The Woman with the Warm Smile

Alka Pande


The woman with a warm smile, who walked into my office at India Habitat Centre, in March 2009, was on her way to a residency in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. She had dropped in to make a more detailed appointment for a public showing of her work. Sure enough, with the precision of a Swiss clock, Nesa Gschwend was back six months later. She displayed the artwork, which had evolved during her residency, at the Experimental Art Gallery. At first glance, „Red Strings Through My Hands“ seemed more like a textile installation on sufficed red colour. On closer quarters, it resounded Nesa’s very personal and touching observations of and enquiries into her immediate environment in Varanasi.


In Varanasi, Nesa befriended a woman Sadhu. Without knowing their languages, they struck a beautiful friendship. Friendship built trust; the Sadhvi embraced Nesa, and allowed her into her world. Nesa captured some of those precious moments on film. Fascinated by saris and the colour red, Nesa set out to buy worn saris from different places. Soon the word spread, and Nesa was flooded with red saris, which she then tore and wove into meters and meters of a long thick rope.


The city of Varanasi—a religious, spiritual and cultural haven—is interspersed with rich refineries of Indian tradition. In pre-modern India it was accepted that if any being wished for Moksha—ultimate release from the human body and the cycle of re-birth—you went to Varanasi to die. It was also where widows found a place, which would embrace them. Varanasi is home to some of the finest weaving traditions of the country, particularly for saris. When tracing the history of colour red in the Indian context, one cannot remain unaware of its synonymy with the nuptial bonding. The marital status of any Indian woman lies in its continuity link of the colour red, be it in the form of wedding attire, in the practice of applying vermilion, wearing red bangles, or by adorning the forehead with a red Bindi, the Third Eye in the Indian tradition.


The long snake-like sari rope was worn by Nesa around her neck as a garment, and then she had herself filmed while she stood motionless for hours in the midst of a busy intersection. The sari in the shape of a long Mala worn by Nesa, transcends from being just a mere piece of cloth to a motif of building and support. The meaning of Mala—a round neckpiece—can be deconstructed at multiple levels: Its circular shape encapsulating the essence of the Brahma–Anadi–Antha (no beginning – no end), points to the larger cosmic purpose it serves. In the Indian philosophy, the Chakra—or rotating wheel of time, also in circular shape— symbolizes the cyclic movement of the cosmos, similar to the Mala necklace.


From 2009 to 2011 Nesa had been busy travelling, exhibiting and working like a solitary reappear in her studio, creating thoughtful works. In October 2011, Nesa returned to Delhi, this time with a larger body of work. „knotted threads“ brought alive the withe cube of the much larger at Visual Arts Gallery in the India Habitat Centre. The exhibition consisted of three video projections, of textile installations and photo montages.


Salvador da Bahia in Brazil, Zurich in Switzerland and Varanasi in India became the site of production and representation of „knotted threads“. In her singular thoughtful trajectory, she interrogated the three distinct geographies through specific cultural signifier. In Varanasi video was the continuity link from 2009 showing. The public address system captured the two distinct voices of the Hindu/Muslim community of the primarily Hindu city. In Zurich however the public address system became the engine of communication providing information for passersby about the train timings. In Salvador da Bahia the public address system belted out political propaganda of the political candidate Leonelli. The saree worn like a ‘mala’ around her neck became the common leitmotif, connecting the three cities visually.


Nesa explored the idea of the ‘internal’ and ‘external’. The idea to connect the three different cities through the ‘human’—her own presence—contextualised her work practice as a contemporary artist who, in today’s world, can easily traverse three continents. This crosscultural dialogue with ‘different’ geopolitical exchanges is a recurring leitmotif of Nesa’s work. In its natural unfolding, knotted threads gained a distinct voice.


Very different to the video installations the large textile scroll like panels reflected Nesa’s absorption of the human with the environment. Like Indian tradition of sculpture making the shilpishastra, in the hands of Nesa the faces immortalize the memory of the people whom she met along her journey of creations and recreations.


Cut outs of her own cupped hands act like ‘jaalis’ or friezes from Indian medieval architecture, resonated with Nesa’s personal belief in the validation of the human spirit. Deep conviction and integrity to the craft, Nesa’s preoccupation with issues of feminism and gender in Varanasi, the human condition in Zurich and the politics of representation in Salvador evolving narrative, defines and underlines her work.


With knotted threads, Nesa Gschwend has tied a strong, lasting knot between two cultures. I look forward to her next project, in which she again intends to weave art into social engagement, and spirit into body.