Mithu Sen (b.1971)
A contemporary Indian artist who works across mediums and disciplines, Mithu Sen is known for a practice that challenges existing structures of social, artistic and linguistic discourse. Using a wide range of techniques and mediums, including drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, photography, film and writing, much of her ouevre is characterised by a penchant for performance and various forms of intervention. The ideas of home and hospitality, language and convention as well as Sen’s own identity as a female South Asian artist have formed some of her ongoing concerns as an artist. While her work may be placed at the intersection of second wave and postcolonial feminism, Sen continually resists the frameworks of labels and genres in her work, aiming to question and contradict the premises even of her own work. This has led her to often avoid declaring her projects complete, and many of them remain ongoing for years. Sen uses humour and irreverence in exploring language, gender, sexuality, tradition and censorship, while attempting to destabilise academic and capitalist ideas about art. She is also a prolific poet with several published collections of Bengali poetry.
Born in Burdwan, West Bengal, Sen was drawn to athletics as well as literature in her childhood, the latter perhaps owing to the influence of her mother, a poet herself. She studied painting at Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan, receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees there in 1995 and 1997 respectively. It was here that she met Samit Das, an artist she would later marry. She then moved to New Delhi to pursue a career as an artist. In 2001, she joined a postgraduate programme at the Glasgow School of Art after securing the Charles Wallace India Trust Award. Sen continued to write poetry throughout her education, and her published works include the volumes Basmati Sarir Bagan Ba Gaan 1995–2005 (‘Basmati Body Garden or Song 1995–2005’) (2007) and Ma Jai Boluk (‘Whatever Mother Might Say’) (1998). Often performing on the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1990s, Sen ceased this practice after moving to New Delhi in 1997. In the early 2000s, she worked across mediums to avoid being pigeonholed by the art market.
In 2006, as the Bose Pacia Artist in Residence in New York she produced one of her most notable works, It’s Good to Be Queen, a site-specific installation in which she turned her living quarters into a physical gallery space. It was filled with displays of Polaroid photographs showing her visitors through the year; clothes-hangers suspended with drawings; and artworks containing human hair, both metaphorical and physical. The work represented Sen’s conceptual exploration of the ideas of home and hospitality, which recur across her oeuvre — particularly in her framing of ‘radical hospitality’ in which she unravels the dynamics of power and convention that play out between a guest and their host.
After her work gained popularity during the art boom in India in the mid-2000s, Sen began an ongoing interactive project titled Freemithu (2007–). As part of this project, Sen offered a tangible artwork of hers as a gift to anyone who would write her a letter articulating what her work meant for them. Begun as a means to bridge the gap between the high market prices of her work and the purchasing power of the people dear to her, the project functions as an attempt to subvert mainstream capitalist practices in the art world while reflecting on goodwill in reciprocal relationships. She displayed the letters and items she received as part of this project in an exhibition at KHOJ International Artists’ Association, New Delhi in 2009. In 2010, she created Black Candy (iforgotmypenisathome), an installation comprising drawings and accompanying sounds that explore the male body and psyche, and patriarchy, while playing with the interaction of sound and image. Her work often dissects language, as seen in her Unbelonging series, based on association webs between words prefixed with ‘un-’, such as ‘unbody’, ‘uncommunication’ and ‘unmiss’, in order to destabilise the meanings traditionally attributed to these words. She explored this theme further in her 2018 exhibition titled UnMYthU at Chemould Prescott Road, staging impromptu performances to accompany the visual collection.
In the project Museum of Unbelongings (MOU) (2011–18), exhibited in various places over years, Sen displayed numerous items made or collected over her lifetime inside a large glass case. The selection of displayed objects changed from one exhibition to the next in order to show the vastness and dynamic nature of personal memory, and the project reflects on the value of an individual’s memory and what is deemed significant enough to be preserved as a culture’s collective memory in a museum. In 2023, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, in collaboration with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, hosted mOTHERTONGUE, an exhibition of Sen’s work over the past two decades, also including some new work. The exhibition took the form of a mind map in the gallery space, with paintings, sculptures, films and mixed-media works from across Sen’s career interspersed with new installations. The interconnected display showcased her concerns around identity, language, mythmaking, politics, feminism, economics, body and tradition.
The unconventionality of Sen’s works has been the subject of attention and debate throughout her career, owing partly to the fact that her works are often performative interventions in real scenarios with unsuspecting participants or audiences. She returned to the theme of ‘radical hospitality’ with an intervention called Lunch Is Cancelled (2019), performed at an exclusive lunch banquet of the Shalini Passi Art Foundation, hosted in the garden of Passi’s home. As guests looked on, Sen appeared with a placard announcing ‘Lunch Is Cancelled’, accompanied by a marching band and a team of servers who seated themselves at the table and attempted to eat. This was made difficult by the fact that they, as well as Sen herself, had veterinary cones fitted around their necks; meanwhile, the host’s dog was taken around the garden in a baby stroller dressed in an opulent heirloom necklace. Many of her performances involve her speaking in gibberish, an attempt to explore the limits of language and the unquestioned conventions associated with it. For her film I Have Only One Language; It Is Not Mine (2014), she spent time interacting with girls at a government-run orphanage but chose not to use any of the languages they spoke, in an attempt to explore the possibility of pre-lingual communication with them. She further explored themes of access and unintelligibility surrounding language in I am from there. I am from here (2023), her work for the Sharjah Biennial 15 — this time working with the form of written language. The work comprised forms created using natural and artificial hair, which depicted various emojis as well as what appeared to be Arabic letterforms but were in fact invented shapes. At London, Asia, Art, Worlds (2021), an online event, Sen’s presentation Be Beyond Being was in the form of eight videos that interrupted ongoing sessions without providing a disclaimer to the speakers or the audience.
Sen’s works have been widely exhibited in India and abroad. At the time of writing, she lives and works in New Delhi.
Aristarkhova, Irina. Arrested Welcome: Hospitality in Contemporary Art. London: University of Minnesota Press, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctv1220r8x.8.
Chemould Prescott Road. “UnMYthU.” Accessed October 20, 2023. https://www.gallerychemould.com/exhibitions/34-unmythu-mithu-sen/.
Deepak, Sukant. “A Brief History of Possession with Mithu Sen.” IANSlife, March 2020.
Dhar, Jyoti. “Mithu Sen: Poetry, Beauty and Androgyny.” ArtAsiaPacific 95, no. 4 (September 2015): 110-21. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/INFORMIT.557670327202399.
Ghoshal, Somak. “The Un-Making of Mithu Sen.” Mint, February 23, 2018. Accessed October 20, 2023. https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/FA36mHz7DS4ZELo6SFugXP/The-unmaking-of-Mithu-Sen.html.
KHOJ. “Free Mithu – By Mithu Sen.” Accessed October 20, 2023. https://khojstudios.org/event/free-mithu-by-mithu-sen/.
Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. “Mithu Sen: mOTHERTONGUE.” Accessed October 20, 2023. https://www.knma.in/mithu-sen-mothertongue.
Nair, Uma. “Mithu Sen’s Museum of Memories.” Times of India, July 20, 2016. Accessed October 25, 2023. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/plumage/mithu-sens-museum-of-memories/.
Paul Mellon Centre. “Be Beyond Being.” Accessed October 25, 2023. https://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk/research/be-beyond-being.
Saffronart. “Mithu Sen.” Accessed August 31, 2021. https://www.saffronart.com/artists/mithu-sen.
Sen, Mithu. 2007. “Freemithu (2007–∞).” Artist’s website. Accessed August 31, 2021. https://mithusen.com/projects/freemithu-2007-ongoing/.