Abu Dhabi-based artist shares how the UAE has inspired her sustainable artworks

Vandana Sudhir's inspiration comes from the impressions she has of 'a nation that is constantly innovating and is sensitive to sustainability while flourishing in economic growth'


Anamika Chatterjee

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Vandana Sudhir. Photos: Shihab/KT
Vandana Sudhir. Photos: Shihab/KT

Published: Thu 27 Jun 2024, 7:03 PM

Last updated: Thu 27 Jun 2024, 7:04 PM

It is difficult to box Vandana Sudhir’s work into any neat categories of art. Does it conform to the principles of realism? Is she an abstract artist? The Abu Dhabi-based aesthete is someone who has successfully experimented with everything, but what exists at the heart of all her works is a celebration of what it means to be human — how we react in moments of agony and ecstasy. A staunch advocate of sustainability, Sudhir's works themed on COP28 married two key ideas at the heart of UAE’s public policy — sustainability and tolerance. In an interview with Khaleej Times, Sudhir, who has studied child development and psychology, talks at length about her process and how impermanence defines her art. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What drew you towards art?

For me, it was not one but rather many experiences that drew me to art. One of my first memories is staring into a book of abstract art illustrations when I was four. The visuals were stunning, and I used to transcend into another space just by looking at the abstract art, the cubes, and the colours. It intrigued me how placing a few colours here and there, at odd shapes, and fitting into the most predictable spaces could make imaginary images look at me so interestingly.

I also recall an art competition at my school when I was five years old. At school, I was one of the youngest in the category. We were asked to create a scene describing a rainy day. I drew what I could, but my painting was all gray and smudgy, full of little details as I had always seen puddles and splashes of water and rain. When I saw older and more seasoned artists draw vivid pictures of people with umbrellas out in the street in colourful clothes, I choked out of shock because they were all so well-prepared with the topic and the characters that filled their blank sheets. At the end of the competition, they gave me the second prize, which was a huge surprise and I remember sobbing in disbelief. However, that small incident convinced me that art was not always about colourful images or stereotypical forms and features. It was about imagination. It was about the idea that you put across.

In your artwork, one sees a range of styles. Timeless Essence is as realistic as it gets, while Friends has an abstract appeal. How do you navigate all these different styles? Does style dictate the theme or vice versa?

I have not restricted myself to any single approach, and this balance augments my energy as an artist. It provides me with the freedom to freely express myself with a range of emotions, however abstract they may seem. If I have the freedom to choose, I usually choose a new style, a new medium each time to steer clear of boredom.

Besides, art is pulsating everywhere. If you start to look around, it is as much in a piece of furniture designed by a Danish designer as it is in the withered, rotting, textured leaf lying on the ground. The craving to do something innovative each time I see inspiration around me, comes from within. It is what decides what style I’d like to adopt for a specific piece of work.

For example, the life-size picture of the woman in Timeless Essence is inspired by the memory of a man resting on a bench. The abstract style in Friends emanated because I just didn’t want to paint five happy figures looking at each other in a realistic style. It would be too boring. It would be too cliché.

And finally, I always look for novelty and uniqueness and that’s what I represent as a human being as well. My choices in life concerning my lifestyle are as non-traditional or unique as my artwork, and vice versa.

You have studied psychology and child development. How does proficiency in these disciplines influence your art?

Art is expression. It is a medium we choose to communicate our feelings to others. Psychology helps us understand how we — and others — think, act and feel. So, my understanding of the world around me helps me develop my artistic sensibilities and brings humanity to the subjects I portray.

Reflecting on my background, my degree in child development and psychology led me into teaching. I have taught at many levels, and I have seen my personal growth in observing human behaviour. This enabled me to develop a deeper sense of empathy for people of different cultures and abilities, to choose how I want to portray my characters.

One sees a lot of female forms in your work. Is the celebration of femininity important to you?

Absolutely. In my art, I want to reflect the qualities of my fellow women that inspire me. For me, the contemporary woman is ready to stand up for herself and has the power to become anything she wants to. My collection of International Women’s Day artworks represents women as emerging strong-willed, resilient and courageous.

I also believe each of us is on a journey of self-exploration. What I portray in women is not their looks or their physical form. I am constantly searching for the soul that represents them, the feelings they experience, and their emotional journey. You see, there are two ways in which human beings develop. I relate easily to authentic women, empathetic women, and those sensitive to human values. The women who exude power from these values. And of course, it gives me joy to be able to portray women.

You have been an advocate of sustainability. Why is that so important to you?

