Alisha Dutt Islam
Monthly Feature // February 2022
"As a visual learner, my body of work focuses on helping my audience process data in an easy and enjoyable manner with a primary focus on the environment."
Alisha is currently pursuing MA in Fine Arts at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZhdK).
She is a visual learner, her body of work focuses on helping the audience process data in an easy and enjoyable manner with a primary focus on the environment. The practice of creating visuals inspired by the environment continued as she graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Information Arts and Information Design (IAIDP) from Srishti College of Art and Design, Bangalore (India) in 2016.
Tell us a little bit about your past work experiences and how you started out in design.
“So when I went to college, a few years ago, it felt like, I would probably end up designing some brochures or some ads. So I did an internship at the beginning of my second year at college. I worked for a place that also happened to publish Nat Geo. And finally, In my 4th year, I worked on two independent projects. One was to do with flora and fauna, and as I worked on it I realized I like to teach and share information. After that, I came back to Calcutta and I got a job at a design agency. And while I was looking for something more permanent in Design, I finally started teaching in a school. I was teaching drawing to students from grade six to grade 10. And during that period, I started getting a lot of freelance projects. One of my degree projects, which was the cards, It's called War of the garden. It's about exchanging trees and building your garden, like monopoly. So the players are in a garden in the city and you’re exchanging trees amongst each other. Ever since I've been painting botanicals for the last few years, I've painted around over 100 plants and some animals, had the opportunity to work with so many wonderful people. That was my last project before I came to Zurich. And before that, I worked on this book, Abha Mahal Bagh, which is one of the most important things I've done in my life because no Pradip Krishen is really big. He's like the tree man of India, and he writes a lot of folk, people really admire him for his work. Then another special person I worked with was Harini Nagendra, who is from Bangalore again, and they chose a book called Cities and Canopies, published by Random House. And that was, again, a very important book, one of the best environmental books in the city and in the country.”
Tell us a story about one of your favorite artworks, like an anecdote or something funny that you'd like to share about one of your favorite works.
“A good story about my work? Of course, there are there like processes. And we have traveled to places for my work, that's been nice. I was in great distress in I think, undergraduate maybe 2016. Because I was like looking for, this idea of a project that had to be done. But after hunting, and the distress, I remember, after a massive hangover, one morning, I was sitting outside my house in Bangalore. And I was just looking around and feeling really nauseous. Then I suddenly look at this Flower on this tree in front of my house. I remembered that someone had a blind date, and brought this blind date from, I think, one of the research institutes close by to my housemate. And this date had mentioned to her that this tree is not from around here. It's called the African Tudor. And it's very common, I don't know if you've seen it but it’s a very common plant in India, you see it everywhere. It's this big red flower. And I said, aha, this is not from India. I had to basically do something about Bangalore's history. So I go on and start doing some research. I found out that four out of five trees in Bangalore are not from India. That's how actually, my journey began painting plants. I've always painted but, It was this, weird combination of people that triggered the idea. I have this habit of remembering. I don't remember a lot of facts. But I'll remember something someone wore, or someday or someone said, suddenly, really weird what my brain picks up and what it doesn't. It's a very, actually very important story, I would say. Because I don't think if I had made that connection, I don't know where I would have been.”
What were some of the challenges you would say you've had to overcome in your journey? First, as a, as a creative as an artist, and also as a woman in art in India.
“Often, I think there's a lot of hierarchy. If you go into the ad world, make the extremely commercial stuff, because personally, I have been very lucky that at a very early stage, I started working by myself, or I've always been surrounded by a lot of women. And there's this like sense of support that I could always feel. I've always worked with strong women. And that makes me happy. I've never felt unsafe in a workplace. Firstly, because usually, I'm working alone on my computer. I think only in the ad firms I wouldn't feel safe being there too late at night. Because you know, a lot of people are drinking a little later. I have a lot of friends who are in companies and who face, I guess hierarchy if the boss is a guy, and they are not feeling so comfortable, or they're made to make coffee. And I actually have spoken to my friends about this before that I have been so lucky with this one thing. I taught in an all-girls school. And you know, I've been teaching and I paint plants and I've always been, safe. And I have a sense that, painting plants or teaching is a more women-centric activity that you would see at least in our country. It was good, but I just like reflecting on that.“
“Recently I watched this documentary on this woman called Meret Oppenheim, and she is a Swiss surrealist. And she says something very interesting. She said, and I can see it in one of my works as well, which is, she thinks surrealism helps. We have to have women make this utopic world. In our experience, The way they would like to be portrayed or what we would want from life at a certain time, I'm talking about a woman who's from the age of black and white movies. She also talked about different problems with being a woman in art also. Being a woman in art is very difficult. Even in India. But art is really complicated and who are the ones who are really big that come to mind? It’s a very male-dominated space. It's something to think about. Even here (Zurich). It's so male-dominated. That's kind of irritating. Meret Oppenheim was born in 1913. She was in Berlin for a while, but when she died she was in Basel here in Switzerland. And she says she always found that surrealist men were more inclusive than the maestro. We have women founders in design, is it a better space for women to be? There are more women in design than in art right?”
