Gather Around, Place for Prayer
While the other children in her class would run towards paints and crayons, Gunjan Aylawadi collected all the bits of paper she could find. For her, paper was a doorway into innumerable possibilities. A glimpse at Gunjan’s work is just not enough; as the paper strings that she weaves together into seemingly soothing shapes urge one to stay still and stare. Gunjan’s memories of her childhood in India surrounded by handmade objects, religion and architecture are woven into the layers of her sculptures.
The Sydney-based artist uses repetition and geometry to create textural paper sculptures that fulfils her need to create something with her hands. The former computer science engineer slowly grew tired of doing things virtually and now works with only a few tools that she describes as her essentials: a geometry set, a pair of scissors, paper and her hands.
Over a long phone conversation, she unfurls her meditative world of patterns and paper.
Design Fabric (DF): You studied engineering and then product design. What led you to start weaving with paper?
Gunjan Aylawadi (GA): Like most Indian kids, I too was encouraged by my family to become an engineer. After completing my graduation, I began thinking about what I actually wanted to do. I have always been working with paper; it just turned out to become a profession much later in life. As a kid, I remember looking at paper and associating it with endless possibilities. That was the time of newspapers, wasn’t it? My parents used to subscribe to so many publications and they were lying around all around the house, so I could access it freely and do whatever I wanted with them. It’s only later in life when I had some free time on my hands that I had the chance to revisit it. Around 2012-13, I was just looking for something that would interest me outside of my day job. And I came across these incredible sculptures made out of paper. I was incredibly excited to see how many people were doing lovely things with paper, things that you wouldn’t believe were crafted out of paper. I distinctly remember thinking that my contribution to the medium would have to be something completely different, otherwise I would always compare my work with the existing pieces and styles and never be satisfied. In some sense, that is where it all started: with a decision to make something new.
DF: How did you arrive at your technique of weaving with paper?
GA: Well, I spent all my time experimenting with multiple techniques. Creating something different and finding my own style was really important to me, so I kept pushing myself to try variations. I remember working on some wire sculptures. In order to add some colour to the wires, I began covering them with paper. When I saw some of those pieces of paper set aside, all lined up, I was mesmerised. It felt like tapestry. I love textures and derive immense tactile pleasure from experiencing carved or woven things. So just realising that it was paper forming those curls when wrapped around wire was an exciting feeling. That is the moment when I decided to do this. I kept making till I got to a point where it looked less like paper and more like fabric.
My technique has evolved so much, more than I could have even imagined. You know how a blank sheet of paper can be so overwhelming because of all the possibilities? Five years ago, I used to constantly feel that way and end up not making anything at all. But once I started thinking about geometry, I began feeling better. There is certainty in geometry. If I draw a line, it meets another one at a certain point and that gives me immense peace. I use geometry and paper to express what words cannot.
DF: Did you borrow any specific concepts from your education in engineering and product design while developing it?
GA: I did my Engineering first at MD University, India, followed by a course in Product Design at Enmore Design Centre, Sydney. Studying product design was definitely an initiation into my current style. As I dived into the subject, I started seeing parallels between three-dimensional printing and my own work, and that’s when the idea sparked. The paper sculptures I create now are very much inspired by product design. The concept of three-dimensional printing at its basic level is that you melt strings of plastic on top of each other. I was always cutting bundles of paper into strips for my work, so I began wondering what would happen if I tried the similar three-dimensional printing concept, but with paper. And that is how I arrived at these paper sculptures.
DF: Can you tell us about your latest show Place for Prayer? What was the process of exploring the idea of prayer and rituals through carving paper sculptures like?
GA: I started with one piece and everything flowed from there. All the pieces for the show were informed by each other even during the process of creation. The central idea of this project was the places of prayer that I’ve visited, and the role Arabesque work plays in all of them. I was surrounded by religion throughout my childhood. I come from a very religious family and temple visits were extremely frequent. I studied in a Catholic school and there was a church right next to it. The school was in Old Delhi and my commute everyday was filled with observations of all the mosques on the way. I was constantly fascinated by the way the mosques were adorned and in retrospect, they’ve played a pivotal role in terms of my design influences.
Eight small works for the exhibition Place for Prayer (2017)
I was also thinking a lot about how people organise themselves in these spaces, it is usually in circles around something round. So I knew I wanted to work with circles and hence, that form kept coming into every piece. I was also sure that I wanted to work with only four colours but in different combinations. I was thinking of water, earth, air and sunlight and how important these four elements are. They also happen to be the elements that most cultures in the world worship. The whole process was very intriguing to me because I was thinking of god but not in the way we are supposed to in places of worship.
One vivid memory that comes to mind is sitting inside a temple with my grandmother while she attended the prayers. I would spend all that time just looking up at the intricate work across the ceilings. I remember trying to look for where they began and where they ended but never found it. I was fascinated by the continuity of the patterns. I had no idea what the concepts were back then; I just loved repetition and always looked for it.
DF: You’ve spoken about how slowing down is extremely important to you, which reflects in your work, given that your pieces take weeks to make. In a time when we seem to be increasingly gravitating towards instant gratification, how do you cope?
GA: I have become that person who is completely fine with sitting for many hours doing this work. Before I started, I was extremely impatient with most things. I still am, but I have patience for one thing: paper. In the beginning, I used to worry a lot about having to constantly make something in order to stay relevant. You start making for yourself and suddenly you’re on social media and you begin making things for other people because you don’t want them to forget you. But not anymore. I’ve refocused and thought about it. If I don’t have the need to make, I don’t. I don’t start a piece unless I have an extreme, pressing need to make it. Sometimes, months go by and I haven’t made anything but that’s okay. I’ve become better at listening to myself.
DF: The question of originality is something that many artists struggle with. Do you think everything has been done before or can we still be original?
GA: I definitely think it is possible to be original, but perhaps not when you are starting off. Your first few works will almost never be original. But you can get to a place where you create something that is unique to you and that’s a good place to be in, I think. Having said that, it is true that every idea is sparked by another one and nothing lives in isolation anymore. We see so much that we don’t even know what gets stored in our brain.
DF: Who are some visual artists whose work has influenced you?
GA: Tanya Aguiniga is an artist, designer and craftsperson whose work I came across when I was looking for something to study. I looked at her work and immediately knew that I wanted to study product design. Some other artists whose work has inspired me are Ruth Asawa, Sheila Hicks and Zaha Hadid.
DF: Can you give us a glimpse into your upcoming work?
GA: I have a show coming up in December, in Sydney, that I’m currently working on. It is all about fantastical forms. You know how we have fictional characters? I want to create fictional forms using really simple geometry. The idea is to explore the possibilities with constraint, so I’m using a few set shapes and observing how they work with each other. They are going to be smaller works with geometric forms, somewhat inspired by nature but also by the thoughts I’ve been having in moments when I drift off.
DF: As an artist, what do you want people to take away from your work?
GA: The sense of slowing down. There is so much thrown at us and it has become an information overload. We’re just becoming desensitised to what we see. I find myself meaninglessly scrolling Instagram sometimes. It is difficult to even focus on your own thoughts. I want people to be able to look at my work and get a sense of stillness, which is so hard to come by these days.
Follow Gunjan’s work here to learn more about her upcoming shows.