Janine Shroff’s figurative and occasionally surreal artworks create a sense of dissonance and intrigue at first glance. Featuring strange mythological creatures and unconventional humans, the London-based, Mumbai-born fine artist creates fantastical scenes using mixed media, acrylic and ballpoint-pens on heavy-weight paper.
While her early influences were miniature paintings and late 80s comic books like MAD magazine, her style has evolved to exploring themes like childbirth and pregnancy that horrify her, to wrapping her head around queer rights and women’s issues in her signature style.
In this interview, she takes us through her unorganised approach to art and breaking the diaspora cliche while dissecting some of her strongest artworks for the readers.
Design Fabric: Do you consciously try and hold on to your Indian-ness being a member of the diaspora?
Janine Shroff: I don't know about consciously: I haven't managed to pick up a British accent yet and I'm very happy about that. I do feel vague, constant guilt about how much Hindi I've forgotten (and it was shaky to begin with) but it's really unlikely that I'm going to take again hindi tuitions again.
There are parts of my Indian-ness that can't be erased by any length away, but there are other parts that I suppose get sealed in amber. A nostalgia can set in, where everything back home gets a soft Instagram glow or is an exotic 'other' reality. I'm aware of that diaspora cliche, and try not to let it influence everything.
(Left) Bisexual Garden, (Right) Camera Shy
DF: How do you approach each artwork? Does an idea strike you and you develop it or is your creative process more haphazard?
JS: I make notes and either email them to myself (on a long never-ending email thread creatively called Drawing Ideas). Half of the time, I don't get to create a fraction of the ideas (some are rubbish) but I find that the ones I keep thinking about or am mentally returning to are the ones I start doing a quick small thumbnail sketch for. As I think about each theme, I create ongoing image reference boards on Pinterest that can include articles and/or images. I don't use all the references but once I start drawing, it's handy to have them ready.
I don't have an organised approach to construction of the drawing: it isn't planned in advance. The thumbnail sketch is really just a rough idea; it would look just like a random scribble to anyone else. I use the theme, a general idea for a layout as a base and then work in the details bit by bit. If I had planned entire drawings out in advance, the process would become so much more tedious.
For my paintings, nothing is digital. For some other work where I think there may be edits, I draw, ink it in then scan, and digitally colour. The artworks for Saptan Stories, for example, looks digital but is all on paper including the colour.
1. Bucket Bath 2. Lesbians Riding Ponies 3. The Queen
DF: Let’s dissect a few of your artworks and understand the story behind them:
I like to take breaks from darker themes and alternate with more abstract, dreamscapes. This is a dreamy, abstract world, with unknown things floating beneath. Pinterest references were essential in this one for all the deep sea creatures. Bucket baths are a common childhood reference, but there always comes a point when you realise you can't fit anymore. I want the viewer to decide what it may or may not mean.
Lesbians Riding Ponies
I wanted to create a Gaytopia. But even in Gaytopia, there are clouds on the horizon.
This was inspired by feeling very isolated from the gay community. Up until a few years ago, I had almost no lesbian friends in London and not being much of a scenester or person who goes clubbing, I found it hard to meet people. Another artist friend (a 'gateway lesbian') introduced me to some people and that inspired parts of this drawing. My Little Pony, the gayest toy there is, was part of the inspiration.
The Queen is a sister drawing to The Breeders and here, I’m trying to show motherhood as both elevated and a prison.
Once a termite queen is fertilised by the male, she will crawl underground to lay eggs and will never see the sunlight again. They swell up to 4-5 times the size of the drone workers and are not really able to move. If the termites need to flee the nest, the queen must be carried by the workers. Her entire body grows and expands to become this grotesque pulsating birthing machine.
The trap of motherhood has always interested and horrified me. Society is always telling us how valuable, important, natural and essential it is but simultaneously, mothers will be discriminated in various ways, from doctors treating them to employers to just bearing the burden of the daily drudgery of child rearing. It's a trap. And once you are trapped, there is no escape. Mothers will be both elevated as queens but also chained. I wanted to make this horror visible using bright, jewels and almost lurid colours which visually contrast the subject.
From Everything Drag, a zine created for Gender Bender 2016
DF: I love how there are often multiple characters doing strange things in your paintings, and the works are so rich and layered. How did you arrive at this style?
JS: I arrived at this style by accident and it evolved over several years. I was drawing with biro in school note books before I went to art school and was slowly making them more and more complex, adding more items into each. My M.A tutors in college helped shift my drawings from black and white on shitty A4 pieces of note paper into larger scale, on richer paper and in colour. I really resisted this change initially. Habits die hard! But once I dived into bigger scale and vibrant colour, I couldn't go back. I kept the size of my drawings the same and extended the paper.
