Authenticity and Vedic wisdom for luxury brands

Alicia Keys, the talented musician and singer, was in the news recently for having chosen decidedly to eschew makeup. In a monograph in a newsletter, she said she feels no need to cover up any more. She talked about her journey to self discovery and finding her authentic self which did not need to be hidden under layers of makeup.

On cue, and missing all the irony of Keys’s commentary, Harper’s Bazaar featured 74 models in selfies with the faces they were born with. Hashtag #nomakeup.

Ladies & Gentlemen, authenticity is now on trend, and branded.

In a related development, one of my favourite web friends, Jackie Danicki, has started writing Burned Out Beauty, a beauty blog which is my new not-so-secret indulgence. She was the original beauty blogger in 2004 on the world’s first beauty blog Jack & Hill.

Jackie is not being a contrarian. She took a break, so to speak, and she is back doing something that she loves, enjoys and is knowledgeable about. Jackie is authentic.

The good thing about being authentic is there is no need to be contrarian.

But how can brands find where their authenticity lies? Indeed what is authentic and what are the sources of authenticity?

Eagle-eyed readers will remember my agonising over the “authenticity” of the Porsche symposer some time ago. I ruminated on it a while. After all the car is man-made, as is the symposer, and it is humans that manifested the Porsche vroom in the car’s engine as well as the symposer. It is not about the engine, it is about the sound. Once I had reached that essentialist unifying thread, I was at peace.

Where a sensory signal is not the only or the main signature of the brand, a brand may have to work a tad harder to define what it stands for, what its authentic self is.

A beautiful and effective tool is to be found in a Vedic method of inquiry.

What the essence of something is is often arrived at by answering what it is not.

Neti-Neti. Not this, not this.

Unlike other fixed signals of authenticity, the process of Neti-Neti also accommodates indeed nurtures growth and reinvention. If we are no longer something, if we no longer stand for something, we are one step closer to being our authentic and whole self.

So with brands.

When luxury brands with deep heritage struggle to reinvent themselves and their relevance in a world with modern technology and newness, they can choose to look inward and answer what they are not.

What are you not, any longer?

Authentic & still relevant

Women Artists in London: Comix Creatrix

As recently as January 2016, Franck Bondoux, the director of the Angoulême Festival international de la bande dessinée in France, is on record saying there have been very few women illustrators or comic artists in history. The unwillingness to educate himself in the history of art, and at least the history of something that his job requires, is unsurprising.

This backdrop, of course, makes Comix Creatrix at the House of Illustration in Granary Square in the rapidly regenerating Kings Cross area an especially unmissable treat. The exhibition features a hundred women creatrixes and artists across generations (from the 1800s to the present times), genres (from comedy, to fantasy, to social commentary), and geographies (from North America to the Indian subcontinent), and is organised by themes. I went with a male friend, who, like me, grew up in India, and our childhoods featured many graphic novels and comics.

A video of the artists, discussing their processes and experiences, plays on loop in the room in the middle of the gallery. I watched the segment where Kripa Joshi, the Nepalese creatrix, talks about her process. Joshi draws the Miss Moti comic. “When spoken with a regular ‘T’, this Nepali word means a Plump Woman. But when spoken with a softer ‘T’ it means a Pearl.” I felt both a pang of pain and a giggle rising. These mixed feelings, I learnt, weren’t uncommon as one walked through the show.

Also in this space are many books including those by Marjane Satrapi and Amruta Patil, whose works are otherwise not on display in the exhibition.

The exhibition is a wall-to-wall herstory in comics. Much of the discourse is unmissably about oppression of some kind, whether sexual harassment, social norms, body shaming, stereotypical tropes, or other autobiographical experiences through history. It is hard to shake that thought as one walks through Revolution & Evolution, Personal Matters, Telling Stories, Laughter Lines, Living Histories, Flights of Fantasy, Strange Reflections, and Intimate Desires. 

Early in the first room, themed History Vs Her Story, I learnt of Jackie Ormes, the first African American woman to create a syndicated comic strip. Her character, Torchy Brown, covered several social themes including racial inequality, pollution etc.

