BY CSMI STAFF WRITER
Nikhil Chopra is an Indian contemporary artist based in Goa, India. Chopra’s art—a complex amalgam of durational performance, painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography—critically explores issues relating to identity, politics, history, and the body.
Born in Kolkata to a Kashmiri family, after attaining a degree in commerce, Chopra began studying fine arts. After first completing a BFA at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in 1999, he moved to the United States to further pursue his studies. He completed an MFA at Ohio State University in 2003.
At the core of Nikhil Chopra’s art are theatricality and performance. The body becomes a tool and canvas for art. He is best known for durational performances in which he takes on the persona of different characters, inspired by personal familial history and broader national, regional, and colonial histories. The paintings, drawings, and other objects these actions create are a residual component—the object legacy—of the performance.
Chopra’s most reprised roles include Sir Raja—a figure loosely inspired by the affluent westernised Indian princes of the British Raj period and the artist’s own instilled upper-class sensibilities—and Yog Raj Chitrakar, who presents as a well-travelled, turn-of-the-century landowner and draughtsman, and is partially inspired the artist’s grandfather.
Typically over several days, the artist in such personae will engage in both everyday actions (eating, washing, dressing) and the creation of large-scale landscape paintings or charcoal drawings that become a locally inspired contextual backdrop. An accompanying journey of character changes is expressed in costume and make-up changes. A literal journey also may take place, as the artist incorporates the local people and places in the performance.
In Nikhil Chopra’s ‘Memory Drawing’ series (2007–ongoing) the artist pitches his tent in various cities, usually in a museum or gallery space. As the silk-and-tweed-donning Chitrakar character he performs while exploring the city to sketch sites that embody its reality, history, and contradictions. The process inverts the orientalist perspective, whereby the Western traveller making documents of the East to take home becomes the Eastern traveller making documents of the West to take home.
Chopra explained to Studio International, ‘The labour is also the work: I like to show the slow unravelling of my process.’ The theatrical characters and their various social, cultural, and gender transformations engage with the ideas and influences inherent in that process of creation and the subjects (the setting) of these works. They are an existential expression of the fluid mental states of identity, nationhood, and gender, and the performance highlights drawing and painting as a personal and political act.
Nikhil Chopra has performed and exhibited his art before a global audience since the mid-2000s. His art has featured in gallery and institutional shows, art fairs, and other major art events worldwide. In the live performance Lands, Waters, and Skies (2019), the artist worked in the galleries of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for nine consecutive days, adopting various personae and critically engaging with the museum’s collection and its organisational principles.
Chopra co-founded the artist-run residency HH Art Spaces in 2014 with his wife Madhavi Gore—a fellow performance artist—and the French performance artist Romain Loustau.