In terms of motifs, I started with a lot of bird heads because I was obsessed with Egyptian mythology at one point, and was also vaguely thinking about femininity, androgyny, gender and detachment. I used the animal-headed people to visually represent one or all of these. Over time, they've gotten abstracted into characters who still play with these ideas of gender, detachment and sexuality.
DF: Are you mildly obsessed with baths, and the act of bathing? I'm so curious about its reappearance in your artworks.
JS: This question made me laugh. People at my old job used to constantly ask me why I spent so much time in the loo. I do enjoy chilling out in the loo, just sitting and thinking. I find an enclosed, locked space very peaceful.
However, I dislike baths. I like them as an idea and I enjoy old fashioned claw foot baths as beautiful objects or outdoor lily ponds but in reality, I find sitting in a lukewarm tub very tedious. I would prefer if our loo had a great power shower.
Artworks for Gender Bender 2016
DF: Was it just the works of artists or were there other external influences that seeped into your work? What about contemporaries?
JS: In the past, it’s mostly been comic books, Amar Chitra Katha, Mario de Miranda, MAD magazine, Persian and Mughal miniatures, and Where’s Waldo.
My mom also has a lot of Indian art around the house, like Pattachitra, Tanjore and Mysore paintings. I loved botanical drawings in nature books, where it would be an entire rainforest scene with about 50 animals and insects painted in and numbered with info about each on the side! There’s also the classic European artists like Rembrandt, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.
In terms of contemporaries, I admire Mu Pan, Heikala, Ness Lee, Sonia Alins, Elsa Moraint, Tara Books, Yuko Shimizu, Noelle Stevenson, Alison Bechdel, Lucy Sparrow felt artist, Liza Lou, and Henry Darger. Then there’s the Kadak contemporaries like Aindri Chakraborty, Garima Gupta, Mira Malhotra, Amruta Patil, Yashasvi Mathis, Rajni Perera, Andrea Heimer and loads more.
DF: The themes of gender, identity, feminism, society and the idea of being besharam (shameless) come up repeatedly in your body of work. Is art a means of activism for you as well?
JS: Art is a way of communication for me. So anything I think about will translate into visual work. I have a lot of rage, and short of yelling about it in all caps on Facebook, I find it more productive to visualise it. I think it’s more personal than activism, and that my sketchbook is more random and playful. It's my deep, dark, secret fantasy to draw beautiful pretty pictures with no particular meaning and paint in soft delicious watercolours like Heikala or Studio Ghibli. But while I can do this sometimes, it doesn't come as naturally or easily. It's a little like Jack the Pumpkin King trying to take over Christmas. Everything he touches just turns into Halloween. That's the best explanation I have for it.
DF: Being a part of the Kadak Collective must have also shaped you as an artist and woman. How has being a part of a feminist collective moulded your work?
JS: Collaborating with others is a fear I've always had. It combines two things I like the least - Administration/organisation and people skills - and mashes them up. Kadak, on the other hand, has been great in the sense that it’s really democratic, thoughtful and largely online. We can choose to opt in or out of projects depending on our workload.
I just completed a small, abstract visual piece for Gender Bender on breasts. Most of my work tends to be personal rather than journalistic. So while I've researched and have been following many breast-related contemporary issues like breastfeeding in public, nipple bans for women, consumer cultures obsession with them, porn vs utility, I didn't want it to be merely written. I want to explore more abstract feelings of revulsion I've personally had about breasts in my submission.
DF: What's the biggest challenge being an artist, and what's the most rewarding part of it?
JS: The most challenging is making and carving out time. I struggle with procrastination and find it difficult to focus sometimes when I come home from long hours work, or when other life admin gets in the way of drawing. Then again, I find that creative juices have ebbs and flows. Once I've got into a routine (and found a great podcast to listen to) I can usually knuckle down.
I also want each thing I make to have some thought in it, so it’s difficult to draw differently, draw fast and more efficiently. I used to think my style was tied to the medium I used (ball pen) but I've finally shaken that off and am experimenting with various mediums. It's been fun painting more and using biro less.
The rewarding part is finishing a drawing, looking at it and feeling a sense of satisfaction, especially when you don't think it'll turn out well but it does in the end.
DF: What's keeping you busy these days?
JS: 2016 to 2018 has been full of lots of change. I bought a house with my partner and recently quit my design day job of eight years. I'd like to do another show soon but I feel like the last few years really took large chunks of my creative time away. I want to just make more work first, then have a show maybe next year. I've been meaning to do a show in London for ages, but time and money have been prohibitive.
Follow Janine’s work at https://janineshroff.co.uk. If you are able to host a show for her, do get in touch.