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Nature Shankar, Artist

Venue: Artist’s studio, Bukit Merah

I visit artist Nature Shankar as work intensifies for her in the run-up toward her shows in 2020. At her new studio in Bukit Merah, we chat about her fashion and art practice.

Moda accompanies Nature when she wants to stay in the studio till late, a guard against the supernatural.

Tell us about your outfit — it feels very you.

I’m wearing a Zara top. I’ve always liked transparent, translucent stuff, which makes sense alongside my work, which has always been about investigating the layers of intimacy and vulnerability.

My bottoms are Levis – I think 90% of the time my bottoms are Levis. My boots are from Zara as well, I enjoy the cut of their boots a lot. I’m in boots 90% of the time, if not all the time. I want to be comfortable since I spend most of my time here in the studio, hence this combo.

I was thinking of wearing something else actually – a pair of leopard print dungarees over a button-up inside, also in animal print. But I just wasn’t feeling it.

Your style sounds really varied. Has it changed a lot over time?

It’s super mood-based.

I had this period where my whole closet was just jumpsuits. I thought, let’s get eight jumpsuits and wear the same thing every day like Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. That didn’t work out; I changed my mind.

I’m getting more daring with prints. And I used to only wear sneakers and shorts, which I think came with a lot of standard insecurities. Now I wear boots (all the time!), jeans, and pants.

My fashion is more ethical now as well; I buy a lot from overseas thrift stores and artist stores. Which is why I feel guilty that I like Zara (the only place I buy my boots from) and Mango. But there are still places I avoid completely, like Fashion Nova.

Overall, I think my style is muted loud. It’s a middle area, a grey area, which is a theme in my work. I want to have the best of both worlds.

So this applies across most things for you.

Yes, right down to my DNA. (Laughs.)

This grey area was central to your earlier works-? 

Those works were about casual racism, which stems from me being Chinese-Indian. From there it progressed into calling out loved ones.

My focus now is on yearning. After yearning to know my identity, I’m asking: now that we know these things, what are we doing? I realised that I’m yearning for a sign, an explanation for discrimination, be it racism, sexism, or xenophobia in general.

I used to want to find the truth, to have everything in its raw form, but I’m exhausted. Why am I spending my life figuring out why someone is racist? I don’t have the time, and it puts me in a rut. I want to move on from being paralysed by xenophobic encounters.

Somewhere Along The Lines, 2017: an early work by Nature about casual racism.

A glimpse of Nature’s work-in-progress, titled Questions in Progress.

You’ve got a lot more space to make works now, in this new studio.

Yes, I needed a lot more space, because I’ve three shows planned for 2020, and two of them are happening at the same time, in February. One will be with Studio Batur as part of a residency in Bandung, and another will be in Telok Ayer Arts Club.

Plus, I make big work, usually about 1.2 to 1.85 metres, and the sari cloth I work with is 6 metres long. You just run out of space. I also want to work more with resin to harden my cloth. I can’t ruin my living room.

Nature feeding Moda in a corner of her studio.

There’s a degree of overlap between fashion and your work, in the medium of fabric. What is it about fabric that speaks to you?

There’s comfort in fabric. I used to paint, but it felt like there was a gap between me and the work. There was no intimacy, no rite of passage. But for embroidery, you have to go through the motions and halfway kill yourself to get there. Of course, many painters do the same thing, but it just wasn’t for me.

I also don’t like machine-sewing. It’s an even bigger gap because there’s this huge chunk between you and the work. You can’t see it completely. If I don’t have the manual labour part, in the form of being as close to the artwork as I can, then I don’t feel for it.

Finally, what’s next for you?

My old plan was to apply for residencies. My new plan is to fully make use of this space and create works following this shift in direction. Previously, everything was just one thing after another, so I got stuck doing a certain kind of art. Now I want to give myself time to fully grow. That’s the thing about embroidery as well — it’s slow.

Nature Shankar and Moda examining Nature’s work.

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Nature’s work is currently showing at Making Sense of a Tiger Attack (ongoing until 28 February)presented by The Dung Beetle Project & The Right Belief in collaboration with Studio Batur and C.on.temporary in Bandung, Indonesia.