Friday, 1 November 2019

Raja on the rise: an interview with sculptress Darshana Raja

by Jian Farhoumand.

Darshana Raja is a Kenyan-born sculptress whose artworks are fast becoming popular. The striking size and sprawling nature of Raja’s sculptures make them both noticeable and memorable, and the detailed precision expressed in the minutiae of the works adds to their visual and emotional impact.

Asked what kind of artist she sees herself as, Raja suggests: “I would say that I’m a form maker. I realized some years back that I’ve always thought in three dimensions. If given a choice between working on a flat, blank canvas or with a lump of clay, it's an obvious choice for me. I get a lot of satisfaction from creating pieces that occupy space.”

Although born and raised in Kenya, Raja also has Indian roots and studied in England, so the influences upon her are broad. “I went to Art School at the University of Brighton and graduated with a First Class Honours in Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Plastics,” she recalls. “I then went on to complete a Masters at The Royal College of Art, in London, in Ceramics and Glass. My exposure to a variety of materials allowed me to explore many ideas, and, after graduating, I ran a small studio in Clerkenwell where I made sculptural washbasins from Terrazzo.

After returning to Kenya, Raja began specializing in sculpture in her Nairobi studio. She notes of her use of eclectic media: “I’m not tied to any particular material and my satisfaction comes from exploring new ways of making. I’m constantly learning. Having said that, the pieces I’ve created over the last four years are all made of wood. They’re an exploration of movement and transience. When a tree grows, it’s full of life, ever changing. The trunk provides a strong core, the roots are its anchor yet the delicate leaves sway to the external forces of weather. When felled and sliced into inanimate planks, only the grain is left as evidence of a once living, growing form. In part, my work is an investigation of how to breathe life back into inert planks.

Asked what her main influences are, and if she sees herself as belonging to a particular artistic tradition or, instead, as doing something totally new in art, Raja explains: “I’m surrounded by so much inspiration and take influences from architecture, nature, other sculptors and humble forms, too. For example, The Maasai in Kenya live in small settlements, in huts, and ward off wild animals by building a thorny fence which surrounds their perimeter. This fence, known as a ‘boma’, is a beautiful form in its own right and has influenced my work. As far as being in a particular artistic tradition, I’d say I’m very concerned with craftsmanship and the finish of my pieces. I think it would be obnoxious to say I’m doing something new or different but I like to think my pieces have their own personality."

Raja’s most recent exhibition was in a group show at the One Off Gallery, Nairobi, ending in October. She reports: “The exhibition went very well and my works generated a lot of interest. I presented three large pieces, the largest of which was a snaking form of ten meters called ‘Urchin’. These larger works pushed me to be bolder and challenge myself in terms of scale. They’re more piercing, aggressive and forceful than my previous sculptures. Their forms are dynamic, flexible and pliable, not locked or static, and encourage the viewer to want to touch and interact with them."

On where we can see her work next, Raja concludes: “My next exhibition is organized by ‘Friends of the Arts’ and will take place at ISK, Nairobi, from 22nd to 26th November. I’ve also entered my sculpture entitled ‘Whole Hole’ into the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize 2020, a worldwide competition which culminates in an exhibition at Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris.”