Butterflies in My Stomach

New show at XVA Gallery focuses on... Eem, insects


From the surreal to the sublime, three female artists do serious things to paper at XVA Gallery.

From Barbara Wildenboer’s intricately layered strips of paper that formulate the butterflies in her ‘Rorschach Series’ to Debjani Bhardwaj’s emotive cutout narratives in ‘Butterflies in My Stomach’ from which this show takes its title, this exhibition tackles more subjects than just winged insects. It may also make you view paper and scissors in a new way.

The show, at XVA Gallery in Al Fahidi District, conjures up intrigue for the three female artists who feature in the exhibition rather than any gut-wrenching nerves its title implies.

Bhardwaj, from Kolkata, India, crafts visual stories and her labour- intensive works often depict the human form; the artist’s humour is on full display in the characters who feature in her playful creations. From Tehran in Iran, Saba Masoumian’s mixed media works on dyed paper trail habitat, movement and growth. Wildenboer, who hails from Pretoria, South Africa, constructs her art via books, maps and photography to dissect the impact of humans on nature.

These three women have something that binds them together in that they all like to work with paper. They also love butterflies. The creatures certainly resonate in works by Wildenboer and Masoumian to stunning precision. On walking into the show, you’re instantly gripped by the expertise of Wildenboer’s series of nine painstakingly constructed symmetrical butterflies. Made using paper shredded from books, these insects look like they could rise up out of the glass. Forming multiple layers, the results are impressive. But how was she able to achieve such accuracy?

‘Thinking back to the start for the past three bodies of work I’ve produced, it’s interesting to note they were respectively, a natural history museum in Amman, Jordan, a library and museum in Cape Town and an Ornithology collection in Bogota, Colombia,’ Wildenboer says.

‘I draw from natural history to reflect on our relationship with the environment. My work has always been strongly influenced by imagery derived from the museum or that of the collection. I am also strongly drawn to photography, not only to the idea of snapping collections, but also to that of figuratively collecting objects through photographing them. Photography offers me the opportunity to retrieve these objects from their museum cabinets and hidden storage spaces and display them in a new context.

‘In ‘Suspended: Slice of Life’, birds, butterflies, praying mantises and dragonflies were photographically collected from different natural history museums, printed on scraps of cotton paper and pinned onto a netted background to create an imaginary cloud that suspends these tiny life forms in time.’

As a contrast to Wildenboer’s busy constructions, Masoumian’s works form depictions of 19 butterflies on transparent paper in a series of textural creations. The perforated effect of the paper makes each work
appear 3D-esque. One butterfly is so well-defined it could be real.

Paper is used to full effect in this show. Bhardwaj, is a self-taught artist who ditched a career as a financial analyst in 2000 to construct paper cutouts that often cross-reference Hindu mythology. Dreamlike scenes draw parallels with children’s literature and contemporary culture. Bhardwaj lets her imagination run wild in streams of consciousness in works that can sometimes take her a month each to make. Held between acrylic panels, they allow the viewer to see both sides of the pierced, dyed paper. Her need to tell a tale shouts out from the paper. But is the story always obvious?

‘In my head, the tale is murky, undefined and impenetrable,’ says Bhardwaj. ‘I’ve always been interested in the psychological nature of the image in trying to explain my own fears, anxieties and desires in my works. My drawings are my way of trying to find meaning in the world.

‘I work with collages of images from children’s literature, Hollywood films and botanical drawings. They attempt to make open-ended statements about society, fragile relationships, undercurrents of violence, alienation among people and individuals with questionable motives.’

Bhardwaj’s art is beguiling and disturbing in equal measure. ‘Butterflies in My Stomach’ suggests a dysfunctional family scene; a girl sits on the floor in a room painting her nails, a boy hides in a cupboard, another girl stands with a hole in her stomach full of fluttering butterflies. The eyes of each character are wide and intense yet are distinctive in their emptiness. Another work, ‘Me And The Other Half’ shows four girls; one walks a tightrope as two others are co-joined at the head. Buildings feature around them as another girl rides on a giant peacock. The title of the work and the painting itself alludes to them all being one and the same person and you are left wondering what Bhardwaj’s life is like away from her art.

It’s a different scene however in ‘Hello Hello’. ‘That work is a tableau populated with fictional characters,’ says Bhardwaj. Some ambiguous creatures observing others, some finding peace oblivious to the world while others grapple with communication breakdowns or the mundane in unexpected, morbid ways.’

Whatever you make of it all, there is little to find that is humdrum in this show. Whether you feel conflicted by Bhardwaj’s works, which force you to make of things what you will to the ingenuity of Wildenboer’s compositions, they’ll live on much longer than the average butterfly.

The Lowdown

Exhibition: ‘Butterflies in My Stomach’, until September 1 at XVA Gallery, Al Fahidi District (04 353 5383)
Artists: Saba Masoumian, Barbara Wildenboer, Debjani Bhardwaj Price of works: On request

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