In Search of the New - An Interview with Artist Thokchom Sony

When Delhi Artists Studio Tour started in February 2018, the idea was simple. Take a limited number of art lovers every month into the studio space of a cutting edge young artist who lives in the hidden away lanes of Delhi and get their story out.

In our recent tour we visited Sony Thokchom who shared his fascinating journey from the northeast state of Manipur to the concrete jungle of Delhi. Here are some of the insights we gathered over coffee.

Q. Lets begin with you leaving Manipur to pursue higher studies in Delhi. How easy was it to choose fine arts as your college major? 

Sony: From an early age I knew I wanted to be an artist. And in the context and culture where I come from, it wasn’t regarded as something serious. Those close to me tried to persuade me to pursue something more acceptable and reasonable, like engineering…some found art a profession with little to no status. Others thought I wouldn’t be able to get a real job with an art degree. I am headstrong so I pushed through to do BA in Fine Arts from Jamia University in Delhi.

Q. You completed your BA, then MA from the Mass Communication and Research Center (MCRC). How has that influenced your creative process? 

Sony: It was a challenge as I suppose it is for most who arrive from smaller parts of India to a city like Delhi. For me it was a rude jolt to be stereotyped and judged for my outward appearance. Not in the college but outside the campus. Random strangers belittled me because I was different from them. It was hurtful but also at times funny, like being called “momo” or “chowmein” even though we’re mainly rice eaters. In hindsight even those negative experiences led to bringing focus to my art. 

Q. So after completing your MA you began fashion illustration works that have now become synonymous with a Sony painting?  

Sony: No, the “ethnic fusion” portraits, wearing tribal inspired fashion wear, with intricate nature based background, that all came much later. The negative experiences from Delhi streets did make me want to celebrate all races and then fuse them in my later portraits. I am no “artivist” but my artwork is a way for me to bridge the gap that we have due to our cultural and racial differences. 

The second reason I got into the work I do now is because of my first job as an illustrator for an international company. I got overworked there and by the time I left I knew how I was not going to apply my art and skill. I knew I wanted my creativity to go towards something original and authentic, not something that was entirely dictated by other people. 

Q. So our city and a stifling work caused you to find your own voice? 

Sony: Well I remember the frustration of being in a workspace where I felt manipulated and kind of trapped. I also longed to find my own original style. So you can say, that first job made me more intentional and grateful for what I do now.

 The cultural imbalances I found around me got me to start fusing and mixing races and our cultural identities associated with clothes.

Q. You are also seen as an upcoming Manipuri artist. What do people think of you back in your state? 

Sony: I want to be known as an excellent artist. And the one solo exhibition I held in Imphal was surprisingly well received and I am seeing lots more scope there than lets say a decade back. But on the flip side often my people back home have misunderstood my work because they claim I have either diluted our culture or distorted our identity. I am not out to disrespect anyone nor am I showcasing how superior any one particular culture is. I do not want to just copy what is already out there. 

Q. So what are you doing?

Sony: All that is “traditional” now was at some point new…so you can say I am in search of the new. For that I observe the details in nature, the uniqueness in all faces and the design factor even in clothing. I am searching for new ways of looking at ethnicity and fashion and nature…and also the extraordinary in what is overlooked as ordinary. 

Q. What do you mean by that?  

Sony:Because of where I have grown up I have a deep connection with nature. I am drawn to the detail that is found in nature…especially wild grass that grows anywhere. It reminds me of my childhood…in school biology was my major so I think that laid the foundation for my fascination with nature and all things green.

Q. Including your dyed green hair!

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Sony: Ha ha ha…yes and its organic dye! Actually I find inspiration and connection with wild grass because they are stubborn and strong. Nowadays people have become numb towards the small things and the intricate detail that exists all around us. We have become lazy, we do not observe. People do not have time to experience nature. It has become a luxury reserved for a vacation. 

Some buy expensive flowers from fancy shops I am fascinated by the detail and diversity of the wild grass on the roadside. That’s what you’ll find in my vase. 