In the last few years, digital art is pretty much everywhere on social media. We think there's been, at least around us, a debate about what is preferred when it comes to art. Like 10-15 years ago, people would prefer more fine art, realism. But today, people prefer a more stylized or abstract version of things. So do you think that these changing trends have ever affected the way you work or the way you think about the projects you get?
“Yeah, all the time. Because if you're drawing nature, one can always say that you can photograph it. In fact, it's a debate that Someone asked me about last week, one of the faculty, she does some research about plants. And she was said, we are also in the middle of this question about whether painting photography is stylized work. I kind of take this back to the beginning of photography, or when photos could be created back in the day. What is the function of a painting? It was made to record things, a visual representation of something. And then once you had photography, you have this change, you have all the different kinds of art movements coming out right after photography and painting are evolving. I grew art school, I'm doing a Master's in Fine Art. So you know, there are many painters around me, and I personally prefer working digitally. Because what happens in the process is that I make my drawings, I scan, and I color digitally. Because there's always a point where you have to scan that work and rework it before you print it. And in my process, you've subtracted that middle part, you're coloring it digitally, you're rendering it and then you make your print. It is so functional, you can put it anywhere, and you're done in a day. In today's day and age where things are moving really fast. I would say it's something, it's a format, it has allowed me to work on so many different things. Do I hate working on the computer all the time? My eyes are strained. But in terms of what is preferred, when there's too much of something, it's good that you know, the grass is always greener on the other side, or you get tired of eating the same food. And then you need a change.”
What do you think the design of the art community in India lacks? Or what do you think there could be more of? In terms of connectivity, or inclusivity, all of those things, what do you think the community lacks? And what do you think there needs to be?
“I mean, before I say anything, the country is very censored. You don't realize it until you come out with something. For example, like when I have this series called compliments after sex, and here, people are so casual about it, it’s not a big deal. Because people are walking around in the bar, they go swimming, they change in front of each other — It’s all very normal. And no one's, staring at you really intensely. In India, if you have two buttons open or have very short shorts, or you're walking on the road, We’re all familiar with what happens. And why I'm saying this is because what it lacks is accepting the most normal things in a human being. Because it's so censored, because what you see on TV, and it is changing, there are platforms that do different things, but it's on Instagram, it's not always on TV, it's tough. Still not on my billboard, it's still not in the newspaper. I'll bring another dimension in here with conservation. When I made 'compliments of after sex ' it was supposed to be shown, and it was shown on ‘We the women’ by Barkha Dutt. They actually put a disclaimer on it saying that this is sexual content at a women's event where these drawings were just plants on a silhouette of a body? Here, certain things are addressed differently. In India, All women got to vote in the 1950s. In Switzerland, they let women vote only in 1996. They are also conservative here. It's a different kind of conservative, it's the same patriarchal society that runs everywhere. Here, it's different in a way, women can do a walk around at 12:30 and I can come back home without thinking I'm going to get attacked. In India, you have three or four layers of that. Instagram is a bit safer than actually going out there and putting things out there. There are so many people who can harm you, physically, for your opinions? It's just It's scary. Where I come from, where we all come from as women, even today. Just hoping we find tools to sensitize not just men, but ever women through work, however, that's possible.”
So what's next?
“What is next? I think something I'm very dedicated to is right now, is how do I represent the work that I was doing in India, I was working with NGOs, or I was painting plants, Tackle the notion of India is just elephants, snakes, and the fact that I speak Indian. It's very annoying. I meet a lot of people on a regular basis and not everybody is under this weird notion, but it's a general notion. I also have to say that Switzerland is extremely cut off. Apart from this, next is just to do my Ph.D. in global studies, because my aim is to keep teaching. I love to paint and I will always paint. I think I've found something in Indian flora and fauna that, it's just endless. No, you cannot stop. And I just want to keep knowing more. I want to know more make conscious art, using natural dyes and explore as much as I can!”
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With 🧡 Team WID.