A Chimera in Heels: The Unheimlich in Bharti Kher’s Mother and Child

May 14, 2018

Bharti Kher: Movements is a tool designed by DHC/ART Education to encourage visitors to develop and elaborate on some key concepts of the exhibition Bharti Kher: Points de départ, points qui lient.

Considerations: Unheimlich

Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained hidden and secret and has become visible.” [1]
– Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling

In The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud discusses the unheimlich as a revelation of that which is usually private and concealed. [2] It is apart from us and makes us potentially nervous, anxious, or even frightened. The unheimlich makes us uncomfortable in its eeriness, and is literally the opposite of heimlich, which can be translated as “home.”

An immediate feeling of unease is aroused upon first viewing Bharti Kher’s Mother and Child (2014). The main character in this work can be interpreted as the central mother figure. The mannequin, with coiffed hair and sky-blue eye shadow extending to the eyebrows, flaunts a decorticated body. One of her breasts is severed and displaced, summoning the imagery of a modern-day Saint Agatha of Sicily. But here, rather than being displayed on a platter, the detached breast is placed at the centre of the child’s back—the connotation of breast and maternity as linked to consumption blatantly clear. The mannequin’s body is left lopsided, with a gaping circle as a trace or a scar, like a slice of ruby red grapefruit. Where a naked leg once stood to support the weight of her body is a void, ending with a feminine black pump. Our eye is drawn to the empty space as the child raises a stick in a way that suggests he is about to strike. She reaches out to pat him on the head (lovingly?) with her right hand as she stares vacantly to the wall just above and behind him. Broken, incomplete, disfigured, the mannequin’s high-heeled shoes and up-do pale in comparison to her crumbling body.

The child is a crudely assembled wooden sculpture that leaves proportion and grace behind, and that contrasts with the once smooth plasticity of the mannequin mother, even though her finish is currently chipping and nicked. On the other side of the central figure, sandwiching her in, emerges a second female figure, a doppelgänger that is stark black. She is a shadow of the main figure but this time more intact, and her hand penetrates the mannequin through a hole in her back. The hole in the doppelgänger’s own back is sealed off with a bundle of fur that she wears like a protective backpack. What does this alter ego represent? The shadow and the boy, two extensions of the mannequin mother—the original heimlich of the work—are no longer a part of the main figure, no longer one, no longer home. They are outside of their original self. The mannequin mother, in turn, has become a broken shell of her old self by giving birth to two beings: a child and a mother. These three forms, a chimera of sorts, constitute what was, what is now, and what will be. Is this an omen of what else is to come? Or is it a revelation of suppressed emotions, exposing that which was to remain concealed but is here brought to the spotlight?

Kher describes an encounter between herself and her son when he saw this work. His first remark was, “It’s a bit violent, isn’t it?” to which she responded, “It’s not really about you and me; it’s about the boys that we are making; these boys that we have, as women, created in this culture in the past 30 or 40 years… Why have we created these monsters, who are they?” [3] The artist mentions that this work was created following a horrendous gang rape that took place in New Delhi in 2012. [4] How do you interpret the above statement by Kher after having viewed Mother and Child (2014), and with the knowledge of the violent act that preceded the work?

The idea behind the doppelgänger is that it resembles a living person, but often represents something that is not acceptable to the individual in the real world, that is suppressed, and that is only attainable in wishes or dreams. How can the mannequin’s shadow be thought of as its doppelgänger?

Amanda Beattie
DHC/ART Education

[1] SCHELLING, F. W. J. (2007 [1835]). Historical-critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology. Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 3-4.
[2] FREUD, Sigmund (1999 [1919]). “The ‘Uncanny’.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. New York: Vintage, pp. 217-256.
[3] NARAYAN, Manjula (2015), “Two of India’s most interesting artists show medium is not the message.” Hindustan Times, Art and Culture section (February 8 edition). Online. https://www.hindustantimes.com/art-and-culture/two-of-india-s-most-interesting-artists-show-medium-is-not-the-message/story-QRmeNloqGdVw5lvYSwvudO.html. Consulted April 3, 2018.
[4] BARRY, Ellen (2017). “In Rare Move, Death Sentence in Delhi Gang Rape Case Is Upheld.” The New York Times, Asia Paci c, May 5 edition. Online. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/05/world/asia/death-sentence-delhi-gang-rape.html. Consulted April 3, 2018.

Photo credit: Bharti Kher, Mother and Child, 2014.

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