Q. So now are you a “full-time artist”? 

Sony: I am a professional artist and I am also on faculty at MCRC, teaching the animation course. And MCRC is a wonderful place because of the freedom I have to be myself and not be judged by my appearance but by my work and actions.

Q. With all the challenges you have already faced, are there some who have really helped you to keep making art? 

Sony: If you mean mentors, then there was Zargar Zahoor our H.O.D in the fine arts department at Jamia. We didn’t spend a lot of time together but every interaction I had with him was significant. He was a good mentor. 

There was also this lady, Helga Maier from Germany. She was my local guardian who was very helpful. She was not an artist but she really encouraged me in my journey, especially through some trying times. 

Van Gogh is not from Delhi or Manipur or from our era but he is my hero. I can connect with his struggles and joys. 

From the contemporary art world I admire Miss Led. She is a portrait artist from UK and in my formative years she was the only one who was creating what I wanted to make. Incorporating elements of fashion, culture and ethnicity. 

She is the best fashion illustrator and also when I started I found no one else who came close to her skills. 

Q. How has social media helped in your art? 

It has helped get the word out. As artists we want to showcase our work and so the online audience has helped me a lot. Some of my friends have gallery connections but I have had to rely on social media to get exposure and work. But I don’t think I am that good with promotion. 

Q. What are some of your future plans? 

Obviously the artwork looks way better in the flesh and not just on a screen so yes, I am hoping to have a show beginning of next year. I want to grow and explore more as an artist. I want to partake in residencies nationally and internationally. The residency I did with Art For Change back in July up in Mussoorie was awesome because it had the mix of nature and multicultural setting that so inspires me. I would love to see more of the world as well… 

Q. In parting any advice to the young aspiring artists out there? 

I’d say pursue your passion but expect challenges. Push through the difficult times. Have an open mind that’s willing to learn. Also look at your own unique journey not just in the present but also from the past. Your “art language,” how you want to express is important. Aim to have an exhibition and work towards that. Don’t be afraid to show your work to people. Pay attention to detail around you and inside you and it will enable you to produce artwork that will make a real difference to the world around you.

Interviewed by Joshua John at New Delhi.

Listening to the Mountain: The Woodstock - Art for Change Residency

“What does the mountain tell us about ourselves, and about what it means to be human?”

That was the ‘residency question’ for Art for Change’s latest 2-week artist residency organized in collaboration with Woodstock School, the international boarding school nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas.

It turns out, the mountain tells us a lot!  And to get our 6 young professional artists, 5 high-school art students, and 3 residency mentors to listen closer, we kicked the residency off with a monsoon climb up a 10,000 ft mountain nearby.

There is something about the size of a mountain, and realizing how correspondingly small you are, that opens you up to that which is bigger—to the transcendent, to mystery, to gratitude, to wonder.  Letting go of the control afforded by technology and urban living opens us up to mystery, to possibility, to discovery.  We lost our direction on that mountain-side, and with no signal on our cellphones took a longer, round-about way.  But it was a way which led us through dense forests and swirling mists, to a giant frog and the tiny acorn-sized hoofprints of the Himalayan barking deer, and to massive vistas opening up suddenly before us. That giant frog ended up reappearing in no less than 4 works of art.  We experienced blankets of incessant rain and hunger, and for some who had never climbed a mountain, fear and fatigue.  When asked what the mountain was telling her, a student who was falling behind replied: “That I can’t make it.” To be human means to understand we have limits, to respect them, to realize we need each other, to look above.  And yet a few minutes later we came across a house clinging to the edge of the mountain, a lone Garwhali family with the matriarch resplendent in her colourful Garwhali dress and the widest smile: a picture of vulnerability and resilience, the human capacity to create culture and thrive even under the hardest of circumstances.

