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In conversation with Michelle Poonawalla on her artwork and the simple things that drive her creativity

Words by Yvonne Jacob

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Art was an integral part of my early life,” says Michelle Poonawalla, who grew up watching her grandfather, the revered Jehangir Vazifdar; an illustrious architect and artist. Michelle grew up between the UK and India before studying for her Bachelor of Arts from American College, London, where she graduated with honours in interior design. During her time in London, Michelle, along with her father, were frequent visitors of the Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams. Her time fluttering between the UK and India has had its influence on her artwork, “My exposure has been art and artefacts of a varied spectrum. This has, of course, made my aesthetics international, which I think can be seen in my works.” Back at home, simple things like the beauty of Indian summers is something that inspire her, “Sometimes inspiration is as simple as what I see around me. For example, I painted a new work called ‘The Indian Summer’ during the lockdown, which was inspired by the vibrant colours of the gulmohar trees which I could see around me.” 

A lot of people turned to art for an escape from the extraordinary. Travel plans turned into reality on canvases that hang in our homes now

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While her artwork is mostly open to interpretation, there are a few projects that comment on social causes. “For me, things that I have been through or experience do tend to influence me and my work; especially the larger installations. I recently made a sketch to support the Hothur Foundation, which works to help victims of acid attacks.” One of her favourite works, Introspection, was one that she presented at the START Art Fair at London’s Saatchi Gallery in 2019. “Introspection developed on my experiments with digital technology, turning to sound and using a combination of audio clips from newsreels and ambient recordings to uncanny effect. By combining these sounds with motion sensor technology and digitally-mapped visuals, the experience created an all-consuming sensorium.” 

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Talking about the inspiration behind Introspection, she said, “Of all my recent works though, Introspection is perhaps the most influenced by current issues. The work addresses the 24hr news cycle and how we are constantly surrounded by these images of fear, violence and suffering. I have seen terrorist attacks affect both cities I call home. Whenever you turn on the news, you are so overwhelmed with reports from all over the world of violent attacks, terror attacks and bloodshed. As a mother, I often wonder, where is it safe? What are we doing? What will future generations face – its something we all need to introspect on, where are we taking this world?”

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A lot of people turned to art for an escape from the extraordinary. Travel plans turned into reality on canvases that hang in our homes now. For Michelle, the lockdown was another new perspective to create artwork that spoke volumes. “The 21 migrants sketch portrays human tragedy due to the impact of Covid-19 in India, which I sold to raise money for charity. Masks d’Art was a series of masks which I painted to raise money for Art for Concern. I’ve also been working on Colours of Life painted in a thick impasto style. Colours of Life reflect a vision of positivity and vibrance as we look to the future. Another project of mine is a new installation to make people aware of Water Scarcity and Air Pollution, which are a growing concern in all major cities, especially in India.”

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Art can be a powerful voice as I believe what people see and experience, they remember. Art touches the senses

Michelle doesn’t restrict herself when it comes to art and loves to try out new mediums to portray her thoughts for the world to see. “My practice has always been very experimental, and I have always been keen to work with new materials and techniques. Whilst a lot of my paintings are done in oil or acrylic I have experimented with video mapping projections on top of the paintings. For an artist, it gives us immense scope for creativity, and I want to experiment with these new forms as much as possible.”

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When it comes to Michelle’s style, the butterfly motif is something that she relates to. “The butterfly motif is synonymous with me and my style from my very first art exhibition working with the Autistic children at the Gateway School,” explains Michelle. Butterflies remind her about the fragility of life, but they also give a sense of freedom, hope and love; which is why there’s a kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttering across her installations. “In Freedom, which is an oil painting, butterflies rest on the frame, and as the spectator moves towards it, they appear to fly away. This new practice allows my pieces to come alive. I read a sentence, ‘Digital Art is the last form of magic that exists’, and they usually leave the spectator amazed.” Rightly so, Michelle’s artwork has the innate ability to enthral the viewer and make them reflect on life and the many issues that surround us. But much like the theory behind her butterfly motif, there’s a positive side to everything. In Michelle’s words, “Art can be a powerful voice as I believe what people see and experience, they remember. Art allows one to introspect on various issues. Art touches the senses.”