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Fired Up: An Insider's Look at the Indian Ceramics Triennale 2.0

Updated: Apr 22

We are delighted to share this long form piece by Empty, one of 6 Walk Leaders for the recently concluded Ceramics Triennale. In it they provide a personal recollection of the works on view and how each finds 'Common Ground'


(*Images are courtesy of the Indian Ceramics Triennale, Art & Wonderment and the author.)

This Clay Belongs To Our Country, 2023, Hermannsburg Potters: Hayley Coulthard And Rona Rubuntja; Terracotta underglazes

Shukla Ji, Head of Housekeeping at Arthshila, Delhi, stood absorbed in Australian aboriginal artists Hayley Coulthard and Rona Rubuntja’s works. But what caught his eye were not the stories painted on the pots or the whimsical miniature figures adorning the lids, but the photographs of the Western Aranda landscape that bore the clay that these pots are made of. “The reds and the yellows remind me of Dhanbad,” he expressed.

Nhanha Arna-Urrknga Nurnaka Pmara-rinya rinya (This Clay Belongs to Our Country) could almost be seen as an offering by the Hermannsburg Potters. Travelling across the seas from the Western Aranda Country into the heart of India, the works embody clay as country — as a way of being. Within them, Shukla Ji found an echo of his home, clinging to the thread that unites us all — Common Ground.


Display photograph from This Clay Belongs To Our Country, 2023, Hermannsburg Potters: Hayley Coulthard and Rona Rubuntja

Through an open call that received over 370 applications, the Indian Ceramics Triennale brought together 60 artists from 12 countries, showcasing 34 influential projects under the theme Common Ground. The second edition of the Triennale was curated by a team of eight artists-curators — Anjani Khanna, Kanika Anand, Madhvi Subrahmanian, Neha Kudchadkar, Reyaz Badaruddin, Sangeeta Kapila, Sharbani Das Gupta, and Vineet Kacker — all of whom worked tirelessly to realise their vision of turning clay into community.

The works presented at Common Ground created a myriad of dialogues, all of which were rooted in clay. One saw conversations between tradition and technology, our varied histories and privileges, and between materials, methodology, and form. The exhibition, at its core, exemplified that we are all bound by a codependent future.

The Triennale not only challenged the conventional perception of ceramics and gave the art form the platform it deserves but also served as a catalyst of new ideas and possibilities, creating spaces for new interventions to take shape and for individuals and communities to find Common Ground in. The second edition of the Indian Ceramics Triennale was on view from January 19 to March 31, 2024, at Arthshila, Delhi and hosted a range of workshops, screenings, and performances as part of their outreach programme throughout this period to really drive the idea of clay as community.


Sculpting resistance and remembering difference


The Wall, 2023, Ashish Chowdhury; Stoneware

Works that acknowledged difference and sought to register it in history, to fight the erasure of lived realities, entire communities, and even landscapes, were thoroughly explored. Ashish Chowdhury’s The Wall was nothing short of a gigantic silent scream that set in stone peoples’ struggles for freedom and basic resources like water, land, and food. By collecting dust from various protest sites, the artist immortalises protestors on one side and emphasises the authoritative nature of the nation-state on the other through hand-painted bricks.


Re-presenting from the traces, 2023, Birender Kumar Yadav; Terracotta.

At the same time, Birender Kumar Yadav sheds light on the brick itself – the unit of construction – and on the labour that goes unnoticed. In Re-presenting from the traces, Yadav pays homage to the brick-kiln workers of Mirzapur by reframing artefacts they leave behind into terracotta sculptures. These sensitively carved objects — the potli, utensils, and tools — mark the workers’ presence in a structure that no longer exists. Once the back-breaking quota is met and brick tokens exchanged for wages, the workers’ dwellings are destroyed, and the labour is invisibilized. Hailing from a family of daily wage workers himself, Birender dwells in the tyrannical power structures amidst which labouring bodies and caste differences exist. He continues his practice of highlighting and remembering identities left out of official and mainstream narratives with his work at the Triennale.

Another work that shed light on social differences was Prithwiraj Mali’s Home for the Homeless II, a terracotta labyrinth of tiny homes on an iron backdrop. An urge to look in through the cracks emerged, to open or close some of the windows, and to imagine lives in these homes. Playing with the idea of freedom, Mali asks if we really are free if we cannot even provide something as basic as housing to our citizens.


By Heart, 2023, Kushala Vora; Porcelain, cobalt oxide, narration

Kushala Vora, a young multi-disciplinary artist born into a ‘free’ India, investigated a different perspective with her performance piece, By Heart, which responds to a poem written by Rabindranath Tagore in anticipation of freedom. Living a reality far removed from Tagore’s vision, Kushala invited us to reimagine freedom and our collective futures.


