In Hyderabad artist Rahul Mitra’s Box City installation draws attention to urban living

Within the walls of the State Gallery of Art in Hyderabad, artist Rahul Mitra surveys a collection of 300 cardboard boxes that he procured from Esamia Bazar in Koti. These aren’t ordinary boxes; they are the foundation of his upcoming installation, ‘Box City,’ a reflection on the box-like nature of urban homes. For over ten years, Mitra, a Hyderabad native who has since set up base in Houston, has been globally recognized for his unique ‘Box City’ installations. This iteration will grace The NEWS Art Fest 2024 and remain at the State Gallery until March 7. Concurrently, Mitra’s solo exhibition, ‘Elephant in the Room,’ is set to captivate audiences at Gallery 78, Madhapur, from February 18 to 22.

Rahul Mitra wears many hats—artist, writer, and scientist. He once served as the Director of the non-coding RNA Cancer Center at MD Anderson Cancer Center in the USA and was instrumental in the development of ovarian cancer therapeutics now advancing through clinical trials. At Gallery 78’s ‘Elephant in the Room,’ Mitra’s scientific background subtly infuses his art, with visuals like a DNA helix emerging amidst his work.

‘Box City’ is more than an exhibition—it’s a collaborative journey. Mitra has brought his project to life in numerous cities including Houston, Paris, Turin, New Delhi, and Berlin. He engages diverse communities, inviting them to impart their creativity onto cardboard, wood, or metal boxes. The initiative transcends artistic expression by repurposing discarded materials, thus highlighting socioeconomic issues faced by the marginalized in society.

His collaboration in Delhi’s Khirki village saw local children transform the boxes with color and imagination. Their sense of ownership preserved the installation well beyond expectations, remaining intact for months and eventually capturing the attention of an Italian graffiti artist on social media. Mitra’s collaborative art fosters dialogue and builds unexpected friendships—like the 150 new connections he made during his time at the Portland Museum of Art for the 2013 Biennial.

Complementing the collaborative nature of ‘Box City,’ Rahul Mitra’s ‘Elephant in the Room’ elicits contemplation through metaphor and visual storytelling. One of his paintings compellingly titled ‘Elephant in the room is not the elephant’ confronts viewers with a literal elephant among people, prompting musings on the unseen or unspoken aspects of their interactions. Another piece scrutinizes the aspirational value of wearing a “whitest of the white” shirt, while snakes and ladders recur throughout his portfolio, symbolizing both reverence and fear, time’s relentless passage, and life’s precarious volatility.

Gender narratives weave their way into Mitra’s paintings. Female figures emerge as symbols of resilience, likely inspired by the strong women in his own life, including his mother and sisters. His art doesn’t shy away from the topics that unsettle—urban inequality, gender disparities, and the harsh realities of socio-political climates—as illustrated in his works ‘Garden of Inequality’ and ‘Usurper’s Dream.’ Through his artful intersection of science, gender, politics, religion, and globalization, Mitra invites the audience to confront the ‘elephants in the room’—the all-too-often ignored issues that surround us.

Reflecting on his past, Mitra traces the roots of his multi-faceted interests to his upbringing in Hyderabad. He absorbed his father’s spirit of social activism, his medical contributions to rural Telangana, and the cultural richness he experienced. As a young child, Mitra’s inclination towards the arts was nurtured by his father, who, instead of reprimanding him for drawing on clinic walls, encouraged him with art supplies. This early encouragement and exposure to interdisciplinary fields fed Mitra’s creativity, which found expression in both visual and written forms.

Rahul Mitra believes in the power of aesthetics to captivate and engage, stating, “Because the world is not bleak and there is progress. I think an aesthetic work of art catches viewers’ attention and encourages them to think.” Now, years after his initial exhibition in Hyderabad in 2008, he returns with a deeper narrative and a wealth of experiences that continue to enrich his artistic journey. Through his dual exhibitions, Rahul Mitra offers a lens into his perspective on life, marked by a deep social consciousness and a seamless marriage of art, science, and societal discourse.

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