Art That Strikes a Chord

Michelle Poonawalla uses technology in her art in the most creative manner with the most incredible impact
Art That Strikes a Chord
Michelle Poonwalla

She believes in creating art that makes you sit up, take notice and think. And that’s exactly what happened at the recent Art Week in Dubai where Michelle Poonawalla’s multi-media installation titled Introspection, a unique work where technology meets art to create awareness towards a burning issue, was displayed.  Combining audio clips from newsreels with motion sensor technology and digitally mapped visuals, Introspection was a unique piece that was intensely physical, immersive and at some points, disturbing. The soft-spoken Michelle, hailing from the illustrious Poonawalla family, believes in art that urges you to think, contemplate and feel the emotions.

Growing between the UK and India, art has been an integral part of her life and over the last few years, Michelle has conducted a number of solo and group shows in India and abroad, including the famed Kochi Biennale last year. This has been her first step into the Middle East art scene and that’s when we caught up with the artist whose creativity is but a means to voice her concerns about the world we live in…

What has been your exposure to the Middle East Art scene?

This was my first visit to Dubai Art Week and I was pleasantly surprised. Especially some of the art galleries at Al Serkal were quite impressive and I quite enjoyed the energy. My own installation, Introspection, got a good response. I didn’t have much exposure to Middle East art before this.

Who was your earliest influence when it came to art?

I have always been inclined towards art though never got around to practising it professionally. My grandfather was a famous architect and artist in South Bombay whose contemporaries were people like (MF) Hussain and (FN) Souza but he never sold his art since it was his passion and not something he did for money. Grandpa was an intellectual soul who had his own theories, colour alphabets about art and philosophies. He also had a special technique for oil painting which he termed ‘fakeproof’ because only one single piece could be created using it. I was the only person he shared his technique with. After his death, my dad put together a book on all of his works. At the launch event, I gave a speech and unveiled the book. That’s what set me thinking – if my grandfather has left his legacy to me, should I not do anything about it? Coincidentally, around that time, my daughter who was nine, had started writing a book and I began sketching for the illustrations which were appreciated by people. In a way, my re-entry into the art world began then.

Butterflies are your recurring motifs in your work. What’s the story behind it?

One of my friends who owns a school for autistic children used to have a spring summer exhibition where artists used to create something with the group of kids. She asked me if I would collaborate and I agreed. So we did this rainbow and butterfly artworks that complemented the theme and appealed to children. Everyone loved the concept and that’s how I gravitated towards it.

Thereafter, I met curator Swapan Seth who wanted to do a show with me in Delhi based on the butterfly theme and I developed an entire collection around it. Swapan would encourage me to do different things and it was he who suggested I use technology in my art. Being some who believed in art having drama and showmanship, I took up the challenge. First he sent me a picture of a video screen with a butterfly which didn’t make any sense to me. As I started exploring further, I came across video mapping technology which allowed me to make the butterflies fly out of the painting by having it motion sensored. So when you go to a particular point, if the butterflies are shown sitting on top of the frame and you go close to it, they fly away and come back! I was fascinated and started practising it more. 

With the use of technology, don’t you think the personal touch goes missing in art?

Initially I felt that but over time, I have come to believe in technology that adds to my art and gives it a magical quality. That’s what I did with the ‘Introspection’ installation at the Kochi Biennale and here in Dubai. The installation brings together sound and digital mapping to create a pointed commentary on the apathy with which images of violence and displacement are consumed today in endless news cycles.

I used sound and technology for the piece. So when you enter, you stand under a sound shower and hear actual reports of people who have gone through terror or violence. You walk into an immerse room of red rain that’s pouring down and you have these white butterflies flying through it. It symbolises, peace and war and pain, all at once. The motion sensor trigger makes the butterflies come to you like a clutter. These ideas are not country or gender specific, they are neutral themes. The idea is to make a person feel overwhelmed and emotional.

What does the butterfly symbolize for you?

It does different things. Once I started doing butterfly artworks, I started doing them with card butterflies. They are on canvas and enclosed in a glass box.  It’s very three dimensional thing and I make them fly out of the canvas. Once I could master that, I felt I could do anything. The meaning depends on the piece. I have one called ‘Circle of Life’ where I make butterflies fly in a circle; another one is called Twilight where butterflies fly in a twilight kind of colouring and because of the motion sensor, you get a barrage of butterflies at twilight. So sometimes the butterflies are hopeful, sometimes they are freedom. Sometimes they are message on life.

Do you believe in art that disturbs and questions or art that comforts?

I believe in both. Art should be a powerful tool for your message. Perhaps the next one would be on air pollution; it’s a huge problem and I want people to stop, think and get impacted. The one after that would be more reflective and force people to look within as they seek happiness.

Do issues come naturally to your art?

No. I have tried to keep it universal and neutral, not political. I don’t want people getting upset about this or that. The message has to appeal to all.

How necessary is it to have Instagrammable art?

I don’t think you will do your art to be Instagrammable. But if it happens, then well and good! Social media has been a boon for me. Last year, a lady messaged me on Instagram requesting me to be a part of an art show for the Prince of Wales trust Charity. I found it interesting and then she offered me a chance to do an elephant with the elephant parade? That’s how I did that project which also went to London. So yeah, social media has its pros and cons but it can get you anywhere in the world.

What is next on your plate?

I don’t take things slowly, I have done three shows back to back! I am very particular about where my art goes. When is started out, people advised me to go to London and do a show at a gallery but my art is not about show, it’s serious. So wherever I go and what I do next should be taken in that context. It has to be accessible and should make people think and react.