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Art With a Universal Appeal - Lakshmi Mohanbabu in an Interview

  • Lakshmi Mohanbabu - Green Onyx (detail), 2017
January 23, 2019
A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

Having a diverse background, Lakshmi Mohanbabu has been studying art, architecture, jewelry and design all over the world, managing to incorporate cross-cultural elements in her work. Skillfully shifting between techniques and mediums, she exhibits a genuine passion for art as such. Ultimately, Lakshmi is a dichotomy, a series of contradictions, and a whole lot of talent wrapped into one.

During her career, Lakshmi has been teaching at NIFT in New Delhi and Lasalle School of the Arts. She has also used her talent to spread messages for the betterment of society, working for organizations such as World Health Organization, Voluntary Health Association of India, World Wildlife Fund, and the National AIDS Control Organization to name a few.

Her latest body of work, Smoke Screen, explores the contradiction between who we are and what we reveal, expressed emotions and suppressed emotions. As the artist explains, the “series depicts the inner hidden spectrum of colorful emotions screaming and desperate to be revealed, yet hidden by that smoke screen.”

We had a chat with Lakshmi Mohanbabu to find out more about her practice. In an exclusive Widewalls interview, Lakshmi talks about her diverse upbringing, ideas which link her works, her latest body of work, the working process and much more.

Lakshmi Mohanbabu
Lakshmi Mohanbabu

The Artist of Many Mediums

Widewalls: You are a visual artist of many mediums – you have the background as an architect and a fashion designer as well as an interest in costume, illustration and design history. How does this all come together to define your unique painterly language?

Lakshmi Mohanbabu: My training as an architect has helped me better visualize forms in three-dimensional space, understand aspects of art such as sciography – the study of light and shadow – and the use of a variety of materials from glass to steel, all whilst incorporating my knowledge of architectural design history.

My training as a fashion designer has given me an understanding of the human form and the use of textiles, in addition to giving me another range of materials to explore and work with. My fashion studies have also provided me with an insight into the history of world art, costume and jewellery.

Art has always been my medium of expression, allowing me to translate my creative intent into painting, architecture, sculpture and jewellery. Art has also helped me in every aspect of my designs across the various disciplines.

It is my background as an architect and a fashion designer along with an understanding of design history that has led to cross-cultural themes defining my style of painting.

Widewalls: You are Singaporean but you grew up in Afghanistan, and your heritage is partly Indian but you have lived in Europe and Asia. How has this diverse cultural heritage and experiences affected your practice?

LM: Growing up in the 70s and 80s in the UN community in Afghanistan gave me an opportunity to interact with people from every nook and corner of the globe at a time when the world was not as global and the World Wide Web was non-existent. Being in a war-torn country yet belonging to a community that was a cultural melting pot was an unusual experience. During my formative years, it gave me an understanding of the commonalities and differences between people from a plethora of diverse cultures. Having lived in Europe and Asia coupled with my Indian Singaporean heritage has given me a global perspective which is a major influence in everything I paint and design.

My aim is always to find a blend of ideas, mixing and matching elements from different geographic regions, be it in terms of design methodology, concept, material or form.

Green Onyx, 2017, Bald Beautiful, 2017
Left: Lakshmi Mohanbabu – Green Onyx, 2017 / Right: Lakshmi Mohanbabu – Bald Beautiful, 2017

Unique Personal Style

Widewalls: Various bodies of your work are very stylistically different. What would be a common idea or a vision which binds them together?

LM: My desire has always been to create art that blends cultures and has universal appeal in terms of thought and expression.

Our existence is based on conflict and contradiction; the yin and the yang (the interdependence of two contradictory yet complementary sides to create a whole), is the governing theme that I use to link most of my work.

This has led me to create works that are stylistically very different but strongly linked together.

In my Expressions series of paintings, I took inspiration from the Chinese opera and Japanese kabuki to explore the Yin and Yang of contradictory emotions such as love and hate, joy and sorrow etc.

The Yin and Yang in the Interactions series was interpreted as the interdependence of positive and negative shapes combined with concepts of infinity and the use of symbols inspired by various cultures such as the mandala, the dromenon and the gammadion cross.

