Artist Q&A with Sajal Sarkar
As an artist of Indian diaspora in the US, Sajal Sarkar has stepped out of his comfort zone and began exploring uncharted avenues. Embracing fresh ideas by casting aside over-saturated ones is part of his nature, but he had not indulged in it enough in the middle phase of life in Baroda. Human figuration dominated his visual thinking, hardly allowing any other experimental possibilities. In fact, a couple of years before moving to the US, he fully recognized the stagnancy in his thinking and creative output, which was devoid of anything fresh and provocative.
Who is your favorite artist of all time?
It’s the most difficult question to answer as my art career passed through three distinct chapters and in each chapter, there is some great artist’s name I can remember who is still as significant as thirty years ago. In the initial stage after my undergraduate studies in Kolkata, two Indian artists, both from my homeland Bengal named Somenath Hore and Ramkinkar Baij, and two European artists named Kathe Kollwitz and Egon Schiele were my most favorite. After my move to the Western region of India to study printmaking in Baroda, my interest turned towards the work of Bhupen Khakkar, Nasreen Mohamedi, Zarina Hasmi, and Krishna Reddy. All four of them made a mark internationally for their unique quality of work. After migrating to the USA my new favorites became Sol Lewitt, James Turrell, and Louise Bourgeois, Alberto Giacometti to name a few.
How did you become a professional artist?
My parents were the ones responsible for my artistic life and it’s a blessing to have such parents. Though my father, who had a small printing business, found in me the potential of an artist. He wanted me to become a commercial artist (graphic designer). Eventually, he became proactive about my admission to the art school for undergraduate study. Later, during my study, I changed my mind to become a painter. Though after my BFA I have worked as a freelance illustrator in a newspaper, very soon I decided to be a full-time artist and move accordingly.
What are the influences and inspirations in your work?
In my career, I have had several inspirations and influences that led me to my deep interest in socio-political issues. At the same time, I have a deep interest in the spiritual world. Being a person both emotional and rational, my work is impacted by both material and spiritual matters. It’s a juxtapose of my keen interest in socio-political contents and spiritual/cosmological things on my pictorial surface.
How is your work different than everything else out there?
Adjusting to the limitation of studio space and other logistical factors, I have switched to small format work, which has opened up new dimensions. For instance, I often work on multiple smaller pieces to create a large work, which has ushered in new ways of approaching my images, both visually and conceptually. In other words, I have managed to forge a new creative avenue out of a crisis. Furthermore, cross-hatching on a metal plate from my printmaking days has become an important tool for producing a pictorial surface with Indian ink on absorbent handmade paper. The other supporting mediums are certain natural pigments. Also, shapes in my pictures that resemble cosmic elements or molecular patterns are now more playful, and I enjoy the unpredictability of the nature of the materials. The contextual abstraction or the simplified representational contents in my work has opened a bigger spectrum for me to explore toward my larger goal of creating images symbolic of fragmented, divided humanity.
When is a piece finished for you?
I have noticed that a certain kind of communication with the work always going on while on the process, it may be tiny or a large one. When I feel that I am not getting any vibration from that particular one, I prefer to stop. But sometimes it may be a temporary disconnection depending on the state of mind. I have reworked several pieces even after one year.
What’s different about your current body of work?
My current body of work is more about cosmic elements and my introspection about the philosophy of life and death. It’s more abstract but contextual. Earlier the works were very much representational, dominated by the human figure. As an artist of the Indian diaspora, I constantly seek new content in my encounter with the contemporary art world– new forms that I never explored previously. Several great cutting-edge art shows at American museums and galleries that I visited in the last few years opened new windows for me and refreshed my creative process. The dominant human figure gradually faded out of my pictorial vocabulary, replaced by more experimental forms. Having parted ways with my earlier strategies, my current conceptual process invites fresh pictorial possibilities. For me, this new path is as exciting as it is challenging.
Tell us about a few of your career highlights or moments that have greatly affected your career?
I must say that the most significant one in my life is the Gottlieb Foundation grant which has saved my artistic life. It was very difficult to continue my practice without any response from the art market for long. The first recognition in my art career was a sale of my work in 1990 from a group show in Kolkata, India. I was a kid in the art field at that time. The most memorable time was the meeting with legendary printmaker Krishna Reddy at his studio in New York in 2016 and a meeting with sculptor and printmaker Somenath Hore long ago in Kolkata. I can still remember a visit to the studio of New York-based artist Zigi Ben Heim in his studio in Soho on my first trip to the USA in 2001. He had given me some great advice about the art scenario in New York.
What’s coming up for you?
Very recently I have received Gottlieb Foundation grant, which is a great motivating factor for me. I have a lot of plans to create a major body of work. An important group show is coming up in India. I may present an artist talk at a well-known university in India very soon.
What advice would you give to an artist just starting out today?
My suggestion or advice to the upcoming artist is to believe in himself/herself, be introspective. Be dedicated to the work with rational and philosophical thinking. Be open-minded and hardworking, that will certainly pay you back whether materially or spiritually. Not to put yourself in a comfort zone.
Who are some of your favorite under appreciated artists that you don’t think get enough attention?
I am not yet familiar with the local young artists as I consider myself as a newcomer but there is some artist of Indian origin based in the USA who are working persistently well despite all hurdles, should deserve some attention. The artists who have captivated me are Michigan-based printmaker Sajeev Visweswaran, sculptor Abhishek Tuiwala who is New Jersey-based, and a recent graduate from Pratt Institute, Mixed media artist Preksha Kapadia who is working in Mana Contemporary and New York-based painter Balbir Krishnan. In India printmaker Kamal Mitra and multi-disciplinary artist, Archana Rajaguru deserves much more attention from the galleries or art organizations.
To learn more about Sajal and his work, please visit www.SajalnSarkar.com.