Matriarch, mother, goddess. A mere glance at her eighteen-foot-tall presence — forbidding yet nurturing, confounding yet illuminating — elicits a restorative sense of ease. As one strolls into the southeast entrance of Central Park, she is called on to confront Bharti Kher’s Ancestor, a hulking hand-decorated bronze sculpture, protector of tourists, buskers, and joggers alike. With twenty-three distinct heads—each about a third the side of her own—affixed to her waist and upper abdomen, the diety-like figure seems to carry the world itself and all its burdens in her bangled arms.
Public Art Fund unveiled Ancestor last week at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza, on view through August 27 of next year. The public project is the latest display in Kher’s ambitious collection of work that spans nearly three decades and encompasses many mediums including painting, sculpture, and mixed media installations. Never one to champion flawlessness over fault, always one to invite question over reason, this is not the first time the New Dehli and London-based artist has shaped, molded, and morphed the figure of the female body into a being that feels otherworldly, even everlasting. Born out of a series of smaller sculptures the artist created by piecing together clay figurines found in India—works she calls “Intermediaries”—Ancestor is the culmination of this series, a larger-than-life version whose magnitude transgresses far beyond the width of her pedestal.
Standing before Ancestor’s bare feet, one can’t help but see themselves as a layman bowing before an all-knowing God. Circumventing her broad figure to enter the park without acknowledging her power feels like a sin meriting atonement. American Elms loom above her, their branches intertwining to create a natural archway under which she waits. The red patina on her sari is fading; the rough textures and jagged edges of her bronze surface suggest she’s been revered far longer than the selfie-takers who admire her through their screens can comprehend. She is weathered, not impervious to pain. But her abyss-like, colorless eyes gaze straight ahead, adding a layer of mystery to an otherwise youthful, unflinching face. In them, in her, she holds the perils of the past and the trials of tomorrow, yet still, she stands tall, carrying our weight.
A view of her rear reveals the straightness of her back as well as a waist-long, rope-like braid trailing from ovular mounds of hair jutting outwards and upwards from behind her head. A bronze casting, shaped to resemble the backside of a veiled woman, has been shoddily affixed to her upper waist. Whether this indeterminate extension of herself is the physical embodiment of an acolyte or simply an abstraction, it establishes Ancestor as the ultimate connector between spirit and being.
Adorned with Indian garments, shadowed by a cloak resembling that of an Arab female, irreversibly attached to a small army of unidentifiable heads, Ancestor cannot be linked to an ethnic or religious tradition. In a cunning act of defiance, Kher denounces her American viewer’s instinct to locate this goddess within a people, a time, a period. Who are we to assume her identity, and establish her sense of belonging? She’s an ancestor to us all, Kher asserts. As loath as we are to admit, as divided as we may seem, at our core each of us is the same.
“She is the keeper of all memories and time. A vessel for you to travel into the future, a guide to search and honor our past histories, and a companion–right here, right now–in New York City,” Kher told Public Art Fund. Indeed, there is no better time than now for a monument like this one to offer protection and unity, to send rain into our collective well of goodness, positivity, and hope. Bharti Kher’s invitation to look beyond and outside of ourselves—to invoke a greater sense of universality—is a message we New Yorkers must heed.
-Annie Lyall Slaughter