News of artist Hema Upadhyay’s death in Mumbai over the weekend has stunned the international art community. Upadhyay, 42, was a painter and mixed media artist who showed with Mumbai gallery Chemould Prescott Road, and had been featured in landmark shows in the global trajectory of Indian contemporary art, including Indian Highway (Serpentine Gallery, 2008) and Chalo! India (Mori Art Museum, 2009). Her work was characterized by a deep emotional sensitivity to the realities of poverty and displacement, and she was known for seamlessly linking personal trauma with environmental and human crises to evocative effect. Upadhyay frequently used collaged elements from newspapers in her paintings, which dealt poetically with questions of violence and erasure.
“Her honesty, keen intelligence and patience, the generosity she showed with her attention to people set her apart from so many other artists,” recalls Jaishri Abichandani, a New York–based artist and distant relative of Upadhyay’s. “It’s rare in the art world to come across someone who has such a formidable talent, yet remains so grounded, not just in her concerns and practice but her approach to life. She knew her mind; she fought for what she had built. Hema meant so much more to us than just her amazing body of work — she was a rare human being.”
Having recently divorced the artist Chintan Upadhyay, whom she met in art school in her hometown of Baroda, Hema had sharpened her artistic critique with the 2014 solo exhibition Fish in a dead landscape at Chemould Prescott Road, and was cementing her status as a leading mid-career Indian artist. Tragically, that recognition will now be posthumous.
This is an ongoing murder investigation, and the facts of the case have yet to be fully reported. Upadhyay and her lawyer Harish Bhambani were discovered on Saturday evening, December 12, in the Mumbai suburb of Kandivali West, about 10 miles north of the Juhu Beach apartment to which the artist, who lived alone, failed to return on Friday night. At this time, the prime suspect is the owner of the warehouse where Upadhyay stored her art; he was identified by a truck driver he’d hired. “It was patriarchy that killed Hema, whether it was the metal artisans who were arrested with her possessions or the warehouse owner she was in financial dispute with, or someone else entirely,” Abichandani insists. Economic conflict, reflecting how artists are often of a different class than the assistants who fabricate their commissions, may also play a part.
Upadhyay’s murder speaks to a lack of personal safety for women in India, coming on the heels of a number of high-profile cases where women have been violently assaulted and killed. It also follows several years of very public conflict between the artist and her estranged husband, including a 2013 harassment trial in which Hema was represented by Bhambani. At the time, Indian tabloids compounded the harassment that Upadhyay experienced by twittering salaciously over every detail of the testimony, which included graphic descriptions of sexual drawings that disturbed her. “Indian society cannot handle a very successful woman who is independent and lives on her own terms,” says Abichandani. But New Delhi–based artist Mithu Sen, who also knew Upadhyay, disagrees. “I personally feel in arts it’s a much better situation in India, as male domination is not so aggressive. Rather, sensitivity or femininity in art is highly appreciated. Women artists in India are celebrated.” The ongoing violence against women throughout the country has prompted the emergence of a new feminist movement in Indian cities over the past few years, a phenomenon that’s been reflected in the work of Upadhyay, Sen, and other artists. Even so, Upadhyay’s artistic significance, and the loss of her in the prime of her life and career, are not limited to India.
Upadhyay’s death recalls those of American artists Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Ana Mendieta, both women of color who shared Upadhyay’s sensitivity to social and political ills, as well as her use of provisional materials to engage with deep concerns. Their examples speak to the importance of loved ones who preserve and promote the artist’s work after her death. Cha, a Korean American from San Francisco, made a range of sculptures, prints, and videos exploring language and the failures of translation before she was killed in New York in 1982. Her family donated her archives to her alma mater, UC Berkeley, and the Berkeley Art Museum, which has produced a body of scholarship on her work. Ana Mendieta has only recently been given her due as a major contemporary artist, thanks in large part to her sister’s preservation and cultivation of her legacy. It is essential that Hema Upadhay’s phenomenal work — some of which may now be in the possession of the person responsible for her death — be rescued and kept in the spotlight.