Sheela Gowda. It.. Matters

March 31, 2020 – October 18, 2020

Sheela Gowda (b. Bhadravati, India, 1957) lives and works in Bengaluru. The Lenbachhaus presents her first solo exhibition at a museum in Germany.

For her sprawling installations, Gowda uses distinctive materials from her country whose nature, colors, and scents endow her works with a narrative as well as metaphorical force. The creative use of cow dung, kumkum powder, coconut fiber, hair, needles, threads, stones, tar barrels, or tarpaulins blends connotations of manual craftsmanship and practical application with poetic intensity for a meditation on both urban and rural life in India.

Working conditions, production cycles, urban infrastructure, traditional and modern life are recurrent concerns in Sheela Gowda's art. She seeks out the materials that are best suited to representing these themes and translates them into works with rich narrative and associative subtexts. Her materials and their creative handling tell stories both about cultic and spiritual practices and about the economic and functional benefits extracted from them. Her works tie in with questions of productivity as well as rituals of daily life in a traditional society alongside an industrial one.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gowda created oil paintings that already anticipated the themes of her mature oeuvre. The everyday life of the Indian middle class, the conflicts that women confront in their working and private lives, and media images of political and social tensions were early subjects of her critical engagement. Her exploration, starting in 1992, of the potential of cow dung as a medium, initially in wall-based works, then also in three-dimensional pieces and installations, eventually set in motion a broader shift toward new materials in her art.

The use of cow dung in her work, Sheela Gowda argues, goes hand in hand with her political consciousness. India's current government has harnessed the cow as a Hindu symbol towards an ultra-nationalist program that first became manifest in the early 1990s. In this situation, Gowda's use of cow dung, a ubiquitous sight in India, gives it a novel and urgent relevance.

The exhibition presents the various phases of her practice: It opens with the first cow dung-paintings from 1992, which are making their debut in Europe at the Lenbachhaus. Installations reappraising found materials such as tar barrels, spice grinding stones, hair, and wood as well as media images mark later stages of her artistic career. A new work using cow dung, conceived especially for our exhibition, is a reiteration of its relevance in the present domestic political scene as it was in the 1990s.

Sheela Gowda participated in the biennials of São Paulo (2014), Gwangju (2014), Kochi (2012), Venice (2009), Sharjah (2009), and Lyon (2007) as well as documenta 12 (2007). Selected solo exhibitions: BombasGens, Valencia, and HangarBicocca, Milan, 2019; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 2017; Para Site, Hongkong, 2015; daad Galerie, Berlin, IMMA, Dublin, and Centre international d'Art et du Paysage, Vassivière, 2014; Lunds Konsthall, Lund, and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2013; and Office for Contemporary Art, Oslo, 2010.

Curated by Eva Huttenlauch

An artist's book with a selection of images by Sheela Gowda and essays by Eva Huttenlauch and Janaki Nair (German/English) will be published by Steidl in conjunction with the exhibition.

"Shedding Light", 2020
A documentariy film on Sheela Gowda was shot during the preparations for the exhibition.
With interviews with Ute Meta Bauer, Sheela Gowda, Eva Huttenlauch, Zehra Jumabhoy, and Hans Ulrich Obrist.
Duration: 30 mins.
By Friedrich Rackwitz and Stephan Vorbrugg
You can watch the film online.

Sheela Gowda. It.. Matters
Ed.: Eva Huttenlauch and Matthias Mühling
Texts by Eva Huttenlauch and Janaki Nair
Layout by Avinash Veeraraghavan and Holger Feroudj/Steidl Design
184 pages, 21,5 x 26,5 cm, Hardcover
ISBN: 978-3-95829-705-0

The exhibition is held in conjunction with the Maria Lassnig Prize awarded to Sheela Gowda in 2019.

Booklet (PDF)

Artist's book – Excerpt (PDF)

Acknowledgements of the curator (PDF)

Catalog (Webshop)



"All the materials I use, have a kind of life before I have used them. They have a context that is different from the way I use them. And I work on that, I don't want to erase that history, that context. It's almost like I look at them and feel them so intensely that they begin to become something else. I guess that's what I do, with things. Because I look at it, I feel it, I maybe caress it, I enjoy it. (...) I give it a presence, and an identity that will make other people look at it. Not just see it as some abandoned object. It can hold its own, enough to be gazed at." (Sheela Gowda, Artist)

"In this show you get to know an Indian artist and you will understand something about our world. Much of what is in these works and in the materials she uses has bearing on more than India—but her country is always Sheela Gowda's point of departure. Her questions raise global issues that concern all of us. The globalized economy, globalized industry, the disappearance of small businesses and craftsmanship, of workshops, the shift to supply chains spanning the world and large-scale production and the resulting devastation of infrastructure—these are issues that her work addresses (…) Sheela Gowda translates all these topics in an abstract visual language. In this respect, this exhibition is certainly not only revealing for people who are interested in India. On the contrary: Gowda's works speak an international language." (Eva Huttenlauch, Curator Lenbachhaus)

"Sheela Gowda started out as a painter. She's interested in the interrelations between objects, the lines that emerge, the in-between spaces. Her installations, we might say, are painting in an expanded space, or the expansion of lines and interrelations into space." (Ute Meta Bauer, Director Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore)

"Sheela Gowda has a magical gift for building spaces and experiences out of mundane materials. Her installations are portals that lead to another world." (Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director Serpentine Galleries London)

"India has a Hindu-right government, that believes in a Hindu nation that at the same time talks the language of ultra-globalization and economic progress. It's two sides of a coin, it is oppressive for the ordinary man, for people who don't fit into that narrative. Either because they are not upper-caste Hindus like the Dalits, they are all Muslims, or the farmers, who are dying in droves and killing themselves. Many of these people are like the unseen characters behind Sheela Gowda’s work." (Zehra Jumabhoy, Art historian)


ZOOM IN – "Behold" (2009) by Sheela Gowda
ZOOM IN – Where Cows Walk. Cow dung in the artistic practice of Sheela Gowda
"Forever Sheela Gowda!"
Trailer on "Shedding Light – a portrait of the artist Sheela Gowda"
Shedding Light – a portrait of the artist Sheela Gowda
UNCUT – A conversation with Sheela Gowda
Welcome by our director Matthias Mühlung
Welcome and short introduction by curator Eva Huttenlauch
Artist talk with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Sheela Gowda when the artist received the Maria Lassnig Award 2019
Laudatio by Ute Meta Bauer when Sheela Gowda received the Maria Lassnig Award 2019