I saw women creatrixes, who used only their surnames or shortened names to avoid sexism.

I learnt that there are only two women political cartoonists working in the UK. Then I was reminded of something I tweeted a long time ago. Lorna Miller is spot-on about Tristram Hunt. I said to my friend that I used to feel sad for him that with a name like Tristram, he will never be a Labour leader. Then I remembered his star turn at Jaipur Lit Festival and stopped feeling bad for him.

Lorna Miller on Tristram HuntI felt simultaneously sheepish and elated at discovering Audrey Niffenegger is also an illustrator. I laughed loudly at Corinne Pearlman’s “The Non-Jewish Jewess” and then caught myself. This kind of caution and self-censorship comes easy to my gender, I sometimes feel.

Corinne Pearlman on IdentityI wanted to see more of Sophie Standing’s work on pain.

Of personal interest to me were the women from the Indian subcontinent — Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, Kripa Joshi, Reshu Singh, and, of course, Manjula Padmanabhan, who has recently revived Suki. In an essay in 2010, Padmanabhan wrote about Suki and her journey.

People often ask me why I stopped my comic strip Suki. A better question is: “How did it get published at all?” In a culture where the birth of a daughter is regarded as a calamity and young brides are routinely murdered, what place is there for an awkward, fuzzy-haired girl whose best friend is a frog and whose favourite activity is sleeping late? If she had been a model-actress-airhostess, a hard-working mother or a sizzling chiquette in hot pants, she may have found a market today. But Suki was stubborn about resisting pressure, and meanwhile, the culture of forthrightness into which she was born died away around her.

The credits mention Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan Books, an imprint of India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, and publisher of books on, for, by and about women in South Asia. Extracts from their publication, titled Drawing The Line — Indian Women Fight Back — feature in the exhibition. Kaveri Gopalakrishnan’s “Imagine, Women” will resonate with pretty much every woman in this world.

Kaveri Gopalakrishnan's Imagine, WomenThanks to the Sequential app, I was able to bookmark many books to buy. On my list are Annie Goetzinger “Girl in Dior”, Eleanor Davis’s “How to be happy” and Una’s “Becoming unbecoming”. I first read Alison Bechdel in a friend‘s house and I was reminded much more is to be read. I recently read Roz Chast while faced with an aging parent related medical emergency. I look forward to acquiring the works of the Indian comic creatrixes on one of my future trips to India.

In an expansive showcase such as this, it is hard to feel not-understood or misunderstood. There was pain, there were nods of sympathy, there were full-throated laughs, there was puzzlement, there was quiet joy, there were pauses for thought.

Go with a friend. Go before May the 15th, 2016. It will leave you wanting for more.


An additional delight at the House of Illustration was being able to see a small exhibition of Lauren Child’s works. To those with children or little niblings, Child is well-known as the artist behind Charlie and Lola. She specialises in using paper drawings and objet trouvés, and has a lifelong fascination with the miniature. I found her The Princess & The Pea mounts very affecting. It has to be said that both my friend and I spent quite some time in front of the doll house she has created. That alone is worth a trip.

Lauren Child's Doll House
Lauren Child’s Doll House

(See Comix Creatrix in London before May the 15th, 2016 if you can. You can get the exhibition guide for free in the Sequential app, where you can also buy comics by many of the artists featured. No photos are allowed in Comix Creatrix. Photos seen in this post, other than the Doll House, are screenshots from the Sequential app guide to the show.)

Four For Friday (37)

Stanford University announced its new President this week. Marc Tessier-Lavigne is a “pioneering neuroscientist, former Stanford faculty member and outspoken advocate for higher education”. More importantly, in keeping with Stanford’s reputation as a crucible for entrepreneurial creativity, he has been executive vice president for research and chief scientific officer at Genentech, leading work on disease research and drug discovery for cancer, immune disorders, infectious diseases and neurodegenerative diseases.

In a conversation with Ruth Porat, a member of Stanford’s board of trustees, Tessier-Lavigne he talks about how, as a Rhodes Scholar, he chose philosophy and sharpened his critical thinking, and learnt to appreciate the importance of a broad-based education encompassing both liberal arts and the sciences. He talks at length about his research philosophy and interdisciplinarity. “Greatest advances are often made at the interfaces of disciplines,” he says, thus underscoring a crucial aspect of innovation for human betterment.

