Interview with Design Fabric talking about my illustration practice
Forgive any arbs rambling in there. Many thanks to Rohini Kejriwal!
I no longer have a working link for the article online however my Rohini’s questions and my answers below
Janine Shroff’s figurative and occasionally surreal artworks create a sense of dissonance and intrigue at first glance. Featuring strange mythological creatures and unconventional humans, the London-based, Mumbai-born fine artist creates fantastical scenes using mixed media, acrylic and ballpoint-pens on heavy-weight paper.
Q. How has it been going back to UK after your BA and making it your home (again) ? Is it keeping the creative juices flowing?
I never left the UK after my BA. I did an M.A after that and then managed to scrape by my fingernails into a job and a working visa.
I find creative juices have ebbs and flows. During high stress times like long hours at work or just life admin, those take some toll and I find I’m drawing less. Once I’ve got into a routine (and found a great podcast to listen to) I can usually knuckle down.
Q. Do you consciously try and hold on to your Indian-ness being a member of the diaspora now?
I don’t know about consciously: I haven’t managed to pick up a British accent yet and I’m very happy about that.
I do feel vague, constant guilt about how much Hindi I’ve forgotten (and it was shaky to begin with, but it’s really unlikely I’m going to take up hindi tuitions again.
There are parts of my Indian-ness that can’t be erased by any length away, but there are other parts that I suppose get sealed in amber. A nostalgia can set in, where everything back home gets a soft instagram glow or is an exotic ‘other’ reality.
I am aware of that diaspora cliche, and try not to let it influence everything.
Q. How do you approach each artwork? I’ve seen that you sketch first and then work on it digitally? Does an idea strike you and you develop it or is your creative process more haphazard?
I make notes and either email them to myself (on a long never ending email thread creatively called “Drawing Ideas”)
Half the time I don’t get to create a fraction of the ideas, (some are rubbish) but the ones I keep thinking about or mentally returning to are the ones I start doing a quick small thumbnail sketch for. As I think about each theme I create on-going image reference boards on pinterest that can include both articles or just images. I don’t use all the references but once I start drawing it’s handy to have them ready.
I don’t have an organised approach to construction of the drawing: It isn’t planned in advance. The thumbnail sketch is really just a rough idea, it would look just like a random scribble to anyone else. I use the theme, a general idea for a layout as a base and then work in the details bit by bit. If I had planned entire drawings out in advance the process would become so much more tedious.
For my painting nothing is digital. For some other work where I think there may be edits, I draw, ink it in then scan, and digitally colour. Saptan stories is all on paper including colour
Q. Stemming from that, could you give us a back-story / dissection of a few artworks? My personal curiosity lies in the following pieces:
1. Bucket Bath
I like to take breaks from darker themes and alternate with more abstract, dreamscapes. This is a dreamy, abstract world, with unknown things floating beneath. Pinterest references were essential in this one, for all the deep sea creatures. Bucket baths are a common childhood reference, but there always comes a point when you realise you can’t fit anymore. I want the viewer to decide what it may or may not mean.
2. Lesbians Riding Ponies
A Gaytopia – but even in Gaytopia there are clouds on the horizon.
This was inspired by feeling very isolated from the gay community. Up until a few years ago I had almost no lesbian friends in London and not being much of a ‘scene’ or ‘clubber’ sort of person I found it hard to meet people. Another artist friend (a ‘gateway lesbian’) introduced me to some people and that inspired parts of this drawing. My Little Pony, the gayest toy there is, was part of the inspiration.
3. The Queen
It’s the sister drawing to ‘The Breeders’. Motherhood as both elevated and a prison.
Once a termite queen is fertilised by the male, she will crawl underground to lay eggs and will never see the sunlight again. They swell up to 4-5 times the size of the drone workers and are not really be able to move. If the termites need to flee the nest the queen must be carried by the workers. Her entire body grows and expands, to become this grotesque pulsating birthing machine.
The trap of motherhood has always interested and horrified me. Society is always telling us how valuable, important, natural and essential it is but simultaneously mothers will be discriminated in various ways, from doctors treating them, to employers, to just bearing the burden of the daily drudgery of child rearing. It’s a trap. And once you are trapped there is no escape. Mothers will be both elevated as queens but also chained. I wanted to make this hideen horror visible. I used bright, jewel, almost lurid colours to jar visually in contrast to the subject.
Q. I love how there are often multiple characters doing strange things in your paintings, and the works are so rich and layered. How did you arrive at this style? (I’m particularly interested in the choice of mythology-inspired imagery and the bird faces!)
I arrived at this style by accident and it evolved over several years. I was drawing with biro in school note books before I went to art school and was slowly making them more and more complex, adding more items into each. My MA tutors at college helped shift my drawings from black and white on shitty A4 pieces of note paper into larger scale, on richer paper and in colour. I really resisted this change initially. Habits die hard! But once I dived into bigger scale and vibrant colour I couldn’t go back. I kept the size of my drawings the same, but just extended the paper.
The bird heads started because I was obsessed with Egyptian mythology at one point, and simultaneously was vaguely thinking about femininity, androgendy, gender and detachment. I used the animal headed people to visually represent one or all of these. Over time they’ve gotten abstracted into characters who still play with ideas of gender, detachment and sexuality.
