Discover former WCA (Wimbledon College of Arts) student Govinda Sah ‘Azad’ and his transcendental painting at his fourth solo exhibition with October Gallery (open until 28 January 2023).
You studied Fine Art at Wimbledon College of Arts in 2008, tell us more about your experience.
I have very fond memories of my time studying at Wimbledon. Earlier, I found a traditional Nepalese teacher, K. G. Ranjit, who I still consider my mentor. On his recommendation, I studied at the College of Fine Arts in Kathmandu, before completing my first MFA in Dhaka. In comparison, Wimbledon ranks as one of the best experiences I had. I was lucky to have the painter, Geraint Evans, as my path leader. His critical approach challenged me to think more deeply about my own practice. He forced me to think outside the box and expected me to push beyond my boundaries. There were other visiting artists - Jordan Baseman, Simon Callery, and Philip Allen—who also gave me encouragement and insightful support. Together, they taught me valuable lessons I would have struggled to discover.
What inspires your work?
Anyone who’s visited Nepal knows how the Himalayan mountains fill the horizon, capped with snow, and sometimes covered by clouds. Observing them closely, I became aware of how clouds and their shadows alter the way the mountains appear, and I began to pay more attention to these shape-shifting forms. By the time I got to Wimbledon, in 2007, I’d realised that clouds were a productive field for exploration. They trained me to observe how changes in small details quickly transform an entire skyscape and improved my ability to sketch my observations rapidly. Even before leaving Kathmandu, I was familiar with Constable’s ‘cloud studies.’ Then, on arriving in England, I saw how English clouds were completely different again. All those low-scudding, dark clouds racing across the horizon, were things I’d only ever seen before in Turner’s seascapes. But over and beyond their painterly representation, there are more mysterious aspects that draw me to them, as a continually evolving metaphor for something familiar and ubiquitous, which quickly comes to seem unfathomable and mysterious. I’m fascinated by that quality of something so ethereal it can simply melt away, yet if it draws energy from a warming ocean, can produce the awesome power of tornadoes that destroy everything in their path. For me, clouds provide a vantage point to access other worlds, from the microcosmic realm of mists and vapours to the macrocosmic vistas of intergalactic dust clouds birthing stars in deep space.
What is/are your main tool(s) of expression?
My main practice is painting, and this has really developed over time. Originally, I painted in a traditional, figurative style, documenting landscapes, temples, and other scenes around Kathmandu using water colours. I’d already practised using oil paints, but my master told me to focus on watercolours for a while, in order to understand how to combine them. Later, I returned to oils and acrylic paints, which is what I mainly use—sometimes in conjunction with smoke—for my present work, which operates somewhere between representation and outright abstraction. My paintings develop through a meditative process of layering over time, and, today, show little resemblance to my early work, although I can still see links. Over the years, besides painting, I’ve experimented with other materials in installations—cotton wool, glass, mirrors, material objects, etc. During Nepal’s decade-long Maoist uprising, I created forceful performance art pieces as a means of communicating directly with people in the streets.
You’re currently having a solo exhibition at October Gallery - congratulations! What is Absent Presence about?
These paintings are my way of meditating on essential questions about the mind, consciousness, who I am, and all those things connecting us to the surrounding world. During the pandemic I was thinking about my absent family who was undergoing lockdown in Nepal, musing on absence and presence as opposite states of being. Yet, the more I thought of my family ‘over there’ the more they felt closer to me ‘over here’ which intrigued me. Similarly, I miss the sun’s ‘presence’ in the middle of winter. Yet, it’s obvious that the sun hasn’t ‘gone’ anywhere—it’s the same massive sphere of gases burning at the centre of our solar system. Only local conditions—the angle of the earth, and the dense atmospheric clouds overhead—have really changed, so both absence and presence are relative projections. This dualistic thinking gets mixed up with Derrida’s post-structuralist notions about the ‘absent’ author of a text, or the painting as a ‘present’ signifier of what the ‘absent’ artist intended each canvas to represent. I’m happy for all these interpenetrating layers to slide into and out of focus. I don’t expect anyone to divine from my canvas the ideas I wrestle with as each painting gradually forms. For me, the painter, it’s about the accumulation of layers of very personal feelings, intuitions, and decisions that allow me to experience parts of myself, and which ultimately are recorded on canvas. But when that same canvas is exhibited in October Gallery, people arrive with their own experiences and aren’t concerned with what I might have been imagining when I made the work. They have their own inner worlds, and their own reactions to each particular painting, which involves them in memories, feelings, and expressions that are personal and private to them. For me, it’s that diversity of interpretations that lies at the mysterious core of a painting. I can’t tell people what these paintings are about, but I’m always delighted to hear people telling me what they feel when they look at them. Then, I understand that some things can jump across the gap. That’s what confirms to me how absence and presence are mysteriously connected.