This week’s links are all about the role of liberal arts in education, research, and scholarship.

India is stereotyped in the west as a country of maths and engineering nerds. Creating a broad base of technocrats was what India needed after it gained independence from British rule. But this has created lopsided development. In a recent essay on the importance — and timeliness — of creating a liberal arts university in India, the founders review the history of higher education in India and ask crucial questions while outlining the form liberal arts education is taking in India under their watchful gaze.

Today, liberal education in India is not just blindly aping the western model. It incorporates the best of content, courses and knowledge that India has to offer and marries it with the best in contemporary pedagogy in terms of experiential learning, use of technology, grass-roots immersion and mentorship. It ensures that the best minds in India are capable of engaging with the toughest challenges we face as a society. This way we ensure that the Indian liberal education aspires to be not just the best in the world but the best for the world. As America worries about its overdependence on liberal education and its rising costs and relevance, India and its Asian neighbours are showing how a rejuvenated model of liberal education is not just an imperative but can be delivered in a high-quality and affordable model at a large scale. As a country we have the opportunity to change the course of higher education not just for India but for the world.

This impassioned essay reproduced in the Washington Post suggests kids need to learn philosophy. The entire essay is worth your time — especially though not only if you have or are in charge of children, in any form. For today’s children are tomorrow’s men and women, and we all have a stake in the matter. An excerpt:

I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” as Frederick Douglass once said in a different context. In that spirit, then, it’s imperative that our kids become philosophers.

As both the founders of Ashoka University in India and Steve Neumann, the author of the essay in WaPo note, liberal arts and philosophy seem to have a poor reputation as something of little “use” to society. To balance that, uh, feeling, here is a utilitarian argument about why digital companies need liberal arts majors. The piece is longer than it needs to be, but it can be skim-read for the main points.

But there will be a limit to how far computers can replace human capabilities, at least in the near long term. What can’t be replaced in any organization imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills, such as creativity, empathy, listening, and vision. These skills, not digital or technological ones, will hold the keys to a company’s future success. And yet companies aren’t hiring for them. This is a problem for today’s digital companies, and it’s only going to get worse.

Vinod Khosla, a leading light in the Silicon Valley, however holds a slightly different opinion. He argues that we need to teach critical thinking and the scientific method first, and humanities later.

To me, the fundamental tools of learning stem (no pun intended) from science, technology, engineering, and math. This updated curriculum should eclipse the archaic view of liberal education still favored by institutions like Harvard and Yale based on a worldview from the 1800s. Critical subject matter should include economics, statistics, mathematics, logic and systems modeling, current (not historical) cultural evolution, psychology, and computer programming. Furthermore, certain humanities disciplines such as literature and history should become optional subjects, in much the same way as physics is today (and, of course, I advocate mandatory physics study).

Finally, English and social studies should be replaced with the scientific process, critical thinking, rhetoric, and analysis of current news—imagine a required course each semester where every student is asked to analyze and debate topics from every issue of a broad publication such as The Economist, Scientific American, orTechnology Review. Such a curriculum would not only provide a platform for understanding in a more relevant context how the physical, political, cultural and technical worlds function, but would also impart instincts for interpreting the world, and prepare students to become active participants in the economy. After all, what is the job of education?

While I don’t fully agree with the “how” of Mr Khosla’s line of thinking, in my own life, I have made choices that have followed a similar path in educating myself as I have written elsewhere.

Studying numerate, “right answer” things followed by studying humanities – Engineering is a good first degree (although I think Physics is better but problem formulation skills acquired in engineering are second to none); but to situate the problem solving in the real world needs an understanding of how resources are allocated and how decisions are made. Studying the “there is no right answer” disciplines helped me become less linear and more able in life in general. It has worked well for my career too (I am now teaching Society & Technology to engineering undergraduates as a choice, and this was a subject I wish we had studied when we were in engineering school).

Women Artists in London: Annie Leibovitz

Long post alert!

