peel. The handcrafted aspect is intended: The statue is a large-scale version of a clay-based work that Kher, a British Indian sculptor who is one of India’s major contemporary artists, made by recomposing fragments of devotional clay figurines.
“Ancestor” is, at its core, an Indian goddess form, the kind found in Hindu popular iconography, with hair that rises in a bun yet somehow also hangs in a braid. But protruding in clumps pell-mell from her upper body are 23 extra heads, each with its own expression, peering this way and that.
“Ancestor” defies simple readings. In an interview on a drizzly morning last week, Kher offered interpretations that flirted with riddle. The figure is a mother, but also contains the masculine, she said. The agglutinated heads represent “all her children,” she added — but also perhaps “her other selves.”
The statue presents as both particular and universal: Its visual language is clearly Indian, and yet, Kher said, the inspiration for its form is Artemis of Ephesus, rendered since antiquity with bulbous elements on her chest — breasts or other fertility symbols. The sculptor was struck by the version she saw in a fountain sculpture in the Villa d’Este, in Tivoli, Italy.
She hopes her own version will spark a connection with every viewer, even bring them comfort. “She has masculine, she has feminine, she has her alien self — everything,” Kher said. “I’d say she’s like a wishing well.”
That hospitable outlook made the work apt for the Doris C. Freedman Plaza, said Daniel Palmer, the project’s organizer, a curator at the Public Art Fund until recently and now chief curator at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga. “In the way the Statue of Liberty is allegorical and aspirational, and welcoming to the city, I think ‘Ancestor’ takes on a lot of those same principles.”
For all its benevolence, “Ancestor” is provocative; it makes a case for universalism at a time when such thinking is fraught and on the political defensive globally. The philosophical stance that all humans are one can ring as old-fashioned — either naïve or a luxury in the face of rising intolerance. But it’s precisely what Kher wants to assert. “She is part of this idea of Mother Earth,” she said of the work. “She has no problem. Everybody to her is the same.”
With the rise in India of a right-wing, Hindus-first ideology propounded by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, some Indian (and Indian-American) viewers may find the statue overly Hindu in its references at a time when the religion is being politically weaponized. But others may take the opposite stance, seeing it as an assertion of a tradition comfortable with contradiction and engaged with the world.
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The artist, speaking carefully, offered an expansive view. “Who we are is not defined by our nation,” she said. “For me, as a person, as a woman, as an artist, as a mother, the kinds of things that I want to teach my children is that you’re in the world as a guest. As a visitor.” She cited Rumi and Socrates as exemplars. “And your journey in life is to be kind, open, generous.”
In New York last week for the sculpture’s unveiling, Kher was laid low by symptoms of long Covid, but still managed an interview on site. While we spoke, her family was waiting nearby, including her husband, the celebrated sculptor Subodh Gupta. Though their practices are separate, the two form an influential couple in Indian art.
(Gupta faced allegations of sexual misconduct in 2018; he sued the anonymous Instagram account that relayed the accusations for defamation, dropping the case in 2020 after Indian courts enforced a gag on some related coverage in India, and the account removed the posts. Kher declined to comment.)
Kher, 53, was born and raised in Britain, in an Indian immigrant family. She studied painting and design at Middlesex Polytechnic and Newcastle Polytechnic. She has lived in India since 1992, with her current studio in the suburbs of Delhi. She has since shown widely, represented in India and internationally by prestigious galleries.
Her work is versatile — spanning sculpture, collage, installation and more — and distinctive for its deft, even poetic employment of found objects and its variations on motifs from Indian culture. The bindi — the dot-like forehead ornament — is perhaps her most famous signature, applied and multiplied onto sculptures and abstract paintings.
“Ancestor” appears bindi-less — but look close and there is a faint hint on its main forehead. “We toned it down,” Kher said. “For me the bindi is a metaphysical side of the third eye. It’s your inner consciousness — do you have yours? She doesn’t need to show that she has it.”
It was in Kochi, Kerala, that Kher came across the clay figurines called Golu dolls, in small markets in the city in 2014. They represent gods and demigods but also common objects and are ephemeral, placed in homes and temples during holidays. She purchased a large number from a local dealer but many arrived broken. At first upset by the damage, she said, she ended up inspired.
“I started to repair things,” she said — along the lines of the Japanese concept of kintsugi, in which repair creates new life. “The repair is part of the timeworn history of an object that shows its life, its stories.” Soon she was creating hybrids, buoyed by Indian concepts like Ardhanarishvara, a half-male half-female divine composite. The works were then fixed with wax and given concrete and brass pedestals. She called them the “Intermediaries.”
“Ancestor” is a monumental version of a work in the series called “Artemis.” The process involved 3-D scanning, the production of an enlarged mold, and lost-wax bronze casting. Fire and pigmented patina produce its timeworn aspect.
She drew attention to a feature of the work not visible from the front — a rounded section, low to the ground, that attaches to the statue’s left leg. It evokes a clinging toddler, she said, while creating an “element of abstraction” in the sculpture and a space where a small child can wriggle through and play.
Motherhood, she said, is a continuous transmission of memory. “Woman to woman, mother to daughter, what are the murmurs that we carry from each other?”
After its run here, the work will go to the collector Kiran Nadar’s museum of modern and contemporary Indian art in Delhi. By then, Kher said, she’ll be onto something new: Having been forced by long Covid to attenuate her workaholic tendencies, she envisions a slower pace — and a return, after two decades, to painting.
As for crisis in India and the world, she offered philosophy. “These trees have been here longer than we have been around,” she said, looking to Central Park. “They’ve watched countless arguments, politicians, members of power come in and out. And they’re still standing.”
Bharti Kher: Ancestor
Through Aug. 27, 2023, Doris C. Freedman Plaza, Central Park, Manhattan, publicartfund.org.