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Sheela Gowda

Indian Contemporary Artist
Born 1957, Bhadravati, Karnataka, India
Lives and works in Bangalore, India

Trained as a painter, Sheela Gowda moved away from the traditional medium and has successfully ventured into sculpture and installations. Sheela uses indigenous elements with potent meanings. Her mediums have a distinct materiality and metaphorical identity. Content and formals aspects are given equal space in her works.



Master of Arts in Painting, Royal College of Art, London


Post-Diploma in Painting, Vishwabharati University, Santiniketan, India


Bachelor of Arts, Bangalore University


One year non-collegiate study under Prof. K.G. Subramanyan, M.S.University, Baroda, India


Diploma in Painting, Ken School of Art, Bangalore


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"Darkroom": An attempt to communicate a philosophical idea through found objects

The 2006 installation Darkroom is perhaps Sheela’s most famous work, widely exhibited in India and abroad. Sheela assembled tar drums and metal sheets to replicate the make shift houses fashioned by the migrant road workers. This is not an attempt to make any sociological study of the life of the impoverished labour class, but instead posits a different view. The power of the material and its ability to determine the size of the house fascinates the artist. The Darkroom has a small chamber where the workers and their family reside. They direct their body to adjust to the limited space. The roof, made of flattened metal sheet is punctured with tiny holes. Light navigates through the holes, filling the otherwise dark interior with crisscrossing beams. The tiny holes of the ceiling is reminiscent with the constellation of stars, the light piercing through these holes makes the limited space of the interior look like an infinite whole quasi-ethereal effect. With this work Sheela explores the philosophical by juxtaposing the grim exterior with the seemingly infinite interior.

Sheela Gowda, Darkroom, 2006, tar drums, tar drum sheets, asphalt, mirrors. 92.5 x 100.3 x 118.1”.

Her installations combine sculpture with paint, while interacting with the gallery space

After making a marked departure from canvas, Sheela Gowda experimented with sculpture for a brief period till she found her true calling in installations. Sheela is now known for her sculptural installations. Her works are planted in the space of the galleries, often incorporating the materials or physical features of the gallery itself. Her installations do not cease with catering to the visual appetite alone. Sheela Gowda often combines sound or smell in her installations, thus creating layers of sensual experiences.  Some Place, 2005, combines plumbing pipes with a radio monologue in her native language, Kannada.

Sheela Gowda, Some place, 2006, from “Open Eye Policy”, installation view, Van Abbemuseum, Netherlands, 2013

In search of a voice, her works have metamorphosed from painting to sculpture to installation

Trained as a painter, first in Ken School of Art Bangalore, then under the guidance of K.G.Subramanyam and later in Shantiniketan and London, Gowda’s initial art practice was limited to oil on canvas. In her canvases she explored the subject of women and the deep rooted violence they were exposed to.  The 90s had a profound influence on Sheela’s art exercise. The tumultuous social milieu, the right wing political fanaticism, and the consequential increase in religious brutality had copious influence on the sensibilities of the artist. Sheela abandoned the medium of paint and embraced more indigenous materials which carried greater contextual value in the Indian sphere. She created sculptures combining various materials like cow dung, kumkum, thread, coconut coir among others. In 1999, she made And Tell Him of My Pain, a seminal installation work. Yards of red thread with needles were suspended from the ceiling announcing at once, the erogenous and the domestic.

Sheela Gowda, And Tell Him of My Pain, 1998, installation view, Montreal, thread, pigment, needles 2 pieces each measuring 11250cm long and 1.25cm thick

Local materials present a subtle vehicle to express more immediate politico-religious critique

Sheela Gowda works with elements most familiar to the Indian public. She seizes the intrinsic value of these elements, working with its materiality to bring to surface a deeper meaning, to beyond their traditional usage. Her art is an intricate process of merging visual communication, concepts and modes of perception. Cow dung, kumkum (vermilion), thread, gold leaf, coconut fibre and other earthy materials have dominated her oeuvre. Sheela convincingly articulates the raison d’être behind her choice of these materials. In the Indian society, cow dung has a dual identity, with a religious function along with its material usage. The artist used this material to respond to the rampant religious acrimony that eclipsed the decade of the 90s.

Sheela’s stay in the rural Karnataka during her stint as an art teacher in an art school in Mysore exposed her to a variety of organic materials. The materials she uses also carry an association with women, as it is handled predominantly by the women folk in rural India. In Gallant Hearts, 1995, the artist aesthetically combines natural elements like cow dung, thread and red pigment.

Sheela Gowda, Gallant Hearts, 1996, cowdung, pigment, string, 300 x 37.5 x 20 cm approx

Works are an objective reflection of the civil life, showing an acute observation

The assortments of themes that appear frequently in Sheela Gowda’s works are historic violence against women, communalism, urbanisation and its imprints. It is easy to misinterpret her works as dissections of the contemporary social order. But the artist has different philosophy about art; she religiously believes that art should be isolated from personal ideologies. Sheela Gowda doesn’t recommend art as a platform to voice individual opinions. The intrinsic value of art is honored by the artist.

Sheela Gowda, Gallant Hearts, 1996, cowdung, pigment, string, 300 x 37.5 x 20 cm approx