GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Montclair-based, Indian artist Ela Shah was the guest speaker this past Tuesday at the Women’s Club of Glen Ridge. Shah’s work encompasses a whole range of media, which she exhibited for her presentation, through video projections, sculptures, paintings, animation and live-action movies.
Shah was born in Bombay and began painting at an early age. She took her Bachelor of Arts in psychology and fine arts. She said she moved to the United States with her husband, now a retired physician. She received her master’s in sculpture at Montclair State University. Her work is in the collections of the Jersey City Museum, the Newark Public Library and the Montclair Art Museum. She has had one-woman shows in the Newark Museum, the Noyes Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New Delhi, India, and the Queens Museum of Art, in New York. She has been the chairwoman for the National Association of Women Artists.
She told her audience that when she produced art in India, it was old-school. And a projection shown of a work from this period bears this out, suggesting a Bruegel painting of peasants, in muted dress, crowded together in some bucolic ritual. Here, however, the figures are mostly woman, colorfully dressed, and contained within partitions.
“When I came to America, I didn’t paint for two years,” she said. “Then I took a sculpture course.”
Shah said she took sculpture to reach into herself and find something more meaningful.
A recurring image in her sculpture is a ladder.
“The sculptures use the image of a ladder or scaffolding as a means for giving or receiving help,” she said.
During much of her presentation, recorded Indian music was softly played.
“All my works have stories,” she said.
She displayed a photograph of a work of installation art called, “Survival.” She said the name was chosen after her daughter survived a bit by a king cobra. After this happened, Shah said snakes began to appear in her work.
Another installation piece, “Survival II,” is about surviving colonization.
She said she uses icons, both modern and ancient, to symbolize hope and justice.
“A lot of my images have to do with women,” she said.
Some of those images juxtapose women with instruments of violence. One picture she displayed had a woman riding on the edge of a knife. This elicited a gasp from one woman in the audience. Another work of art, this one a sculpture, had a woman entering into the barrel of a handgun.
“They all have stories,” Shah said. “They have so many layers of meaning.”
She said her work was spiritual, not religious.
“It is a combination of all religions,” she said.
One sculpture — a wall sculpture — showed a woman with a ladder on roller skates. She called it, “Did you hug your mother today?”
“The woman is on roller skates because we want to do everything and be perfect,” she said. “In India, at one time, being a mother was considered the perfect job,” she said. “You didn’t have to say anything else or make money.”
She said her next step in art will be to make movies.
“I’m always traveling,” she said.
One audience member said she identified with what Shah was saying.
This woman was also from Bombay. She said she appreciated that while Shah was changing mediums, she kept an Indian art style with her colors.
“I hope you keep that in your movies,” this woman said.