Over daily ‘chai-time’ discussions we unpacked these ideas and discussed our theme, Wonder. For wonder leads to so much: to the profound relationship between wonder and learning, how cultivating a sense of wonder is a key to curiosity and the discovery of a wider world.  But also to empathy.  Watching a video about Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s response to the refugee crisis led to a discussion about how wonder makes us curious about other people’s stories, how imagination is at the heart of both creativity and the ability to place ourselves in other people’s shoes.

And so for the next two weeks we kept hiking.  From our dorm rooms down the hill to the cafeteria for breakfast, from the cafeteria up the hill to the art department, from the art department back down again for lunch, and so on.  And as we hiked, the mountain continued to inspire.

Chimmi a Woodstock Student from Bhutan recreated a miniature house hanging inexplicably on the edge of a pedestal as if in mid-air, titled ‘Resilient’.  Komal, a student from St.Joseph’s Academy Dehradun painted a man crouching in the corner of the canvas training a big camera on a small frog.  Behind him the saturated green of a sheer mountainside rises up, and beyond that, a cosmic kaleidoscope. She titled the piece ‘Perspective’.  Tanuprakash Khandual from Odisha responded each day to a different question he heard the mountain asking him, producing a series of work that combined miniature watercolours with triangular forms of the mountain drawn with smoke.  And then there was Rangskhembor Mawblei from Meghalaya, who spent much of the two weeks hanging around outside in the rain, making us wonder till the last moment if he was going to have anything to show. He ended up with a profoundly poetic set of work using the Mussoorie rain to bleed lines of ink into sublime comments about the course of a human life. And of course there were more.

With Woodstock School giving us access to their excellent facilities we ended the residency with a professional exhibition on campus titled “Wonder: Listening to the Mountain.” Significant crowds from the school and the hillside turned out for the opening, and the Vice-principal, surprised at the quality of art we produced, asked how long the show would be up. “Two weeks” we said.  “That’s great because with parents dropping their kids off this weekend it will make us feel so proud as a school.”  

We ended the exhibition evening, and our residency, as a circle of artists surrounded by our artwork, and responding to the question: “What are you taking away with you from this experience?”  Samir Mohanty, a deeply thoughtful and incredibly skilled artist from Odisha, for whom this was his second Art for Change residency, put it this way: “Art for Change Residency is one of the best residencies in the world. I have done Bachelors, I have done Masters, and then I have done Art for Change.  It is like a 4-5 year course, I have learned so many things.”

Core to the design of our collaboration with Woodstock was giving students still in high-school a professional experience alongside professional artists just a few years on the other side of art school. Each morning two participants presented their art journeys, opening up their lives to the students.  One of the students, essentially a musician but with a surprising knack as a visual artist, had half-way through the residency declared her decision to add art as a major when she goes to college next year. In our closing circle, what she was taking away with her was this: “For me I really realized during these past two weeks that I want to be an artist, I know that I want to be a creator.  With my life I want to be creating things, and art is communication and I love communicating through art, whether music, writing, or painting. What made this happen here was being surrounded by other people who are creating a living by creating art, which was veryinspiring for me.”

One of our core goals as Art for Change is to enable the artists we work with, to help them find their place in society and thrive, and to recognize how their art fits into a larger scheme of things.  And we are grateful to the mountain for profoundly helping us in this pursuit.

February Highlights: Feeling Spring

With February came the onset of spring, and the thawing of our winter bones brought some hustle back to the Art for Change office. We launched some programs which we hope to carry through to the end of the year. Here’s a brief look into what kept us busy in February!

Our first ever Artist’s Studio Tour took us through lanes of Chattarpur and Ghitorni. A well spent 2 hours included stopping by 3 artists stations, hearing them talk about their journey, and having a closer look at the context for the art they create. Thanks to Red Moon Bakery for their season special -  HOLI cookies! (If you'd like to join us for our next Tour on March 17, shoot us an email at artforchangefoundation@gmail.com)

Those of you who know us, know that we make available for purchase the work of young, emerging artists as part of our Affordable Art campaign! So we were thrilled to be part of Metro Delhi International School’s annual Spring Gala! Fun, food and art out in the sunshine – what’s not to love!

