Ceramicist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran Is All About Subversion

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran in his Sydney studio

There’s no pigeonholing this genredefying artist, whose subversive works are imprinted with history, religion, politics and wit.

“The interesting thing about contemporary art is that it’s medium neutral,” says Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, who’s best known for his vibrant ceramic idols. His work often pushes against its medium and the lens it’s exhibited through. “I never see the paintings as paintings or the ceramics as ceramics – I just see them as artworks,” he says. “I’m thinking about the way those materials exist historically but also now in open and global terms. A lot of art is framed in a monocultural way and I’m not interested in that.”

Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and raised in Australia, Nithiyendran works with a razor wit and vitality, his fluid process moving between drawing, painting, concrete, bronze, neon, fibreglass and installations, as well as the craft that put him on the map: ceramics. The intellectual interests that drive his art are just as diverse, stepping through world histories, religion and idolatry, gender, race, politics and the self. “There are lots of narratives around subversion, breaking tradition and disobedience that are embedded into my work,” he says. “People often have a very narrow view of ceramics but it’s actually the history of human civilisation… We’ve been making sculptural work out of ceramics since we’ve been able to use our hands.”

Viewers may assume the masked deities and figures Nithiyendran forges from paint, ink and clay are autobiographical but the personal is instead found in traces of the maker: thumbprints, dripping glaze, scratches and unfinished surfaces. “Most of my ceramic work and even my painting and drawing have an autographic element. There’s a stylistic element where you can see evidence of the hand and the handmade process. And that’s a conscious decision for me.”

Multi-limbed Guardian

Exhibited at:

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney; HOTA, Surfers Paradise; Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh; Art Basel Hong Kong; Dark Mofo, Hobart.

What the experts say:

“Ramesh has produced an extraordinary body of major sculptural works that are exceptionally exciting. His work evokes the energy and reverence of ‘the deity’ while embodying the playfulness of a storybook action hero.” Kirsten Paisley, director of Auckland Art Gallery

Breakthrough moment:

Mud Men solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in 2016. “It was the first time I’d made monumental ceramic or mixed media sculptures. At the time, it felt so surreal that I was 26 and having a solo exhibition in Canberra, in this building that houses artworks I studied in high school.”

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Image credit: Jessica Maurer, Mark Pokorny

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