Saju Kunhan’s practice lies at the clever intersection of medium, process and archive, creating visual articulations of the important question of who dictates historical narrative and the concurrent subtext of what is left behind along the path of history-making. He articulates his musings through a meticulous process of developing a personal visual archive, from which he cherry-picks to create his rendition of a historical document.
Over the years, Saju has mastered the technique of image transfer – a process that involves a meticulous, manual transfer of an image from one surface to another. This unusual and painstaking technique has become the cornerstone of a definitive oeuvre of large format wooden ‘maps’ as well as smaller, jewel-like paintings on paper. These works, combined with the metaphorical implication of image morphing, serve as a powerful commentary on the distortion of historical narratives and its implications collective and individual identities.
Saju’s tryst with wood – his signature medium, began before his journey as an artist. As he waited to enroll as an art student, Saju channeled his creative potential by polishing furniture and painting hoardings and banners. He carried this hands-on knowledge of material into his budding art practice, beginning with small scale experiments of image transfers on wood (the Flipped Pages series is an example of this). Saju began collecting historical images from old magazine and books, creating his own interventions within them through doodles and erasures. After the images were transposed onto the coaster-size blocks, he would further engrave the surface to create a fascinating visual document which became a sliver of history, innocuously manipulated through the artist’s hand.
Taking his experiments with image transfer on wood on to a bigger canvas, Saju began working with blocks of repurposed teak wood, creating large format ‘maps’ which have become one of the key elements of his practice today. The impressive scale of these works brings a gravitas to the ‘map’ – a human construct, often fragile in its two-dimensional form, yet the arbitrator of destinies throughout history.
For works such as Winners are not judged and Whose land is it anyway, (part of his solo exhibition “Stained Geographies” at TARQ, November 2017), Saju created his version of a historical map of two iconic cities – Delhi and Mumbai respectively. The images were culled from his personal photographic archive of ethnographical and historical dioramas from museums across the country. He juxtaposed these with screenshots of contemporary Google Earth satellite images, digitally collaged and transferred onto the six panels that make up each of these wooden ‘maps’.
In his smaller format, mixed media paintings Saju’s relationship with the Mumbai – a city he came to as a student and continues to thrive in as an artist, comes to the fore. The Make In – While Burning series was inspired by some of the catastrophic events of the city’s recent past. Saju used images of the metropolis’ iconic buildings, using a combination of transfer and burning processes to create, magnificently iridescent tableaus of apocalyptic twilights.
Saju’s works are a peculiar and intriguing as they collapse the past and the present to create a document that does not necessarily owe allegiance to historical accuracy, but serves as a document to the way we look at history. The individual becomes an archetype in the scheme of Saju’s sepia-toned landscapes, thereby opening up a vital conversation about our place along the broad arc of civilization.