The answer has a lot to do with the context. I grew up in India, the land of Mahatma Gandhi, among others. From very early on, Indians are made aware of the gaps in our society and the fact that some severely lack the same things others may take for granted. We are careful and conscious consumers as a society. Therefore, it is painful to watch overconsumption. I believe if everyone can utilise their resources with care, there is plenty on earth for all. And that is true not just for material goods, but also when we talk of community resources, our unique cultures, our specialised arts, etc. When we think of globalisation, my broad perspective is that situations like Covid-19 and climate change have forced us to think of how best we can stay interconnected and interdependent. They also taught us ways to use our resources sparingly. Our need to come together and share natural and man-made resources, ideas, and cultures, while maintaining our uniqueness, is even stronger than before.

It used to give me immense joy to hold workshops on how to work around available resources. One of my early sessions was a series I did with The British Council on paper tearing and tidbits art. Even today, one of my favourite mediums is art created using pieces of textured, and handmade leftover paper. The two artworks I presented for COP28 are a case in point. This is the art that I want to carry forward, explore, and scale up. Here, I can use interesting and easily available textures, colours, and materials to create purposeful, meaningful, and sustainable art. And that is what I would like to do more of in the future.

I also continue to explore sustainability because I am inspired by a community of artists living in the UAE who are dedicated to sustainability, who I am fortunate to work with. Six of us artists collaborated in the COP28 conference exhibition on sustainable art, called Existence last year. It was immensely gratifying.

I feel the need to share my message through a medium that makes the viewer think about sustainability. I started my journey as an artist in the Maldives, a country making huge efforts to save their oceans and marine life. They are concerned about climate change and how the warming oceans may swallow the earth they call their country. The threat is even more imminent for them, and I have seen the hazards of pollution created by tourism and commercial activity up close while living there. It was in the Maldives, where I first shared my recycled bottle installations about marine life present in the Indian Ocean, to raise awareness on climate change and its effects on marine life.

As someone who is almost always on the move, how does the idea of impermanence reflect in your art?

Impermanence for me is not just a notion of physical displacement every few years. Reinventing myself and expanding my skill set has been a permanent part of me in a universe of constant motion. I cherish being in a space where I can decide who I want to be every few years of my life and grow with the opportunities I get, with no external judgments or expectations. This has worked well for me as an educator. I have worked with different education boards, different cultures, and students of the mainstream as well as those from the spectrum, both differently abled and the gifted.

This has worked for me as an artist too. My creative space and my spirit of adventure are the fulcrum of stability and calm amidst the chaos of frequent mobility. I look forward to new beginnings, amidst the confusion and chaos of new places. My studio space helps me centre my thoughts because often there are topics I have been planning for a long time and a quiet new space offers the respite I need to dive in and emerge creative. My daily practice does suffer when I am displaced but I know for sure that it is important to reflect and reset.

My art represents the diversity of cultures I have been part of. I have a piece that showcases the connectedness between humans and nature. Timeless Essence celebrates resilience and courage in the face of adversity. Impermanence is everywhere, just like art. It is in the face of the refugees and in the challenges that my daughters face as citizens of a global world. My impermanence is in the shared narratives of a community of women who are themselves all foreigners and, in the youth, seeking trustful friendships and camaraderie in a land of diverse peoples.

Your artworks themed on COP28 and Tolerance and Sustainability reflect on key themes of the UAE. How did you conceptualise these artworks?

My inspiration comes from the impressions I have of a nation that is constantly innovating and is sensitive to sustainability while flourishing in economic growth. The efforts of its people are laudable, and the community is working together towards the same goals of peace, harmony, and prosperity as those sought by nature. I am in awe of the deft and able leaders who have created the platform to enable and empower their citizens to live peacefully while accomplishing their own goals and wanted to dedicate the artwork to the UAE. I have dedicated my Tolerance and Sustainability work to the nation that inspired me to create this work.

There are two parts to this work. The first depicts the founder of the UAE in a background of mangroves. The mangroves grow thick tangled roots and provide a rich natural habitat for species of fish, sea turtles, and birds, enriching the environment and allowing everyone to live symbiotically and flourish. Similarly, the visionary leadership of the UAE has created a sustainable ecosystem. It encourages empathy and compassion among everyone living here. This environment has enabled diverse communities to prosper and flourish, which is essential for mutual understanding, cooperation, and success. Tolerance builds bridges just as the mangroves create networks. This piece depicts mangroves as a metaphor for peaceful coexistence and harmony. This is aligned with the UN SDGs 8,15, 16.

The second part refers to the Mother of the Nation sowing the seeds of a great nation, out of sustainable tidbits of paper. From the time the unification of the Emirates came about, work has been ongoing on many fronts. The Father of the Nation, Sheikh Zayed, has had the vision to look beyond what is available and use the resources to build a sustainable future. In this image, the mother of the nation is weaving his dreams in the warp and weft of the nation through her wisdom, talent, and hard work. The tiny fragments of colours of the flag of the UAE represent every initiative, big or small, that has made the country surge ahead through the vision of its leaders. I have used home-based products for this artwork to heal the earth.


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