It was at an art camp in Puri, Odisha, that artist Brinda Miller first met a sprightly, enthusiastic artist by the name of Hema Upadhyay. “All of us had to talk about our art. Hema spoke of her cockroaches exhibit, and though the idea was unique, her narration was poor,” Miller remembers. “She was young and new to the art world then. Of course, she went onto build a distinct body of work and became an art buddy of mine.”
The cockroaches exhibit, The Nymph and the Adult, was also Hema’s first international solo exhibition, where she infested an art gallery in Australia with sculptures of 2,000 tiny, hand-crafted roaches. It became one of her most iconic works, and it was this kind of experimentation with materials, spaces and subjects that came to characterise Upadhyay’s art.
“Hema was willing to take risks in her artistic practice,” says cultural theorist and curator Ranjit Hoskote. “She would explore distinct subjects, from the female self’s negotiation of domestic and urban space to the patchwork architecture of informal housing in the Indian metropolis. Also, she worked with diverse media.”
Talking specifically of Upadhyay’s installation on Dharavi, where she created an aerial view of the slum on a gallery floor tin cans, plastic and aluminium sheets, Hoskote adds what really stood out in this work was her ability to shuttle between the large-scale vista of a shantytown and the small-scale detail of “habitation, worship and everyday life that made such an urban situation habitable, human and intimate”.
“And yet, Hema did not romanticise this space,” Hoskote adds. “The sharp, metallic elements in her work remind us of all that is dangerous and precarious in that stratum of existence.”
Gallerist Abhay Maskara remembers Upadhyay as a warm, inquisitive and caring person. “She once offered to let me sell her artworks to raise money for my gallery during a financial crunch,” Maskara says, speaking shortly after Upadhyay’s funeral on Monday. “‘We can’t have Maskara close’ she told me. Of course, I didn’t take her up on the offer, but that gesture shows exactly the kind of person she was and how much she loved the arts.”