Modern Myth: An Interview with Rithika Merchant

Mythology is a vehicle to transfer archetypal principles that explain the origins of life in a contemporary context. Granted certain myths have survived thousands of years even though their imagery does not apply to modern fashion, thought, and speech. And though one can benefit from the universal teachings of ancient Indian or Greek folklore it is easy for modern society to dismiss such teachings due to disassociation from the archaic world. It is therefore necessary that society repackages the archetypal truths that would otherwise be lost in the absurd beliefs and customs of the ancient world.

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High Priestess

Artist today often interpret spiritual or psychological archetypes into their particular style and medium, just as they had in antiquity. We can find innumerable examples of modern day myths—The Matrix, for example. The philosophical ideas expressed in the film is the same philosophy discussed thousands of years ago in certain Vedic texts. What changed was the culture, fashion, technology, and narrative. I assume more people living today have been exposed to The Matrix than the Bhagavad-Gita. The film was a modern vehicle to deliver a message that has existed thousands of years before film began.

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Selenography

Rithika Merchant has devoted herself to creating modern myths, beginning with a series in 2011 The Origin of Species to her most recent show Luna Tabulatorum. In the same fashion as artist have done for millennia she has created a channel for archetypes to flow into contemporary society. Unique to her approach for composing modern myths is by not only channeling archetypal principles, but incorporating the history and legends that have surrounded those archetypes in the past.

“My work deals with interpreting stories or more specifically the received histories which are available to us through culture, such as myths, legends, religious artefacts etc. I think fine art is an expression of the personal inside world of an artist or an interpretation of some thing or idea in the outside world. It is an idea brought to life or an idea expressed. Even though I am interested in myth and stories from the outside world, I use a lot of my own personal symbolism and my personal visual vocabulary in my work and essentially it is my perspective on these existing ideas.”

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Lilith Births the Djinn

In her series Luna Tabulatorum, which showed at Stephen Romano Gallery in New York, Rithika demonstrates the importance of mythological narratives in prose or in imagery as a means of communicating truths. That is truth, not in the sense of factual evidence, but truth in the sense of a phenomenon that has been experienced by masses of people in numerous cultures throughout time and can still be experienced by the individual. Rithika discusses such mysteries that inspired this series that evokes darkness, madness, transformation, animalistic instincts and impulses, and the power of female energy.

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Syzygy

When did myths, occult, psychology, femininity inspire your work? Were there any personal experiences in your life that have an influence on your work?

My interest in myths began when I read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. The book really opened my eyes to the universality of the human experience and how it informed many myths.

Around this time, I had been going home to India a lot and I had felt my hometown (Bombay) changing. This was the year where there had been a series of awful events where there had been a lot of violence against women. There was this hostility towards women and I felt myself feeling nostalgic for the freedom I had once felt living there. It drove me to create this story (My Monomyth) with a strong female protagonist. While doing my research I noticed a lack of female protagonists in all of these legends and myths I was reading and that spurred me on to create this semi-autobiographical series.

The work I did following “My Monomyth” dealt with an exploration of myths and legends from different cultures and finding this common thread that tied them together. It was a journey to discover myself and the conflict I was feeling by not feeling like I fit in in the place where I was from.

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Divine Receptacle

People have a difficult time understanding the occult and accepting the feminine. Were living in a very bro-dominate culture. Are these works feminist? How would explain feminism in your work if this is the case?

I do consider myself a feminist and I choose to portray strong female characters. I strive to break the stereotype of how women are often portrayed in art – either as muses or for their aesthetic qualities. I would like my work to open up a discussion about how women are viewed within society and the role that they are often forced to play.

I love the idea that stories and legends associated with witches and female ghosts can be viewed as protofeminist tales.

To quote Andi Zeisler’s essay “The Feminist Power of Female Ghosts” – “Ghost stories are often protofeminist tales of women who, if only in death, subvert the assumptions and traditions of women as dutiful wives and mothers, worshipful girlfriends, or obedient children by unleashing a lifetime’s worth of rage and retribution. In the feminist horror zine Ax Wound, Collen Wanglund theorizes that the Asian female ghost is an inherently feminist figure whose very presence is a symbol of how deeply men fear female power. Their vengeance isn’t necessarily aimed at the person who wronged them, and as such it’s as unthinking and randomly destructive as systems of patriarchy.”

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Genesis

Your series Luna Tabulatorum, Stories of the Moon, is a narrative of culture, religion, mythology, femininity, and psychology. How did this series come about?

My previous works dealt with the idea of “magical thinking” and the exploration of superstition, myth and ritual and how in the history of human kind, these three concepts and their manifestations were explanations for natural phenomena. In a sense it was an exploration of the effect of nature on humanity.

The moon came up many times during my research for these works and I was so fascinated by all the ideas associated with it – I began to focus entirely on the significance of the moon.

There is so much abstraction from various sources in this series, how do you put that together in an identifiable image? The challenge people have with their own minds is taking these abstract concepts and communicating them to the external world. An artist such as yourself seems to have unlocked the mystery of manifestation.

I’ve always seen stories and ideas visually. I will often read something and have a very vivid image in my mind. For me, manifesting these ideas came naturally. I have my own lexicon of symbols and creatures that I use in my work and so I use these as tools to help me as I visualise these ideas.

You stated that previously the “moon had been linked to madness, transformation, femininity, and the occult.” These very things are taboo in modern society. What connections would you make with our modern culture that dont seem to be apparent in previous ages by the way they created stories and art?

In the past art and stories were often a way to make sense of natural phenomena and psychological events. In modern times and for the foreseeable future, science gives us a complete explanation for most things. However, it places humans as part of a greater scheme rather than the centre of our own narrative. As much as science gives a more accurate description of humanity it takes away the spiritual power given to every human to understand their own destiny. I try to bring humanity back to the centre of concern.

