This Sydney-based artist explores phallus worship using clay, and last year won Australia's most prestigious ceramics prize.
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran in his studio. All photography by Lance Laurence for The Creators Project
Welcome to our new column Art Scout, where we profile Australia's creative up-and-comers.
Only three years out of his Fine Arts degree, Sydney-based artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran has held eight solo shows, received numerous accolades, and been part of countless group exhibitions. This isn’t surprising looking at his work, which these days tends to take the form of sculpture and installation. It’s bold and brightly coloured, and immediately arresting; evocative of something primal and thrilling. “I’ve always been physical and messy when it comes to art,” he tells The Creators Project. “I like big, bold gestures and a physical and embodied creative process. It’s opposite to that quiet, contemplative, meditative thing that works for some people.”
Nithiyendran’s work jumps out at you—warped and melty and often involving overt references to male anatomy. That is to say, covered in dicks. He finds phallus worship to be an engaging paradigm. “It’s interesting as representations of erect penises are perhaps the most highly legislated image in our cultural economies, yet it [phallus worship] is at the centre of so many things,” he explains, citing patriarchal Western societies and Christian ideologies as examples.
“I’m also interested in the ways in which imagery and understandings of the phallus are presented in non-misogynistic forms,” Nithiyendran says, telling us that this is where his research into Hindu constructions of phallocentrism comes into play. While he has Hindu heritage, Nithiyendran is a confident atheist. “I’ve noticed that it’s hard for some white people to understand that an Asian person can explore religion from a critical, secular position. It’s comfortable to be perceived as some exotic, non-threatening package with a clearly articulated ‘place’,” he says.
Likewise, born in Sri Lanka and raised in Australia, he says many white people assume Sri Lanka has more of an influence in his practice than it actually does.
Maybe it’s for this reason—his atheism and his apparent lack of exploring what others perceive to be his cultural identity, combined with the use of phallic symbols—that audiences and critics have gravitated towards the word ‘controversial’ to describe his practice. Is that more of an asset or a drawback? “There is some currency in being perceived as a bit edgy and boundary-crossing. It helps that I have dark skin, long messy hair, and a big septum ring as physical things to anchor my controversial-ness.”
From wherever you stand, Nithiyendran’s approach to ceramics is undeniably unconventional. He’s the first to admit that ceramics is a generally conservative realm of art, which is one of the reasons why he would never describe himself as a ‘ceramicist’, rather as an artist who uses clay. “There are suites of rules and orthodoxies attached to the medium. I avoid those rules at all costs and try and be more disobedient with my use of it. I’ve gotten flack from potters—who are unsurprisingly older, white men—who think I’m shitting on ‘their’ medium,” he says, adding, “But that’s kind of thrilling.”
The older, white potters would’ve had a shock when Nithiyendran, who studied painting and is self-taught in ceramics, recently won Australia’s most prestigious ceramics prize. Last year he took away the $50,000 Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award. “At the end of the day, I don’t make aggressive work,” he tells us. “I want the energy to be celebratory and egalitarian.”
Nithiyendran has numerous solo projects coming up at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (his work Mud Men will be installed in the foyer of the gallery) and also at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne. He will be speaking on the VIVID panel Business or Pleasure, and will also be represented in the 4th Jakarta Contemporary Ceramics Biennale, opening this December.