101 Reflections, 2023, Dhruvi Acharya; Glazed stoneware

Carrying on the artistic need to express and mark one’s presence was 101 Reflections by Dhruvi Acharya, where the artist gives depth and body to her surreal two-dimensional figures for the first time. Distorted bodies and figures, both beastly and human, redefined identity and representation, and the disfigured open mouths made it clear they had something to say. These 101 sculptures reflect being female in an ever-changing urban patriarchal and postcolonial landscape and reiterate that the personal is indeed political.


Canadian artist of Indian heritage Heidi McKenzie took her archive a step further by combining ceramics with photography. Her practice traces her journey as a brown face in a sea of white and explores her mixed-race Indo-Trinidadian heritage. With Girmitya HerStories, Heidi brings to light the often overlooked histories of Indo-indentureship from 1838 to 1917. She presented these images in a porcelain tile quilt and utilised digital media, archives, and clay to speak on themes of ancestry, race, and migration.


The Reassembly Ground, 2020-23, Oxana Geets; Stoneware, stains

With The Reassembly Ground, mixed-technique sculptor Oxana Geets reflects on the complexities of her identity. Born in a city situated on the borders of Russia and China, her sculptures convey the emotional tolls of immigration. The figures Geets created are creatures that may exist in another universe, ancient and alien at the same time. They are whole and self-assured but can be broken, pulled apart, and reassembled — akin to her experience of her identity as not one entity but a sum of all her parts.


The ground holds memory

Warning Line, 2023, Deepak Kumar; Stoneware, archival drawings, tools, bird carcass in a vitrine

Many artists relied on history and memory to develop their works. With unchecked urbanisation threatening the lived realities of communities and entire biodiversities, Deepak Kumar’s Warning Line sent a chill down my spine. His installation of blueprints and bird carcasses interrogating the impending crisis of ecological extinction ironically hung under full view of a building under construction.


A Land of Silent Echoes (series), 2023, Awdesh Tamrakar; Ceramic tiles, brass, mild steel

In A Land of Silent Echoes, Awdesh Tamrakar invokes the memory of the landscapes his ancestors inhabited, along with their craft of beating brass. A visual history of the Thathera community of Madhya Pradesh at its core, the work spanned across two walls and embeds within it the spirit of community. Each tile represents a trajectory of the river and seeks to tell a story of that land. Parag Tandel, too, evokes ancestry and living traditions from the Koil community for his work Mali: Jal, Jungle, Zameen. Parag is known for his non-anthropocentric creations that centre Indigenous cultures. This work also archived food recipes from Bastar, which were tied into the installation using Dhokra techniques.


Remoulding and reimagining tradition 

The Triennale brought together the traditional and the contemporary under one roof. With collaborations across the globe, many of the works showcased invited the viewer to shift their perspectives on the traditional aspect of clay.
Revisioning Bithooras, 2024, Lilian Nabulime, Andrew Burton, Hema Devi & Pinki Devi; Upla, gobar, bricks, unfired clay

There was an increasing attempt to highlight and showcase works from the margins or from communities engaged in mitti-ka-kaam (clay work) and read them in a different light.

For artist collaborators Andrew Burton, based out of the UK, and Lilian Nabulime of Uganda, the bithooras they encountered on their visit to India in 2011 became a site of curiosity. Bithooras are ephemeral fuel stores made out of cow dung patties. The duo observed that even though the structures hold no commercial value, these cow dung towers were displayed and adorned with creative aesthetics in mind for the sole purpose of seeking pleasure. Revisioning Bithoora was made in collaboration with Hema Devi and Pinki Devi, who belong to dairy-farming communities on the outskirts of Delhi NCR.


Untitled, 2016-23, Kumbhar Potters: Kumbhar Ismail Hussain, Kumbhar Jamila Hazi, Kumbhar Meeriya Alarakha, Kumbhar Fatima Ismail and Khamir; Terracotta

The ephemeral nature of the bithooras is put further under threat as living traditions throughout the globe continue to be affected by changing market trends and climate. For the Kumbhar family potters, who rely on local economies to supply their products, clay is a way of life under fire. Set amidst a climate that prioritises mass-produced utilitarian items in the Lodia district of Gujarat, master artist Kumbhar Ismail Hussain and his family struggle to keep the ancient art of Kutch pottery alive. A section of the exhibition was dedicated to this mastery of the Kumbhar family.


Crafting technologies — old and new 


Carrying forward the cross-cultural collaborative spirit of the Triennale was the collective Creative Dignity, an initiative that aims to shake up the craft ecosystem and give artisans the recognition they deserve — the right not just to survive but to thrive. The installation Lost and Found brought together works from potter communities affected by the impending climate crisis and ‘natural’ disasters. The innovative display of everyday items like lotas (pots) or tavas (stoves) sought to showcase the resilience of these communities.


Om Prakash Galav, a national award-winning artist from a family of potters in Rajasthan, sculpts the idea of the lota — the pot — from large to the smallest. With Shunya, he invites viewers to humble themselves and go within to understand the larger forces of the universe at play. Even the smallest of pots, ranging barely a few millimetres in diameter, were thrown on the wheel and gave us a glimpse into the skill and technique involved in the artworks displayed at the Triennale. 