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Queen of Life and Death

The moon brings darkness, but it is represented as feminine and motherly. What is it about that dark side of our nature that is essential to nourishing life?

I have found that often creation comes from a dark place, which is why I find creation myths so compelling. These myths are found in almost all human cultures. There are numerous myths and ideas which speak of creation by the dismemberment or out of some body part or fluid of a primordial being, like The myth of Coatlicue – the patron saint of women who die in childbirth – an Aztec goddess who gave birth to the moon and stars after being impregnated by a ball of feathers. She was then murdered by her own child.

The moon itself was created through a destructive process. It was formed from the debris from a huge collision of an ancient planet (Theia) with Earth. Creation or evolution often happens through chaos, violence or destruction. It is nature’s way.

There is a sense of tribalism connecting man to nature. These works are somewhat tribal in style. They are not polished by digital editing or bright pigments, but subtle by the use of ink on paper. Could you explain how you develop the techniques for telling the narrative?

I am very influenced by Indian tribal art, specifically that of the Gond tribe. Each tribal artist uses his or her own motif or pattern in their paintings, which functions as a signature. I incorporate this idea into my work as well.

I spend a lot of my time reading and researching ideas I have, or subjects that I am interested in. Once I have a clear idea or image in my head I usually just start to draw directly onto my paper – I rarely sketch beforehand – then I add ink and paint. Sometimes I may do a colour wash or tint on the paper before I begin. If I am working on a folded piece, then I will fold the paper or make any cuts before I start drawing. I do have a notebook in which I make lots of written notes but I almost never make sketches or studies of things. Since the narrative aspect is so important to me, I sketch more with words than images.

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Orbiter

Though the topics you explore are dark, there is a multitude of color in your paintings. It used to be, are you afraid of the dark, but the light is just as mysterious.

I love detailed, almost decorative works. I like the aesthetic of desaturated colour, in the vein of old maps, and botanical drawings. I am inspired by religious iconography and late antiquity. I enjoy colour and paper that looks like it has been exposed to the sun or folded up and put in the pocket of an adventurer. Even though the topics I explore are dark – my interpretation of them is peaceful and gentle rather than grotesque.

These spectral personalities in your work are macabre with exposed anatomy, and yet they are somehow divine being adorned with crowns.

The exposed anatomy depicts what is a real and visceral within us. The macabre aspects highlight the universality and everlasting qualities of the concepts explored. The use of crowns and halos are to draw attention to the importance and power of a character rather than its divinity.

Is there a link between royalty and death? I guess Im asking is how do we achieve our greatest potential through a process of death, which seemingly breaks us down?

Death being something that seemingly breaks us down is one way of looking at it and it is quite a rationalist idea. Although I am personally not religious I grew up around Hinduism which puts forth the idea of reincarnation, and how our actions lead to the build up of Karma which eventually has an effect on how we are reincarnated. So if you look at death in those terms, if ones actions in life are good then karma will ensure that ones next life will be better, in which case is is through those actions and then eventually death that we reach a greater potential.

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Time Keeper

The sun provides for the moon at night but devours it in the day. Is the power of the moon/female dependent? Where is her strength?

The moon is also the brightest object in the sky at night, shining a light when it is the darkest. It also casts a light which is different from that of than sun. Moonlight makes everything appears different bringing new dimension or perspective.

The idea of the moon being viewed as only a reflector of another larger star is only one way of seeing it’s significance. Similar to how often women are just viewed as support systems to men.

I personally am more interested in its own unique duality between the dark and light side. Women should be viewed and appreciated for all their unique facets, including those which society deems unacceptable or “unladylike”.

I notice some of the paintings such as Selenography or Orbiter represent the lens of viewing the world and the universe through the shape of a vulva. I dont know how to structure the question, but there must be more that you can speak on this. Maybe a question would be, have you seen a similar representation of viewing the universe through a phallic shape throughout history? Ive certainly seen this in architecture.

It wasn’t a conscious choice to represent it this way. I definitely favour circular and oval shapes over more angular shapes, because one rarely sees a straight line in nature. The circle is a more organic shape. Circular shapes are also reminiscent of eggs, birth and cosmogony. I also love venn diagrams for their ability to express simply how things relate to each other.

The straight line and by extension a phallic shape represents causality or viewing a situation as purely getting from one place to the other. The circle by contrast expresses the idea that there is interrelation and more than one way to express and idea. It also holds the sum of many different parts.

The painting Lunatic suggests that we have layers of identity to balance. This concept is represented by the moon in your painting. The moon is feminine, so does this mean the feminine aspect of our nature bridges us to other sides of ourselves?

The moon in this particular painting is more tied into how we balance different aspects of ourselves. As much as the moon represents the feminine, this particular trait is not solely feminine. The link with the other side of ourselves is more related to the dark/light duality of the moon as well as it’s regular change in shape rather than it’s feminine aspect.

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Lunatic

What can we learn from the moon today to solve our social problems and our identity problems?

The Moon teaches us to balance different aspects of our personality. It teaches us that to be whole we have to accept the darker side of our selves – be it the destructive aspects or the more taboo(as judged by society) aspects of ourselves. The lunar cycle can also be viewed as a metaphor for reincarnation and transformation.

As I mentioned before – In the past art and stories were often a way to make sense of natural phenomena and psychological events. In modern times and for the foreseeable future, science gives us a complete explanation for most things. However, it places humans as part of a greater scheme rather than the centre of our own narrative. As much as science gives a more accurate description of humanity it takes away the spiritual power given to every human to understand their own destiny. The moon and its legends and symbolism allow us try to bring humanity back to the centre of concern.

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Sacred Moon

 

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