2 December 2023

Born of Earth
and Fire

Ashwini Bhat explores the elemental
relationship between earth and fire


by Kate Mothes

When Ashwini Bhat first visited the U.S. from her small, rural hometown in southern India in 2012, she knew only two people in the country. Three years later, she migrated on an artistic merit visa, and in 2017, she was ready to set down roots in Petaluma, Sonoma County, California. In October of that year, the catastrophic Tubbs Fire swept through neighboring Santa Rosa, burning much of it to the ground. “While it was terrifying, I was deeply moved by the way the community came together to help one another,” the artist says. “Until the Tubbs Fire encounter, I had thought of fire mostly as a generative force. But observing the devastation in Santa Rosa, I found myself wanting to better understand the phenomena of forest fires and the complex natural history of California.”

Starting in 2018, Bhat endeavored to learn as much as she could about the nature of forest fires, teaming up with biologists who were documenting how post-fire sites were gradually re-inhabited. This experience spurred the artist’s ongoing project Assembling California, comprising what she calls a “a personal, artistic field survey of California’s ecology in a time of climate change, shifting habitats, and devastating forest fires.”

Assembling California borrows its title from John McPhee’s 1994 narrative of California’s geologic and human time, documented via trips over the course of fifteen years with tectonicist Eldridge Moores, as they traversed fault lines through a range of the state’s diverse landscapes. Through her own observations, Bhat says, “I started thinking through images, textures, and the smells of forests and the human body—the relatedness of my own brown skin to the wood and the land—and my sculptures took shape in reference to my long-term reflections on the interdependency of species.”

Lovers on the Earthquake Trail (Assembling California), 2023. Glazed ceramic sculpture on a wooden base, 52 x 30 x 30 inches

Bhat’s sculptures tap directly into the elemental nature of earth, her chosen material, plus the vast amount of heat required for firing. Many of her pieces are tall and chimney-like, redolent of hollowed tree trunks, limbs, or even volcanic vents with details like house windows and local flora. The artist also points to the architecture of cathedral mounds built by termites, which she remembers seeing around her hometown in India, where they are often revered as the sacred home of a deity.

Drawing on a background in dance, Bhat takes a bodily approach to working with clay. For seventeen years, she trained in a 2000-year-old classical Indian dance form called Bharatanatyam. In light of this, “there is an unusually close relationship between my own body and the sculptural body I’m creating. The mediums can be understood as extensions of each other,” she says, sharing that dualities and bonds between the human and non-human, the constructed and the inherent, and interior and exterior, all play a vital role.

A background in literature and translation studies also influences Bhat’s multidisciplinary approach, tapping into poetry and linguistics to plumb the depths of meaning in both written and visual languages. Large-scale wall installations, inspired by the San Andreas Fault, are intersected by poems, and in a neon installation on view as part of Bay Area Now 9, the word “belonging” is broken up into elements of “longing” and “being,” literally shining a light on the myriad ways of experiencing and perceiving one’s surroundings, self, and relationships with others.

In a video accompanying her project AGNIJA, Born of Fire, for Firefest 2023 at Starworks in Star, North Carolina, Bhat says, “I feel like it is our responsibility to better understand where we live, and how we live there. And the focus of my entire practice now is about the land where I live, and that’s the story I want to keep telling.”

Bay Area Now 9 continues at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco through May 5. Excplore more of Bhat’s work on her website website and Instagram.

San Andreas Fault, Point Reyes (Assembling California), 2023. 22 Glazed ceramic segments as a single wall installation with poetry text, approx. 18 x 20 feet
Video: Earth Under Our Feet, 2022-2023. Site-specific video installation with sound, 3 minutes, 53 seconds, looped. Neon: Belonging, 2023. Neon text, 16 x 84 inches
Installation view of 'In Your Arts I'm Radiant' at Shoshana Wayne Gallery
Bhumija, Born of the Earth, 2022. 24 Glazed ceramic segments as a single wall installation with poetry text, approx. 14 x 18 feet. Photo by John Janca
Yakshi, Nature Spirit, 2022. Glazed ceramic sculptures on found rocks from the property, 48 x 16 x 16 inches. Photo by John Janca
AGNIJA, Born of Fire, 2023. Ceramic, 84 x 36 x 16 inches. Photo by Chris Gallaway and Jon Carter. Commissioned for Firefest 2023, at Starworks in Star, North Carolina

Header image: Installation view of In Your Arms I’m Radiant at Shoshana Wayne Gallery

The poems paired with the work in In Your Arms I’m Radiant are by Forrest Gander. All images from that exhibition are courtesy of the artist at Shoshana Wayne Gallery. All photos by John Janca unless otherwise noted. All images © Ashwini Bhat

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