Rithika Merchant seems to be the name on everyone’s lips and instagram feeds this past Mumbai Gallery Week. Known for her gouache on paper and embroidery works, Merchant highlights contemporary socio-political issues through her practice. In 2018 she took the art and fashion world by storm with her collaboration with French fashion house Chloé. I was fortunate to speak with her over Zoom, while Merchant was in Barcelona, where she currently resides part-time with her husband, she spends the rest of her time in Mumbai.
1. This is the first question I asked in all my interviews: what led you to pursue a career in art?
I grew up in Bombay. I had always been an artistic child, but I started thinking more seriously about a career in the arts when I had to choose electives in high school and I chose art as an elective. After that I went to Parsons for fine arts. I have always been lucky because my parents were always supportive.
At Parsons we had a class called ‘professional practice’, which was a very formative class. Back then it wasn’t something that was so widely taught. We learnt a lot about the logistics of being an artists:how to make an invoice, consignments and contracts. One of the assignments was to apply for an artist residency. I got into a residency in Portugal, so after I graduated that’s where I went. From there I went to Lisbon where I met my husband who is Belgian, and that’s how I ended up living in Barcelona. I’m also lucky because I ended up living in somewhat cheaper cities, so I have been able to focus on my art practice full-time, I didn’t need to have another full-time job. When I lived in Lisbon and Barcelona it was pre-gentrification. Of course in the early days I lived in a studio apartment very frugally, because I wanted to do art full-time.
2. Was Tarq the first gallery you signed with?
Kind of, I graduated in 2008 and around 2010 I realised that I need to show a bit. I reached out to a friend who at the time worked at Saffron Art, his name is Nishad. I had emailed galleries but it had been difficult. He gave me a couple of email addresses and wrote a few introductory emails for me. In 2011 and 2013 I ended up doing 2 shows with Gallery Art and Soul.
At this time Tarq didn’t exist. Hena came to the 2013 show. Hena and I actually went to school together but not in the same classes so we weren’t close friends but we sort of knew each other. At this show she told me she thought my work was a good fit for what she had in mind, we started working together then. And now it’s been almost 6 years since we have been working together.
3. It’s like you both started your careers almost with each other
We did, we’ve definitely been on this journey together. She has seen me through so many different paths of my career and projects. Its definitely a good partnership.
4. And you’re also represented by Galerie LJ in France.
Yes that’s a new partnership. They reached out to me after my partnership with Chloé. I have been working with them since 2018. Adelaide is another lady with whom I have an amazing partnership. I’ve gotten lucky with these two galleries. I’ve definitely had some learning experiences, where I have worked with galleries and it’s not been the best fit. Nothing really terrible has happened to me, because I have had the awareness to read contracts and do the homework, but of course even through all of that you will come to positions where you don’t know the person well enough or you don’t have the same vision for your works.
5. So how did you collaboration with Chloé come about?
Since it was Natasha’s first collection as creative director, she wanted to do an homage to the collections before hers. She saw that Karl Largerfeld had done a line of painted dresses in 60s or 70s when he worked with Chloé. As part of the homage to the painted dresses she wanted to work with an artist.
Chloé just found me on the internet, I don’t know if it was instagram or Pinterest, but they came across my work. First they googled me, and then they sent me an email.
6. What was your reaction?
Well when I first got the email I was like “is this for real?” It was so out of the blue, then I started emailing with them, and I quickly found out it was for real. I was so excited, because I had never worked with a fashion house and this was a huge fashion house. And when I spoke with Natasha I found we worked together really well. I’m really happy with the finished product.
7.Would you say that fashion influences your work after this experience or even before was that something that you felt was an influence?
Prior to this fashion was never really on my radar. Now I wouldn’t say it really influences my work, but it gave me an opportunity to see my work three dimensionally. It opened so many doors for me, because suddenly my work became so much more visible to so many more people. In terms of things I learnt during that time and some of the works I developed during the collaboration, you can definitely see that in my work now.
8. Do you have a favourite work of yours either from that collaboration or any other series?
From a recent show that I did at Galerie LJ there’s a painting called ‘Infinite Portals’ There’s also a half collage half painting called ‘Altar II’, which is also a work I really like, it’s very meaningful to me. It has a lot of art deco elements. That work is also about my feelings about home.
11. Was your current exhibition with Tarq, ‘Birth of a New World’ inspired by COVID?
It’s more about climate change and the effects of that on the planet, and then COVID just sort of happened when I was working on this show. I actually got trapped in India for three months, so some of the works were made during lockdown in India, and the rest were made here.
The work changed a bit when COVID happened. The paper cuts that I worked on for the show kind of came to be because I was stuck in Bombay with no art material. I had all this paper that I was sent so I began working on paper cuts.
12. And your previous series, ‘Where the water takes us’, had a lot to do with the refugee crisis, so is your work very inspired by current affairs? Do you feel like your practice is your way to spread awareness about contemporary social and political issues?
Kind of, but a lot of it is about me reacting to what’s going on around me. These are the biggest things of our generation. A big part of art is bringing meaning to these really dark things that we experience in life. To me my art is a way of reconciling with these issues. Bringing awareness is definitely the secondary part of it.
13. I have a few questions that I ask everyone who I interview. The first is do you have a favourite work in general?
One of my favourite works is ‘Saturn devouring his son’ by Goya. It’s such a weird dark piece that says so much about the time then and the time now. At the time it was a reference to what was going on in Spain and now it’s relevant all these years later.
I also like this painting which is cutout by Leonora Carrington, I think it’s called ‘Fina Mosca’. It’s a purple cutout of a moth, which is perfectly surrealistic. It sort of does something to me.
14. Do you have a favourite colour?
So my recent favourite colour that I’ve been using a lot is ‘Paynes Grey’. It’s the colour that you see when you look at paintings and they draw mountains that are far away and they’re blue-ish/grey, it’s that grey. It has a lot of potential, you can layer it really well. I’m obsessed with it.
15. And lastly, what is one word you would use to describe your practice.
Thoughtful or considered.
View Merchant’s latest exhibition at Tarq through its viewing room by clicking here.