Hema Upadhyay’s works explored urban spaces — geographies and formations — often using “abject” objects. While tarp swatches, plastic scrap and metal foil, among other things, helped install a rolling slumscape that indexed life in the “disreputable” city, ingeniously assembled matchsticks made a chandelier come alive with all the obvious ironies.
Her work spoke of a wide range of issues — uneven development, transforming societies and crises of adaptation.
Dream A Wish, Wish A Dream (2004, 06), probably one of her finest works, asks a series of uncomfortable questions. How do people flying in a plane look at people living on the ground? What are the conversations you imagine between huts and skyscrapers, mosques and temples, playgrounds and nullahs? How do definitions of Utopia and Dystopia leak into each other? And finally, how do we accommodate worlds that often want to interrupt and cancel each other out?
In Hema’s works, the aspirational migrant is often the protagonist — climbing buildings, desiring a home and staring into shrinking expanses.
I first met Hema in 2000, when I curated the show Memos for the New Millennium, From Artists of A Moulting World, for Birla Academy of Art, Mumbai. She had come from Baroda and her work then featured staggered depictions of a woman carrying out a series of mundane tasks — walking, conversing, reading, lolling. These were often self-images that declared the intention of claiming public and private spaces.
It will take all of us in the art world a long time to make sense of her loss and recover from the tragedy.
Abhay Sardesai is the Editor of ART India. Views expressed are personal.