Q. Who are some artists that you are absolutely in love with, and who have been influences in your work?
Past: Comic books, Amar Chitra Katha, Mario de Miranda, MAD magazine, Persian & Mughal miniatures, where is waldo.
My mom also has a lot of indian art around the house, like Tanjore & Mysore paintings, Pattachitra. Botanical drawings in nature books (it would be an entire rainforest scene with about 50 animals and insects painted in and numbered with info about each on the side).
Classic Euro artists: Rembrandt, Gauguin, Van Gogh. so on. Standard set of mostly men. (my parents had a set of 10 art books. All male, all European)
Currently so many: Mu Pan, Heikala, Ness Lee, Sonia Alins, Elsa Moraint, Tara Books, Yuko Shimizu, Noelle Stevenson, Alison Bechdel, Lucy Sparrow felt artist, Liza Lou, Outsider art like Henry Darger, Yashasvi Mathis, Rajniperera, Andrea Heimer. My Kadak contemporaries like Aindri Chakraborty, Garima Gupta, Mira Malhotra, and loads more.
Q. Are you mildly obsessed with baths, and the act of bathing? I’m so curious about its reappearance in your artworks.
This question made me laugh. People at my old job used to constantly ask me why I spent so much time in the loo.
I do enjoy chilling out in the loo, just sitting and thinking. I find an enclosed, locked space very peaceful.
I dislike baths however – I like them as an idea and I enjoy old fashioned claw foot baths as beautiful objects or outdoor lily ponds but in reality I find sitting in a luke warm tub very tedious. I would prefer if our loo had a great power shower.
Q. ‘To be feminine means to be comfortable with discomfort’. The themes of gender, identity, feminism, society and the idea of being besharam come up repeatedly in your body of work. Is art a means of activism for you as well?
Art is a way of communication for me. So anything I think about will translate into visual work. I have a lot of rage, and short of yelling about it in all caps on facebook I find it more productive to visualise it. I think it may be more personal than activist. Some things just happen to coincide. My sketch book is more random and playful. I’m really enjoying taking the sketch book on holiday and drawing from life.
Q. Do you consciously steer your work towards these themes, or is it inherently your style?
It’s my deep, dark, secret fantasy to draw beautiful pretty pictures with no particular meaning and paint in soft delicious watercolours like Heikala or Studio Ghibli, but while I can do this sometimes, it doesn’t come as naturally or easily. It’s a little like Jack the Pumpkin king trying to take over Christmas. Everything he touches just turns into Halloween. That’s the best explanation I have for it.
Q. I’m sure that being a part of Kadak has also shaped you as an artist and woman. Could you tell me a little about the collaborative element and how being a part of a feminist collective has moulded your work? What’s the latest Kadak project that’s keeping you busy?
Collaborating with others is a fear I’ve always had. It combines 2 things I like least: Admin/organisation and people skills and mashes them up. Kadak on the other hand, has been great that way, really democratic, really thoughtful and organisation largely online. we can choose to opt in or out of projects, depending on our current work. Right now I’m working on a very small abstract visual piece for Gender Bender on breasts.
Q. I loved your illustrated essay ‘Everything Drag’ for Gender Bender ’16 and how you’ve incorporated interesting cultural references. How did the narrative come about? How’s the 2018 submission on breasts coming along?
Most of my work tends to be personal rather than journalistic, so for the first Gender Bender when we got the subject, I knew I wanted to do something on being a person that presents sort of feminine but isn’t really, and how that confuses people. I had also noticed on social media that when you post a picture clearly presenting as more feminine (more so than usual, glam hair, looking girly etc) or if you are gay as more butch presenting, you will get a load more positive reactions. People like to see that 2 sided binary. Uber girly or masculine. I wanted to explore that, and how it’s a little like wearing a costume.
Breasts will be quite different: While I’ve researched, am following so many breast related contemporary issues (Breast feeding in public, nipple bans for women, consumer cultures obsession with them, porn vs utility) I didn’t want it to be researched or written. I want to explore more abstract feelings of revulsion I’ve had about breasts (only my own).
Q. It’s obviously taken a lot of dedication, time and practice to have become the artist that you are. What’s the biggest challenge being an artist, and what’s the most rewarding part of it?
The most challenging is making and carving out time. I find it difficult to focus sometimes when I come home from work, or when other life admin gets in the way.
Other challenges are: Not procrastinating; I want each thing I make to have some thought in it; challenging myself to draw differently; draw faster and more efficiently; try different mediums. I used to think my style was tied to the medium I used (ball pen) but I’ve finally shaken that off and am experimenting with various. It’s been fun painting more and using biro less.
The rewarding part is finishing a drawing, looking at it and feeling a sense of satisfaction. Sure some things could be better, but this turned out ok. It’s really satisfying when you don’t think it’ll turn out well but it does in the end.
Q. How’s 2018 looking for you? Any shows coming up after Otherlands?
2016-2018 has been full of lots of change and loads of life admin. I bought a house with my partner and recently quit my design day job of 9 years. I’d like to do another show soon but I feel like the last few years really took large chunks of my creative time away. I want to just make more work first, then have a show maybe next year. I’ll need to hunt for a new job shortly, so let’s see how that goes first. I’ve been meaning to do a show in London for ages, but time & money have been prohibitive.