Actor, product designer and artist: Lekha Washington's journey
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Actor, product designer and artist: Lekha Washington's journey

There's more to Lekha Washington than an unusual surname. Meet the artist who makes whimsical, yet functional, chairs that drop from the ceiling, and artwork out of defunct telephones and hanging iron balls.

art and culture Updated: Jul 17, 2015 10:31 IST
Soma Das
Soma Das
Hindustan Times
Lekha Washington,The Nature of Things,Pink Sink Chairs
Artist Lekha Washington. (HT photo)

On a muggy Saturday evening, we try to locate Ajji - The Odd Product Company's studio on Bandra's Veronica Street. We're directed to the first floor of a blue and white bungalow. In contrast to the serenity outside, inside the studio, there's the frenzy of last-minute activity. Even amid the chaos, the neon Pink Sink Chairs (with a metal stand and a flat canvas and lycra surface) and the Drop Chairs (outlandish swinging chairs that hang from the ceiling) stand out. The chairs are artist and actor Lekha Washington's focal pieces. They look unlike anything you have ever plonked yourself onto, yet are fairly comfortable.

Clad in a spaghetti top, a shrug and track pants, her hair tied in a no-nonsense bun and without a trace of make-up, the soft-spoken Washington looks poised. She says she might have a "heart attack" any moment with all this last-minute work, but actually seems quite unfazed.

It's just days away from her upcoming solo exhibition (The Nature of Things, at Sakshi Salon, Bandra), and just three days since her previous one (That Which Is Not, at Palladium, Lower Parel) got over. The new exhibition explores the state of our relationship with nature, and its relationship with us. So, there's a diptych canvas (divided in two sections), one part made using toys and showcasing intertwined humans, nature and instruments of war against a rusty backdrop; the second part features a sculpture of a single man to highlight loneliness. There is also a triptych featuring telephones with receivers made of conch shells. While one receiver tells your fortune for the day, another enables you to hear conversations from the street, and a third has the recording of a telemarketer. There is also a metal sculpture depicting a whirl of leaves and a piece that resembles a splash of water. Some of her earlier functional art are also part of the exhibition.

Ideas that work
With so much serious art, we wonder if this is a transition for Washington, from furniture design to art? "I have always been doing art. I'm not a furniture designer as much as someone who's excited about making ideas work," she says, adding that she had her first exhibition at the Lalit Kala Akademi years ago in Chennai, where she grew up.

But her interest in art, she says, might have started at age seven, when she would play with flour dough. "I would make little heads. I had the ability to replicate anything," she says.

Washington working on Up, a sculpture made of metal leaves

Be it furniture design or art on a canvas, Washington considers them to be a part of her creative process. And after this exhibition, she will return to her other job description - that of an actor. She's blunt about what makes her act in south Indian films (something she's done since 2007): "It's great to be a lead actor and work in Tamil and Telugu cinema. It pays well, and I can use the money to make ridiculous things like floating iron balls," she guffaws, referring to Old Love, a 15ft iron ball seemingly hovering mid-air, exhibited at the Palladium. Despite, or perhaps due to, the element of whimsy, she's managed to make her economic model a self-sustaining one. "It's a Robin Hood-esque situation where I'm taking money from producers and putting it into whimsical pieces. But it is self-sustaining; I make something, sell it, and use it to support another idea," she says.

But how does an actor turn into an artist? As it turns out, before taking up acting, Washington studied at the National Institute of Design, but for two separate courses. She did a year of lifestyle product design and then reapplied and shifted to film and video communication. "I might direct (films) in the future but currently, I'm trying to keep the company afloat," she says.

Over the years, even as she pursued acting, art remained a constant: "It was always a parallel vocation. I was sculpting on the side," she says, admitting to being apprehensive of being pigeonholed as either an artist or an actor.

This year has been artistically prolific for Washington. She exhibited at the Delhi Art Fair, in New Delhi and then at the Kochi Biennale in Kochi, followed by the public art exhibition at Palladium, and now the one at Sakshi.

"This exhibition will be the first solo show at an urbanised art space," she observes.

The Calling; a telephone triptych featuring three conch shell receivers that emit various sounds

What's in a name?
Her unique surname draws a lot of interest, something that the artist isn't too thrilled about. She grew up in Chennai and she is half Marathi, half Burmese, Punjabi and Italian. "The surname comes from a crazy Punjabi grandfather who changed it to Washington. My name has a high recall value. On the flip side, no one takes me seriously. People think I call myself Washington by choice, why would I do that?"

But do things get easier after having exhibitions under your belt? "I am waiting for it to get easier. It is tough to sustain a design studio. People want something they have seen. They appreciate good design in theory but ultimately want Italian stuff. It's a fight. But then most things worth doing are a fight."

Her plans are also set for next year, when she intends to take the company to Europe and USA. Towards this end, she has been working towards "building relationships" over the last few months.

Sometimes, to fly, one must rest; an artwork made of paper planes

Photos: Sanjay Solanki

The Nature of Things is on till August 14.

At Sakshi Salon, Deepvan, 20th Road, Khar (W)

Call: 99205 95646

First Published: Jul 16, 2015 19:16 IST