An SA-Masala Spice Mix

The Inside Story: Contemporary Art
of India
1-4pm Fri-Sat
Through Feb 17

Indian Classical Dance Performance
2pm Sat, Feb 10

Collaborative Sculpture Project Unveiling:
Following dance performance Feb 10

Bihl Haus Arts
2803 Fredericksburg
India’s known for its caste system, but America has social barriers, too. When was the last time you saw kids from the ’hood collaborating with senior citizens on an art project?

You won’t see the residents of Primrose at Monticello Park Senior Apartment Living tagging abandoned buildings, or find middle- and high-school students who are part of Askew: A Design Studio for Urban Youth doing macramé. But close to a dozen members of each group got together in January to create 10-inch-square terra-cotta relief tiles, putting their own ideas into wet clay before each tile was fired into a durable and weatherproof piece of art.

The 36 tiles — many of which feature Texas themes like prickly-pear cacti, a stylized sun, and the Alamo — will adorn the outside of a pair of 5-foot-high pillars designed by Prasanta Mukherjee, a prominent Indian artist, that will be installed February 10 at Bihl Haus Arts.

“We went in with open minds,” said Carolyn Sanchez, head docent at Bihl Haus, which is housed in the Primrose at Monticello senior apartment community across from DeWese’s Tip Top Café on Fredericksburg Road. Sanchez helped rally enthusiasm among the dozen Primrose residents who made the trip in January to Askew’s facility, just down Fredericksburg in the Deco District.

“At first, some people were hesitant,” Sanchez admits, but within a day or two, the seniors and the students were talking, exchanging ideas, and working comfortably side by side. “It was an inter-generational, inter-cultural project — a wonderful experience that we never expected to have, and one that we’ll always remember.”

Mukherjee, who is visiting and working in San Antonio with his wife Ela, a ceramics artist, created the overall design for the collaborative outdoor sculpture. He’ll be topping each tiled pillar with brightly painted, ring-shaped, fiberglass forms augmented with dangling wind chimes.

The Mukherjees, Sanchez says, were “wonderful teachers.” Back home in New Delhi, both are instructors at the Sadar Patel Vidyalala School. They’ve also been actively bringing the arts to women, disadvantaged youth, and others in India, including the Untouchables.

“There was no shortage of ideas” for the tiles, according to Robert Langston, an arts educator at San Antonio’s Keystone School. Langston, recipient of two Fulbright grants, met the Mukherjees in India and suggested they visit San Antonio as artists in residence, according to Kellen McIntyre, executive director of the Bihl Haus Arts gallery. Roland Mazuca, executive director of Askew, also played a key role in the unlikely three-way interchange.

Bihl Haus Arts, rescued from a tract-home developer’s bulldozers and now ensconced within the gates of the Primrose apartments, does an admirable job organizing and displaying Prasanta Mukherhee’s recent work. Much smaller in scale than the monumental sculptures for which Mukherjee is perhaps best-known, the paintings and wall sculptures at Bihl Haus encapsulate his preoccupation with organic forms, and with abstract representations of birth, love, violence, and death.

His Object series of acrylics on handmade paper employ flat painted forms dominated by cool blues and blacks, with sharp accents of gold and flashes of red. His Necessity of Green I, II and III series are even more elemental, with sharp spikes, dangling blood-red shapes, and lotus petals configured in simple black, red, and white. A series titled The Inside Story, completed just last month, is a five-part progression of organic-looking forms mutating on circular backgrounds of black on gold. The black zones pulse with miniature ghostly forms and squiggles.

The exhibition also features five of Mukherjee’s shaped fiberglass wall sculptures, each mounted on a circular panel of wood. The smooth, 3-D forms bulge outward and cast their own subtle shadows, and the mottled painted surface gives some of the shapes the illusion of surface depth. The forms themselves seem to squirm and erupt, but these disturbances are curbed and contained by the painted circular frames.

Although most of Mukherjee’s paintings and sculpture are abstractions preoccupied with shape, color, and form, many of his larger sculptures back in India have a blatantly political subtext. His Burkha series of paintings and sculptures cloak female forms painted white with repeating patterns of red lotus petals that transform into flames as they climb up toward each woman’s concealed face. During a slide show and panel discussion held January 27, Mukherjee confirmed that they were a direct response to religious extremists in Kashmir who threw acid in the face of women who chose not to conform to Islamic dress codes. Mukherjee’s most striking monumental sculpture, with three female forms emerging from large blood-red projections arching out from a monumental slit, is a reaction against the ultrasound-toting profiteers who encourage expectant mothers and fathers to abort female fetuses.

The terra-cotta sculptures created for the Primrose apartment complex are decidedly less strident. Mukherjee did contribute one sculpted tile himself — that of an elephant. But rather than railing against American Democrats, he was just adding a little Indian flavor to the Texas-themed relief tiles created by his multi-generational American collaborators. l