Self Portrait. Fears, 2020-2022, Yulia Repina; Porcelain, virtual reality

The curators’ vision to showcase diverse forms of engaging with clay truly came across in the exhibition. With Sequenced Ceramics, the only sonic installation on view, artist duo Copper Sounds investigates the sonic productivity of ceramic objects. An algorithm playing on a loop monitors the various intervals at which an object is struck. Next to it, Munich-based Yulia Repina invited the viewer to engage with her porcelain figures. Titled Self Portraits. Fear, when viewed through VR (Virtual Reality), the figures change, multiply, and morph like fears might do, ultimately blurring the boundaries between the rational and the emotional.


The play in ‘clay’ground 

Wilderness 1, Habitat, Mechanism, 2023, Vinita Mungi; ceramics, earthenware glazes, oxides, slips

Perhaps the most whimsical response to the open call was Vinita Mungi’s biotic sculptures. Her most ambitious and largest works yet, Mungi’s use of bright, playful colours and the fluidity that comes across gave the sculptures a life — as if they were a living, evolving organism, perhaps something growing at the bottom of the ocean. Her use of androgynous bodily figures and creatures inspired by life gives an ode to the diversity found in nature. It seeks to disrupt the colonial binary imposed on bodies and natural life forms. These sculptures have various movable pieces and invite viewers to play with them all.


Porosity of Tradition, 2023, Astha Butail; Fired clay tiles and blue ink. Image Credit: Indian Ceramics Triennale

Another interactive work on show was Astha Butail’s Porosity of Tradition. For the Triennale, the artist combined her book-making practice with clay and created a seven-page booklet out of handmade porous clay tiles. The pages — all but blank at the start of the exhibition — now hold repositories of everyone who has ever interacted with them. She speaks to oral histories and the capacity for absorbing knowledge amidst a world focused on instant gratification and blue ticks.


Performance was another thing to look forward to — Tel Aviv-based artist and sibling duo Roy Mayaan and Erez Mayaan, also known as the Mayaan Brothers, showcased their video work Play with Me, a performance where they engage in a playful game of catch to engage with the ephemerality of childhood and channel it in adulthood.


Yeesookyung’s Translated Vase invited a variety of responses from onlookers. From a disfigured ancient creature to an alien artefact, she created dynamic conversations between different worlds. Her well-known series consists of sculptures which are reconstructed from discarded ceramic fragments collected from the studios of master Korean artists using the ancient Japanese technique of Kintsugi. The artist’s intervention thus fabricates new narratives with her own translations. One also becomes aware of the stark contrast between the gaze that traditional art forms invoke in Korean and Indian cultures. On one hand, values are driven up and respect encoded because of the generational transfer of knowledge, while on the other, power dynamics dictated by caste keep the apparatus of difference intact.


Sculpting trends and the way forward 

One cannot deny the shift in perception and the blurring of lines between art, craft, and design. A medium as ancient as clay brought together artisans, who are finally receiving due credit and contemporary experimental interventions, leaving one with endless possibilities. 

The curated works showcased at Arthshila held remnants of ancient Indian, Japanese, and Korean techniques, further cementing the cross-cultural nature of ceramics. The use of 3D printing and VR technologies opened up new sites of investigation. 


(L-R) Sangeeta Kapila, Sharbani Das Gupta, Madhvi Subrahmanian, Anjani Khanna, Reyaz Badaruddin, Neha Kudchadkar, Kanika Anand, and Vineet Kacker in front of The Space In-Between, 2024, Kate Roberts; unfired clay and nylon fishing threads. Image Credit: Indian Ceramics Triennale

The only site-specific installation at Indian Ceramics Triennale was American artist Kate Robert’s The Space In-Between, an unfired clay work mimicking the iron gates and jalis found in India. Made using clay fibres wrapped around nylon fishing threads at Arthshila itself, Kate renders the very notion of an iron gate dysfunctional. By replacing iron with soft, unfired clay, the garb of security and protective gatekeeping is laid to rest, no longer dictating the split between caste, class, or race. The work has now been brought down, and Robert will be reusing the clay in her future projects.


As long as the works fit the theme, submissions from artists with or without prior established practices were welcomed — emphasising the curators’ commitment to the open process — perhaps this is the gap, the space they wanted to fill in-between


The Triennale came together for the first time in Jaipur in 2018 under the theme Breaking Ground and was a massive success. The second edition was postponed because of Covid-19 and was realised in 2024 owing to the consistent efforts of each and every person involved, and their common love for clay.


Refer to the ICT website and their Instagram page for more details and to keep up with the next edition!


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ABOUT EMPTY

Empty is a neuroqueer, non-binary artist/writer. Their current practice revolves around themes of gender, queerness, and sexuality. They work as an educator and marketing professional and have actively been involved in volunteer and relief work since childhood. They are interested in making art and education accessible for all and are currently working on a resource sheet for the same. Find Empty here!


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