Art is about expression, rather than something...regulated.” Geeta Mondol said that and invited us to do a bunch of workshops with the staff of Ashish Foundation for the Differently Abled. What we got was an enthusiastic bunch that didn’t need any goading but jumped right in with spirited expression – the perfect prescription for a day of fun.

We hope you had just as fruitful a February as we did.

Here’s to an even better March.

Cheers from the Art for Change Team!

The Beauty of Who I Am

The artists didn’t know what they would be making 3 weeks worth of art about.

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Art for Change Foundation’s 5th annual International Artist Residency started simply with an assignment: Make a portrait with and about a young girl. The ten carefully-selected, yet somewhat hesitant artists-in-residence teamed up with five very shy, 11-15 year-old underprivileged girls. A day of art activities ended with the portrait assignment. But by the end of the day something magical had happened. The girls had come delightfully alive and the artists had connected beautifully with each.

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It was only the next day that the artists-in-residence were told that the girls they had worked with were all survivors of sexual assault.  Counsel to Secure Justice (CSJ), with whom Art for Change partnered for this residency, is working closely with each of the five girls to secure effective criminal and restorative justice. That following day a CSJ social worker shared the girls’ five stories. These ranged from incest to the experience of one girl getting kidnapped by a criminal gang, repeatedly raped over a period of a week, imprisoned in a cellar next to dead bodies, taken outside and shot, and then thrown into a well. And yet she survived, and not having been told which story belonged to which girl, for the vibrant resilience and irrepressible spirit of each of them, we couldn’t have figured it out!

Yet it was that opening to the residency, reconciling the knowledge of the second day with the lives of the first day—that opportunity to engage with a precious human life without it being defined by a single event or the encumbrance of the past—that launched the artists into three weeks of discussion and creativity around the theme: ‘The Beauty of Who I am.

Rather than responding directly to the issue of child sexual abuse our and CSJ’s aim was for the artist, and their art, to ask the bigger questions: What is justice? What is restoration? What is beauty? What is the value of a human life? Ultimately, what does it mean to be human.

Over the next three weeks, through a process of working individually in a large common studio space and reflecting collectively during daily ‘chai-time’ discussions, the artists produced a moving range of paintings, sculptures, photos, installations, and performances.

One artist created a walk-in installation she called Concealment, a beautiful mosaic of brand new cloth-scraps discarded by a local tailor which she collected, sowed together, and hung in a corner. In addition to the power of the symbolism, as a viewer the protective semi-transparent barrier hid you, while allowing you to quietly observe the rest of the room.  Another artist, drawing on Indian mythology, created an interactive board game that played with the idea of ‘safety’ as a parody of society’s responses to sexual assault.  Other works dealt with forgiveness, resilience, trust, inner-vs-outer beauty, and more. One artist wrestled from the beginning with the idea of beauty itself, questioning the assumption that every human being is inherently valuable, particularly when faced with the evil of the aggressor. He ended up making an installation projecting a digital clock through an acrylic curtain along with the poet Kabir’s words “The river that flows in you, flows through me, too”. He himself sat behind it, completely hidden under a black cover except for one hole revealing his tapping finger. The piece captured a sense of being caught in time, stuck in that space between hope and hopelessness. His tapping finger, as he explained it, was both his waiting, and his complicity in not doing anything.

The Residency ended with a well-attended public exhibition. But a few hours prior to that we held a special private viewing exclusively for the five girls. The artists proudly gave them a tour of a body of work that had been inspired by them, and in some cases made for them as the primary audience. One installation was completed only when the artist gave the girls hammers to break open clay pots revealed to be full of sweets, each with a flower at its center, all of which they were to take home—an act of symbolic, prophetic, cathartic reversal of past injustice. Not only had our lives been deeply touched by those of the girls but, as the CSJ social workers shared afterwards, they too, had been deeply encouraged and honored.