Women artists are predicted to garner more attention this year. Right on cue there is Women: New Portraits, by Annie Leibovitz, the American photographer. The London show launches the 10-city international tour of the exhibition. These images are a continuation of the project Women that Leibovitz began with Susan Sontag many years ago.

I went to see the exhibition with two women friends, one of whom is a professional photographer.

Walking from Wapping Overground station, and talking about this and that, we could have easily missed the venue, the disused and dilapidated Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. While accessible on the shiny new Overground from the south and the north, it is not obvious why this venue was chosen. The show is sponsored by UBS so it is not like it was on a British art grant and had to be shown in an area being regenerated. Despite the location, it appears to have been a popular show, as evidenced by the crowd control frames, not in use when we went, in the grounds of the building.

As we entered, a young lady in an orange jacket stopped us. She would like us to know there are trip hazards inside. Oh, and we could take pictures with our phones if we like, but not with a camera.

The reason for the warning became clear soon.

This is no ordinary exhibition. The large hall has three large digital screens and a tacking wall with chairs in the middle. These screens are plugged into the walls, and necessitate floor cable protectors, which are the trip hazards we were warned about. Each large screens is made up of smaller screens. This makes for an interesting viewing experience. One expects the photos will be “broken” in some form. But as the images move at a soft clip – on two of the three large screens, except the one at the back which has a static picture of Queen Elizabeth II — they don’t feel broken. The tacking wall has same-size prints of many of the images. Another standing screen lists the names of all the women whose photographs are on show.

Annie Leibovitz exhibition - image by Karuna Kapoor
Annie Leibovitz’s exhibition – photo by Karuna Kapoor
The tacking wall at Annie Leibovitz's exhibition by Karuna Kapoor
The tacking wall at Annie Leibovitz’s exhibition – photo by Karuna Kapoor

While Women, the project began with images of American women in the late 20th century, Women: New Portraits looks at some other women too. Queen Elizabeth II and Adele being two of the several British women who are featured in this show. There are unexpected pictures of persons in personas such as Ellen Degeneres in a sparkly bikini with a white pantomime made-up face.

Ellen Degeneres by Annie Leibovitz
Ellen Degeneres by Annie Leibovitz

There are family portraits such as the Osbournes, who are probably the second most famous British family. There are mother-and-child(ren) portraits such as Arianna Huffington with her daughters and Carolina Herrera with her clan, but more notably, the striking Richardson clan.

Four Generations (Kempson & Richardson) by Annie Leibovitz
Four Generations (Kempson & Richardson) by Annie Leibovitz

Then there are portraits of domestic violence, of mine workers, of athletes (Serena and Venus feature in one such, looking fierce and awe inspiring), and of models in a long tableau format. While heavy on famous women, the range is considerable and admirable.

Gloria Steinem referred to those chairs in the middle of the hall as the “talking circle” where people could sit and discuss the feelings these photographs evoke. When we visited, there was very little talking going on. In a small backroom, with a tastefully casual ambience with a long communal table and several small and high-back chairs, there are books of photographs, not all by Leibovitz. That is where people talked more, mostly in whispers.

My photographer friend and I looked at some images in those books together. She pointed out how Leibovitz’s subjects almost always make eye contact with the camera. We talked about how our knowing the stories can change how we see the images. I confessed my prejudice that if I do not like a public person for their politics, I find it hard to appreciate their photographs, no matter how technically brilliant they are. Equally I felt Queen Elizabeth II’s photo is harsh, and her eyes without the signature twinkle makes for a strangely alienating experience.

The venue remains a peculiar choice. No doubt, by design.

Its bare-boned, utilitarian look is far from the opulent art galleries many of us are so used to. It is rough and ready, but it has potential. It has after all been transformed into an art gallery. It could be anything – a performance venue, a fashion show catwalk, a school, a speakeasy, a dance studio.

Perhaps that is the metaphor for modern womanhood where Annie Leibovitz’s art forms a confluence with the venue: the power to be the anything the woman can will herself to be.

(See it in London before February the 7th, 2016 if you can. Else catch it in Zurich, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, San Francisco, Mexico City or New York through to December 2016.)