The Colours Of Unity series is a commentary on issues of racial discrimination and gender bias. More often than not, we tend to be dragged into the abyss of isolation without recognising the fact we are all part of the same universe. We live in a world where the only constant is change. The change we need is an acceptance of people of various cultures and getting rid of racial, gender and sexual bias for the human race to live in harmony. It is vital that these issues are addressed and acknowledged. We are interconnected and interdependent having common threads that bind us, not divide us. We can’t live in isolation. The idea behind this series was to blur age, racial and sexual orientation and stereotypes.

Widewalls: You are currently working on a series titled Smoke Screen. Could you tell us something about the concept of this body of work?

LM: There exists a contradiction between who we are and what we reveal, expressed emotions and suppressed emotions. Our innermost feelings are kept in check and masked. We either reflect responses that are expected from the world or we cultivate emotions to elicit the right responses from people around us.

People who act on their primary impulses or who express every emotion they feel would find it difficult to fit into society, justifying the need for our individual smoke screens

Emotions are subject to motivation and temperament and often have a positive and a negative aspect as in joy and sorrow; love and hate etc. Emotions may also have roots in cultural conditioning or fulfil the desire to be perceived a certain way in society establishing ones status and an endless array of permutations and combinations leading to a gamut of complex and constrained emotions intertwined with mood, personality, and motivation.

This series depicts the inner hidden spectrum of colourful emotions screaming and desperate to be revealed yet hidden by that ‘smokescreen’.

Hate – Piercing Stare, 2015, Smoke Screen - Deep Blue, 2018
Left: Lakshmi Mohanbabu – Hate – Piercing Stare, 2015 / Right: Lakshmi Mohanbabu – Smoke Screen – Deep Blue, 2018

The Working Process

Widewalls: How does your working process look like?

LM: All of my work is the product of years of extensive research. I allow myself a continual evolution of ideas, fine tuning details at every step. I work on a number of projects and ideas simultaneously.

Very often a number of projects and ideas get shelved for years on end only to be hunted out at a later date to be finalised into something very different from what I had started out with. For example, the Interactions series started out with an idea and a small painting in 1992. I kept working on the concept and researching new ideas for years. The final series was finished in 2016, 24 years later.

At any given time my studio would have four or five paintings all at different stages of progress, a few jewellery or furniture design projects and stacks of doodles for different ideas. When I reach a point in any project where I feel I need to think it through a little bit more I just move onto another project that I would have thought through allowing me time and a fresh perspective on the work when I come back and view it in a different light after a few days.

Widewalls: Who are the artists who have inspired your work along the way and whose work do you appreciate now?

LM: Artists who have inspired me are Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, John Singer Sargent, MC Escher, Rene Gruau and Alphonse Mucha to name just a few of many. Their art and their manner of work continue to inspire me in that they belong to completely different periods, had very different approaches in their work, style and subject matter. I continue to appreciate their art long after having encountered their work.

Widewalls: What is next for you?

LM: I am currently working on adding more pieces to the Smoke Screen series.

I have always been fascinated with movement, specifically dance, so am also working on a series featuring traditional Indian dancers.

Concurrently, I’m painting a series of portraits which depict an array of emotions – the glint in the eyes, the gleam of affection, the sparkle of hope and the flare of desire – every surface reflects light differently creating illusions such as incandescence, luminescence, shimmer and glow highlighting each emotion.

I am also creating a Peranakan jewellery collection featuring the Chinese Kingfisher. A whole new range of precious and semi-precious jewellery is also on my ‘to do’ list.

I already have a line of accessories which includes scarves, scarf rings and cufflinks based on my paintings. I’ll be adding to the range with ties, pocket squares and socks for men, and jewellery for women including earrings, rings, cuffs and necklaces.

Also growing is my interior furnishings line (based on my Interactions series). I’ll be adding tiles, sculptural tables and tableware to my existing home product range of coasters and plates.

Featured image: Lakshmi Mohanbabu – Green Onyx (detail), 2017