The Plastic Warrior in Doha
From working as an engineer with the global leader in digital services to creating art and then finally discovering a passion for moulding shapes and adding textures out of the most mundane, everyday used and thrown household plastics, Doha-based Swapna Namboodiri has come a long way in her journey seeking innovation in art. SCALE follows her journey as she creates masterpieces out of waste, and makes a name for herself, worldwide.
Two months ago at the ‘Art and Environment Exhibition’ – Barouq at Zekreet organised by Al Hosh Gallery set in natural desert surroundings, one art form caught particular attention. It was a desert flower called Qatar Blossom that seemed to thrive in the natural sunlight, its bright shades glinting in beauty, more real than any other installation around. On close examination, the flower was made with used plastic bottles, a reminder of the use and throw nature of plastics. But cleverly, and quite artistically, the artist had reused plastic water bottles to create a thing of beauty. And in the desert setting with numerous large-scale installations around, this work of a Doha-resident took all the glory. Made to the theme of “Environment and art”, here was a craft of intelligence with its waste to beauty premise. This was the work of Swapna Namboodiri, who stood endearingly demure near her art, with a small smile and a bounty of pride.
We sit down with this passionate plastic artist to take us through her journey of discovery of various art forms to arrive at plastics which she has now adopted as her signature material of art.
Swapna Namboodiri had always wanted to be more than a “struggling artist”, and that could be the reason why she embarked on a career in software engineering even with her obvious talent in the creative field. She was equally invested at her workplace in Infosys, but after her child was born, the artist in her seemed to rear its head back up, and she started feeling less enthusiastic working in mundane SAP programmes. “I did not enjoy that phase as much as I should have,” she says.
Then started her organic transition to being a complete art professional. From attending small art fairs, to weekend art markets that encouraged handmade and homegrown, the artist in her started finding new venues to make her art enjoyable for others as well as lucrative and productive for herself.
“It was these visits to the art fairs that made me realise that there is a commercial aspect to art that can be explored. But the concept of a struggling artist was equally prevalent which made me doubt my intentions of pursuing art without the support of a day job. Having my daughter, and the turn of domestic events pushed us to take a decision to choose art,” she says.
Apart from weekend art events and workshops, Swapna explored online avenues that sold art and started familiarising herself with trends, art innovations, packaging, all of which helped her art being seen and sought after.
“I was very comfortable working on computers, and that made the process of online platforms much easier for me. I also started early, at a time when art buying was not as popular on online markets, which gave me time to study the audience and make art accordingly,” says the now-veteran art creator.
“For me, the challenges were in making my art relevant, of improving and adding layers and textures and choosing my mediums to make the entire process rewarding in all aspects. I believe making your art a successful business venture is a challenge by itself and should be followed with passion,” she opinions.
She started with Craftsvilla, which was then amongst the first online crafts and art commerce platform, with glass paintings. She later started selling her art on Etsy, another online arts platform.
“I sold my first two set of paintings in Craftsvilla which came as a big surprise for us. The first order taught me the process of packaging, and gave me an immense sense of confidence. This encouraged me to continue my work in various mediums. From plexiglass to plastics, I explored various mediums,” she says.
When her family moved to Doha in 2014, she actively pursued her art career with fresh gusto.
“My research within Saatchi and Art finder galleries paved way for my work in plastics. These galleries played a major role in my learning curve,” reveals the artist, “I learnt to overlook my inhibitions and explore the medium.”
During this time Namboodiri also networked with Doha-based artist groups and sold her Doha-themed artworks which were very popular. She used this time to invest in educating herself, understanding her preferences, cultivating her passion for textures, and then finally discovering her love to create beautiful artforms through discarded materials.
“Even though I did all this as a study process, I started uploading my first, complete work on plastics on Art finder. My first one was a miniature set of paintings called Freshwater Pearls. In 2015, the first set of three paintings were sold, and it was a moment of revelation. It was a huge confidence booster that set me on my path as a plastics sculptor. I had finally found my medium and working on it gave me joy and satisfaction that was much less,” she says, “I call myself a self-taught artist and these sold works were the validation that I needed, to continue this path. Though I did sell a few pieces in 2015, it was only by 2017 that I carved a niche for myself.”
But it was during the Covid lockdown that Swapna invested her time to learn more about her work. She started creating stories around her work and started working in batches, uploading her work systematically. A feature in 2018 by Art Finder as the best artist of the month made sure that Swapna was noted by the art fraternity. She also participated in international art fairs like the Tokyo Art Fair and the Amsterdam Art Fair and even sold her work here claiming her position as an artist of calibre: “These international art fairs were a learning curve that gave me lessons on how to curate and exhibit my work and to respect my artform and give it due importance.”
Slowly but surely, Swapna started to be noticed in the Doha-art scene as well, as a plastic sculpture, whose creations looked vividly stunning and was not restricted in innovation or beauty that we would imagine constrains a reused plastic material. What we saw as an impediment, Swapna saw as a challenge as she cut and shaped the most mundane materials to create things of beauty.
In the year 2018, Swapna had a solo exhibition at the Katara Art Centre which pushed her into the mainstream Doha-art scene and she also sold quite a few of her works at the exhibition. Soon after Covid struck and though it was a setback for art exhibitions in real time, for online art galleries there was no lull; artworks were being created and sold. During this time, Swapna’s work started being used by Doha-based projects for installations which sparked a new creative vibe in the artist.
“For the opening event of Cutting Studio, in M7, a plastic jungle from 1000 single use plastic bottles called Fool’s Paradise was created and it caught the attention of a lot of art enthusiasts for the thick foliage of green plastics,” says Swapna whose entry into installations came with this large-scale forest of plastics
This is the form of art that excites Swapna currently, who has created numerous such installations; Re-Live Tree with a live tree using 100s of discarded single use plastic bags exhibited at the Education Above All pavilion at the FIFA fan festival zone, the Majestic Flying Falcon finished recently using plastic shell pellets, where she has outdone herself, creating a falcon with the gun pellets, Eden Bloom for the Qatar Museums booth at Agriteq 2022 and so on.
“Installations connect with a large number of people and with a story to boost, it becomes even more impactful,” says Swapna who is raring to make stories with plastics and to remove the “polluter” tag from these materials by giving them a longer purpose than intended.
Swapna has come a long way in her quest of proving that a creative artist need not be a “struggling artist” but what makes her relevant in today’s world of shifting interests is her passion to keep innovating, and finding new textures, and ideas to give the chosen medium a new layer of sheen and more lasting functions. Keep an eye on her social media handles because she is at the threshold of creating a new brand of wearable plastics and we are already in love with it!
Images Courtesy the artist.