In the solo exhibition “Wildlife,” now at Big Medium, artist Manik Raj Nakra explores the implication of isolation through colorful, allegorical depictions of nature. Folk art mixed with fluorescent spray paint and upside-down animal heads shake up old myths and new truths. Five large-scale paintings framed like fortress windows offer a glimpse into the ancient world through an uncertain future.
When lockdown began last March, Nakra found himself looking out his window, wondering what happens when humanity removes itself from the natural world. It was like suddenly living in a tower of solitude, he recalls. The decorative wooden frames around each painting are a reminder that we’re all in a tower somewhere.
“Agra” references the floral patterns etched into the Taj Mahal, but it’s the garden of severed monkey heads that get your attention. Buried in the ground, these heads signify humanity’s mistakes, Nakra tells me. From these mistakes, new life grows. Ornamental bindis accent the flowers sprouting from the soil. “Each sparkle is a remnant of memory — a reminder to not repeat history.”
Bindis are a new medium for the artist, who says he wanted to bring something fresh to his practice. The brightly colored dot (or jewel, in this case), typically worn on the forehead to symbolize the third eye, has an indispensable role in these paintings, though subtle at first.
In “Chosen,” the flared hood of a pissed-off cobra is covered in hundreds of bindis — little eyes looking back at you from deep within. It turns out the viper is Christ, an interesting choice for an unlikely animal archetype. “I almost named this piece ‘He Has Risen,’ but I like the one-word titles since they feel more like altars.”
Iconoclastic iconography pairs well with Nakra’s offbeat humor: exotic, erotic, a bit in-your-face.
He tells me his paintings have been heavily influenced by British-Nigerian artist Chris Ofili, whose own work has been known to raise a few third-eye points. Most notably, Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996), which was featured in “Sensation,” a group exhibition that traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. Then-mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to shut down the city-funded institution if they didn’t remove Ofili’s gold glittering portrait of the Black Madonna, which included pornographic cutouts and elephant dung. The painting did not sit well with Catholics and conservatives who perhaps failed to recognize its deeper dialectical analysis of the sacred and the profane.
In “Moth” a bright severed tiger head quietly releases an insect from its fangs as a floral motif (this time, a Persian pattern) invades the rest of the canvas. Nakra makes mention that moths are seen as angels of death in various cultures throughout the world, from Mongolia to Mexico. In this instance, death seems to be on its way out.
If “Wildlife” is a biodiverse shoutout to India’s flora and fauna, then its installation, “King of Delhi,” is a nod to the country’s regional architecture and design. When stepping back, the installation loosely resembles a Mughal palace, with minarets on either side of a central dome.
Nakra says the piece has gotten more complex over time, thanks to COVID postponing the show by six months. “King of Delhi” is made up of 40 or so panels — primarily charcoal and chalk drawings — of various patterns and styles found in palaces throughout the subcontinent.
To spruce up the fort, Nakra began to incorporate biology drawings, watercolors of animals and nature scenes, inspired by the 19th-century Company School, a style of Indian painting. Such artworks were meant to document natural life in India, though the style was heavily influenced by European a palette. (This made them more appealing to travelers looking for a little something to bring back home.)
Nakra’s installation also includes several cloud panels hanging from the gallery ceiling for a mythical and supple feel. (A single neon pink argyle piece, amidst a wall of mostly grey, gives the Mughal fortress a nice contemporary pop.) I tell Nakra the soft suspended pieces remind me of prayer flags atop some mountain monastery. “They also function as flags waving from the Capitol Building,” he deadpans.
For all the wildlife in “Wildlife,” there is one large-scale work that takes on humanity. “Dream” is an Adam and Eve variation, its male and female figure sleeping at the foot of a tree growing from a tiger’s mouth. Beyond this tree of knowledge, a new planet is taking shape.
Are we entering a new age, I ask Nakra, or will it be business as usual a year from now?
“Things will likely change in only a handful of areas, but people will largely go back to the same,” he says, lightly adding, “we are doomed to cut off our own heads.”
“Wildlife” is on view at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Road, until May 1.