Four For Friday (36)

Art is seen by many as unrelated to the grind of our quotidian lives. It sometimes is. But at other times, it encapsulates the times we live in, makes snide commentary, catalyses change, ignites conversation. This week’s readings are on Art. Not long essays just contemporary happenings.

When Lego refused the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei’s bulk order late last year, citing it “can not approve the use of Legos for political works”, it caused a storm. Lego has now announced its changed policy and will not ask what users intend to use their products for. instead asking customers to write a public disclaimer if the works are displayed. 

In a statement posted on its website on Tuesday, Lego said it used to ask customers ordering bulk purchases for the “thematic purpose” of their project, as it did not want to “actively support or endorse specific agendas”.

“However, those guidelines could result in misunderstandings or be perceived as inconsistent, and the Lego Group has therefore adjusted the guidelines for sales of Lego bricks in very large quantities,” it said.

As of 1 January the company will instead ask that customers make clear the group does not support or endorse their projects, if exhibited in public.

Public art is woven into the fabric of the urban life in London. From now until the 13th of February 2016, various London art galleries are showing a smorgasbord of art.

CONDO is a huge project that sees our very own Arcadia Missa, Carlos/Ishikawa, Chewday’s, Project Native Informant, Southard Reid, Rodeo, Supplement, and The Sunday Painter provide a series of collaborative exhibitions with galleries from Berlin, New York, Shanghai, Amsterdam, Roma, Glasgow, Sao Paulo, Geneva, and Zurich. Participating artists include Ed Fornieles, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Oscar Murillo, Puppies Puppies, Etel Adnan, A.L. Steiner, Pheobe Collings-James, and many, many more names besides.

This large-scale, ambitious initative turns the programme for London’s hippest galleries into a biennial format, of sorts. Expect an exhibition and you’ll be confronted by a bombastic network of some of the world’s hottest young artists being displayed alongside one another. Where one gallery may turn over their space to an international counterpart, others may divide their gallery into parts, showcasing their own work with their collaborative partner.

This isn’t just a hodgepodge rampage through the works of the art world’s next household names. Rather, it’s a delicately constructed, carefully curated selection of art that isn’t just hot right now – but that is destined to remain hot for a long time to come.

It is predicted that 2016 will see more interest in women artists and non-western art, according to Christie’s, the auctioneer.

From 1 April, London’s Saatchi Gallery is shaking things up, celebrating its 30th anniversary with an exhibition of works by 14 female artists, including Alice Anderson and Soheila Sokhanvari — whose Moje Sabz, a taxidermy horse straddling a ‘jesmonite blob’, is pictured at the top of this page.

Elsewhere, Victoria Miro is presenting works by Chantal Joffe, from 22 January to 24 March while, in America, female Abstract Expressionists including Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler are the stars of Women of Abstract Expressionism, a major show of more than 50 works at the Denver Art Museum that opens in June. From July, Georgia O’Keeffe and her sinister flowers will bloom at Britain’s Tate Modern.

Nigerian art is very much on the radar at the moment — just look at Lagos-based artists Peju Alatise, who works in cloth, or Yusuf Grillo. Galleries such as London’s Jack Bell and October Gallery have taken note, and the success of shows such as Touria El Glaoui’s 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (returning to New York in May, and to London in October), is bringing hot new painters to international attention all the time.

A tribute to womanhood, in the form of photographic portraits by Annie Leibovitz, is currently on show in London.

Can you capture the infinitive varieties of womanhood? That’s what Annie Leibovitz’s new exhibition, “Women: New Portraits”, an extension of a project she began with her late partner Susan Sontag in 1999, attempts to achieve.

“Visualising what women look like, who we are, was a very, very important thing to do,” she explained to Forbes. “Men have been portrayed, we understand in art and photographs very well. We understand how men look, but with women haven’t really developed that. Who are we? With my work, I’m very interested in what women do and who we are.”

The mention of women artists reminded me of something shared by novelist Rabih Alameddine last year. “Wife dabbles in art” is the headline about Frida Kahlo. She has been having a laugh ever since. Publication unknown.

Frida in a headline from another time
Frida in a headline from another time