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Meet the Artist: Shilpi Deb

Updated: Jun 7

For this week's interview, it's a pleasure to have the Kenyan-Indian artist, Shilpi Deb, who navigates her creative journey between Nairobi and London. A graduate of Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, India, her diverse body of work has graced prestigious venues such as the National Museum, Circle Art Gallery, Gravit Art Gallery, Alliance Française de Nairobi, Kioko Art Gallery, Heinrich Böll Stiftung, and Talisman in Kenya, as well as exhibitions in India and Takeo, Japan.

Her practice is driven by a profound need to untangle complex notions of identity. She dives into the continuous and fragile concept of self, exploring how identity is shaped by innate qualities, conscious decisions, and unconscious conditioning. Through her art, she investigates the resultant responses, understandings, contradictions, and confusions that emerge from this intricate process. Read the full interview to find out more about her journey and masterpieces.

What initially drew you to the medium of visual art, and how has your relationship with it

evolved over time?

I’ve always been surrounded by art and creativity. I come from a family of creatives: one of my grandfathers was an architect, and the other was a jeweler. My grandmother did literature, my father and two of my brothers are in the applied arts and filmmaking, my mother is a mathematician and writer, and my aunt paints and crafts! Naturally, I was drawn to “making things by hand,” and I enjoyed words, numbers, and science. As I grew up, my capacity to understand the things I was instinctively drawn to deepened, as did my understanding of what was being said around me at our family dinner tables and in our living rooms. My appreciation for this luck increases every year. I’m very aware of how this exposure to different disciplines has shaped me, my work, and my idea of what constitutes a life well lived.

Despite having so many creatives in my family, I am the first to have had the opportunity to pursue fine arts as a career. It has been interesting learning things as I go along, both for me and for the people around me. Of course, similarities exist, but it is still a whole new experience. The joy of “making things by hand” still remains, and interestingly enough, the processes have not changed much either. As I grow older, I am giving myself permission to enjoy this more—the experiments, the dirt, and all.

Could you describe a significant moment or experience that influenced your artistic direction

or the themes you explore in your work?

I can’t honestly pin anything down to a single moment, it’s more of repeated similar experiences

that have influenced me. Mostly where my temperament shows through, I have a tendency to

get very angry and very defensive…very quick, turning my tongue prickly, scathing and extremely

destructive. This lack of control, the almost scary irrationality despite knowing better, and the

frequencies of it is what actually spurred on the current direction of work. I investigate where

these outbursts stem from, why some people seem to have less of control over certain things,

how these tendencies are very tied to our ideas of self and the capacity of humans to be in

constant shifts with many selves. I also suffer from hemiplegic migraines, the structure of each

attack, the pre and the post, the bodily sensations, the mental and emotional toll it takes on me

has also a played a very big part in influencing my work, visuals and thoughts. The work

processes are meditative because they’ve come out of a need to self soothe and many times the

works are detail heavy and tiring…I treat them as a form of penance.

How do you typically begin a new piece? Do you have a specific ritual or approach to

generating ideas and inspiration?

I don’t have any specific ritual, my approach changes quite often, sometimes its mood

dependent, I let myself get excited/irritated by something and that sparks a new piece,

sometimes the inspiration is purely visual, I see something and it gives me a new idea so I sketch

it out or just directly start a piece. I sketch a lot, collecting everything, on days I don’t feel like

painting or creating, I go through the sketches and sometimes they inspire me a new. But I would

say the most common ritual is reading, random stuff, poetry, a bio chapter, a crappy movie

review, a message from mum, anything really! I like words, they usually spark the most visuals

for me.

You have worked in both Nairobi and London, experiencing different cultural and environmental influences. How do these experiences inform your exploration of identity and the self in your artwork?

Experiencing similarities in what is being talked about and discussed, despite things sounding

very different on the surface, the topics being touched upon and the issues are probably only a

handful. Seeing how lots of these issues stem from flawed or over inflated senses of identity, on

personal as well as cultural scales…has made me explore some of the more harmful ideas of

self/identity and belonging…and the benefits of porosity in allowing for more understanding,

growth and conflict resolution.

Can you elaborate on how your artwork addresses the concept of untangling the self? How do you visually represent the accumulation of identity and conditioning in your pieces?

I create pieces that have almost gone through the same processes of collection/leaks as I have.

My process is repetitive light layering, slowly making parts heavy or blurry, having the

background eat into the figures and vice versa, adding and subtracting, porous stippling, leaking

grids, having each layer subtly affect the look of the following one. Where it is almost impossible

to isolate any single layer, they all fuse into one fuzzy form. Untangling the self, not to make

things clean and clear, but rather untangling to be aware of how much has been collected,

layered, absorbed, distorted, and accepting that…as a constant…and as a beautiful thing in

itself. That’s why some of my figures are quite passive…just existing…with their identity

membranes surrounding them…like TV static alive on their skin… with their many layers, finery

and bowls of collection, or on the other hand in acts of endless cultivation. The forms are fuzzy,

when you begin to untangle the self, you realize that it’s pretty much impossible…to entangle an

everchanging and layered thing, as you undo one tangle you end up with 3 more. Texture is

another thing I fixate on…subtle texture that can’t fully be appreciated from afar, but the longer

you look…the more you see.

Your practice delves into the fragility of the self and the complexities of identity. How do you

hope viewers engage with these themes through your artwork?

I hope they are taken to a place where they can almost feel the membrane around their own

bodies as they see the fuzzy, overinflated, tingly, tv static-ey live membranes on the pieces. I also

want them thinking of how fuzzy and unclear their understanding of their sense of self is, and

resonate with the sometimes-heavy feeling of having a membrane around us. I would like them

to think of porosity and maybe compassionately examine their own frameworks, collections and

overinflations of certain aspects of their identities. For some reason I feel a little sympathy for

the figures…and would definitely love if that comes across in the works. But at the end of the

day, I’d like them to see and understand whatever the hell they’d like to.

After the conclusion of our exhibition ‘’ The State in Between: Loss & Discovery’’ , I am curious about your overall experience. What stood out to you as unique or memorable about this particular showing of your work?

It was interesting to see what my work was paired with, the curation of it made me see

interesting parallels between thoughts. Again…similarities everywhere. All the works were

speaking about similar things but in completely different languages.


All photographs copywrites belong to Shilpi Deb.

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