My friend – Shibu Arakkal

Shibu Arakkal. Photographic Artist. Tells it like it is. Without mincing ANY words!
I met Shibu at a Group Exhibition in October 2013. My work was a late entrant into the mix. But that’s another story.


Shibu’s first words to me were ‘so you are the one who has painted this work… hmm‘ And then we made polite conversation and exchanged pleasantries. After about an hour of mingling around at the art opening Shibu called me over and asked -“How do you feel about bartering?” And I was like “Sure. What do you want to barter?” His answer- “Your painted chair for one of my prints.” Of course I said “YES” 🙂

‘Lorenzo il Magnifico Gold Prize for Digital Art’ – Florence Biennale 2013


The ‘Bartered’ Chair

But it was more than getting a print from the award winning Florence Biennale artist. It showed me the person he is. This was the honest best compliment I could have got for my work. An award winning artist wanted to barter with me. There was no monetary value attached to his barter. It was a one on one – honest appreciation. And I thank Shibu for it. That was the start of an effortless friendship.

The next in the series of effortless friendships is with the one and only Shibu Arakkal. We meet rarely. As he says “You are always too busy!!” Though I did make the time to meet him to discuss a project. More on that in the weeks to come but till then I leave you with a glimpse into what I think makes Shibu an artist who feels …

What did you study in college?

Economics, Political Science & Sociology. So glad someone finally asked me this question.

What was your childhood like?

My happiest memories of my childhood were the years I grew up with my grandparents, being mostly outdoors when not in school, playing different sports, climbing trees, inadvertently learning to use tools by making things I could play with, fiddling around with my bicycle and doing lots of things parents today would consider to be dangerous.

My move to live with my parents later on involved a lot of escape from and into serious phases of loneliness and very seriously battling that through my teenage years.

Who influences you the most?

My earliest and most profound influence and I realized this much later in life, was my maternal grandfather who was a metallurgist in HAL. Though he passed away when I was in my early teenage years, I think I learnt my early lessons in creative out-of-the-box thinking from him, apart from many other things that made him the extraordinary man he was. After his death, he became my conscience keeper and a silent guide. I begin every month by visiting his grave and talking to him.

What are your plans for your daughter?

I don’t believe that I have the right to make plans for my daughter as she must follow her own purpose and destiny. To answer this question from a conventional stand point, I wish for her to be most of all, her own self because her real self is extraordinary by any standards. I only and diligently so, strive to give her a solid foundation made up of values such as honesty, responsibility, hard work and conscientiousness, amongst a few other things.

Do you see any influence from your father – Yusuf Arakkal ?

I certainly do. For a man who was all consumed by his work, his art, the time that he took to be a father to me, he taught me many things. I am known to be a perfectionist to a fault, though it’s strange but things like that and the sanctity towards one’s work are things I learnt from both my dad and my grandad.

How tough is it to make a name in photography?

Speaking of photography as an art form, even with its rich albeit brief history in the context of art, it is never the less, today’s artistic medium. Even though photographically, we live in a world of digital, analogue and every kind of cross pollinated possibilities, the recognition for and the reality of creating work that is truly unique is very hard to come by. To do that and to compete with photographic artists from the western world who are supported technically, in terms of infrastructure, not to mention monetarily and are recognized, is a challenge that one has to have a stomach for.

What is artistic or fine art photography?

That’s like asking what is artistic or fine art painting. We can’t assume that just because the medium is painting it has to necessarily be artistic or fall into the fine art genre.

I choose to define any art, regardless of medium, as two equal halves of an unique artistic expression and a high caliber of technical skill. This definition, I believe, is more critical with photographic art as the acquired-over-time technical skill graph is always on a more steeper climb due to technological innovations. And so the ability to articulate one’s artistic expression equally is ever demanding and ever evolving.

What advice would you give to upcoming artists?

I think that practicing art is like having children. If you don’t do it for the right reasons, the amount of struggle and rejection will in all probability either break you or worse, make you compromise. Even with instances to the contrary, the practice of art isn’t sustainable at the highest levels, if it isn’t supported by a unique viewpoint, skill and integrity. It is true at least for artists who create for time and not for markets or people.

What advice would you give to upcoming photographers?

  1. Although photography is as technical a medium as any, one would be wise to not forget that it is ultimately a creative medium.
  2. Just as everyone with a fountain pen can’t become a Shakespeare, everyone with an expensive camera won’t become a photographer.
  3. If you cannot or are too lazy to achieve what can be achieved through photography and rely on post-production for it, you will in all probability lose ground in terms of the price you command or be eventually surpassed by someone younger and better.
First place | 'Ventipertrenta 2011' - International Jury, International festival of digital art | Italy
First place | ‘Ventipertrenta 2011’ – International Jury, International festival of digital art | Italy

What is your quiet ‘go to’ place?

It is primarily my balcony but my quiet place is my own head when I’m traveling or riding motorcycles.

What beverage makes you feel comfortable?

GTL (Gin, Tonic & lime)

What movie touches you?

Lawrence of Arabia

With hindsight what do you think you would do differently?

I would firstly go full throttle in my twenties and early thirties but most importantly, I would follow every gut instinct I have and not be so analytical as I have been.

Your one favorite piece?

I truly don’t have one.

What do you think of ‘completion’?

I tend to think the Italian way about this. It will take as long as it takes and it is done when it is done.

What do you think of artist residencies?

I absolutely love the idea of artist residencies and I have done a few over the past four or five years years in different countries.

The idea of a certain sense of seclusion to have the luxury of being able to think about life and everything that is important to an artist and carry that train of thought through to your work, without being interrupted by responsibilities and such, is as close to an artistic utopia as on can find in this world.

What is art?

I am philosophical about art. Art to me is interpreting and articulating the secrets and the language of the universe into physical and in this day, virtual art-forms. Hence, our understanding of reality, specially in art, is greatly subjective. It is possibly why life imitates art.

What is design?

To me, design is creating an efficient aesthetic that is born out of function. And not the other way around.

What are the basics of photography?

What I have learnt of photography is the ability to get into a meditative state of mind and respond to your chosen subject, which also happens instinctually. But that happens when you hone and perfect your technical craft for years, where it enables you to use light, space and form to piece together a photographic puzzle created out of YOUR subjective and artistic soul.

What are the first steps to take?

Study, study, study!

Would you lend your name to limited edition or mass produced?

If done right, surely.

What do you think of the art scene in India and abroad?

In India, the artists who have made a name for themselves in the last ten or fifteen years seem to dissociate and ignore the foundation that was laid by a whole lot of landmark artists, for what is today called Indian art. I find that disrespectful to what is inherently your own artistic roots. A tree without roots isn’t alive.

This I believe happened because our “new age artists” thought that to be truly international they need to adopt international roots and hence, the rampant dominance of installations, video art and everything that falls into the genre of new media. Although, most artists I know practicing new media have studied painting, sculpture, printmaking etc. and not their current medium of choice. I don’t wish to be misunderstood. I don’t have an issue with any medium but with the lack of a unique and artistic proficiency in it.

It is an arguable fact that internationally, the last great movement in art was Abstract Expressionism or at best, Postmodernism. Which means that the world hasn’t seen a truly landmark art movement or artists of truly great caliber for the past thirty odd years.

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