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The Sapper, the title of Bharat Sikka's online show with Nature Morte (2 July–5 August 2020), describes a military engineer, which is what Sikka's father was. The former member of the Indian Army Corps is the protagonist in an accumulation of photographed moments—portraits, landscape shots, still lifes, and collages—that combine into a fragmented and layered portrait of a father, and the relational space between him and his son.

Left to right: Bharat Sikka, Sapper 4 (2019). PhotoRag 308 paper with wooden frame. 83 x 104 cm; Sapper 5 (2019). PhotoRag 308 paper with wooden frame. 83 x 104 cm. Courtesy the artist and Nature Morte.

The project's tone is abstract, earth-hued, and constructivist, from a shot of Sikka's father's shadow seen holding an alphabet stencil against sandstone in Sapper 25 (2019), to him carrying a diamond-shaped board obscuring his upper body in a sandy landscape in Sapper 12 (2019).

Some photographs centre on constructions that Sikka and his father built collaboratively, whether the wooden grid nestled within the brick alcove of a roofless outdoor construction in Sapper 28 (2019), or collages like Sapper 31 (2019), which shows a small black and white image of a column positioned on grid paper with a ruler placed vertically to the side. Then there are the still lifes, which make use of rich shadows and contrasts to frame their subject; like the green mangoes on a wooden platter with an image of tropical fruit pasted onto it in Sapper 24 (2019), or a cream glove stuck on a thorny shrub with Sikka's father's hand pictured to its side in Sapper 29 (2019).

Left to right: Bharat Sikka, Sapper 24 (2019). PhotoRag 308 paper with wooden frame. 53 x 55 cm. Courtesy Nature Morte; Sapper 29 (2019). PhotoRag 308 paper with wooden frame. 53 x 66 cm. Courtesy the artist and Nature Morte.

Sikka talks about spending little time with his father growing up due to his frequent work travels, creating a 'distance and closeness' that permeates The Sapper, at once intimate and carefully—if not respectfully—detached.1

This paradoxical balance is something of a hallmark. 'Where the Flowers Still Grow' (2014–2015), for instance, draws on The Collaborator, Mirza Waheed's 2011 novel about a Kashmiri man's entanglement with history on the border of Indian and Pakistani Kashmir, to explore the historically contested Himalayan region. The series is thoughtfully sequenced on Sikka's website, as with other projects, into a visual score that carries dynamic lulls and devastating crescendos. Men are pictured in the landscape, often a subject of its own; while personal effects are shot against sharp monochrome backgrounds. One segment in particular stands out—the close-up of a hand on a red-stained floor, paired with the ominous view down a dark corridor.

Bharat Sikka, from the series 'Where the Flowers Still Grow' (2014–2015). Courtesy the artist and Nature Morte.

'Where the Flowers Still Grow' began 'as a lighter, poetic version of the place' and became 'heavier' as it unfolded, Sikka says. 'I didn't want to take any sides on the political matter; I just wanted to inspect it in my own way, documenting the people in their land.'2

There is an elevated drama in these later frames; an intensity that captures the many moods and faces of progress.

That same distance—more slow, inquisitive circling than objective position—charges Sikka's work, including his commissions, whether a 2018 portrayal of Baba Ramdev for a New York Times article titled 'The Billionaire Yogi Behind Modi's Rise', to past fashion stories for the likes of Vogue or Harper's Bazaar, in which context became elevated to a model's co-subject. A 2013 editorial for Marie Claire Italy draws on Christopher Doyle's iconic cinematography for Wong Kar Wai's films, speaking to Sikka's influences, among them filmmakers David Lynch and Wim Wenders, painter Edward Hopper, and photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia. References speak to the narrative depths that build across interlinking works and series, which chart the artist's evolution in parallel to the worlds he observes.

Bharat Sikka, from the series 'Indian Men' (2002). Courtesy the artist and Nature Morte.

There is a through line between The Sapper and the first project Sikka showed after graduating from Parsons School of Design in 2002, where he enrolled in his late twenties after making a name for himself in fashion photography. 'Indian Men'—portraits of his father, father-in-law, uncles, and friends—prompted Sikka to portray India at a time of rapid globalisation beyond the stereotypes, leading to the 'Space In Between' series, for which he turned the lens of a 4x5 camera on to shifting socio-cultural terrains. From city streets and sports fields to stray concrete drainage pipes and close-up shots of electrical cables, large-format pictures are richly saturated with muted colours—aging, off-white urban paint jobs, for example, or the pale blue of a smog-filtered sky.

Bharat Sikka, from the series 'Space In Between' (2004–ongoing). Courtesy the artist and Nature Morte.

The projects that followed continued tracking personal and regional transitions. 'The Road to Salvador Do Mundo' is named after the village Sikka moved to in Goa after his daughter was born; while the mixed-format 'Matter' is an extension of 'Space in Between'—full colour photographs on the edge of greyscale, from a plaster cast of a Shiva statue in a white studio, to a night shot of an ornate silver carriage, the camera's flash picking up the corrugated iron fence behind it.

There is an elevated drama in these later frames; an intensity that captures the many moods and faces of progress. A beam of light pierces into a dilapidated theatre in one shot; in another, the face of a ragpicker staring straight to camera is shrouded in shadow.

Bharat Sikka, from the series 'Matter' (2011–2012). Courtesy the artist and Nature Morte.

This balance between knowing and unknowing—that engagement with the image as a fleeting fragment of relational complexity—moves through Sikka's practice. With that in mind, The Sapper keeps in line as a study that is at once intimate and distant, definitive and in flux; of a relationship not only with a subject, but with a sense of place and time.—[O]

[1] 'Bharat Sikka – The Sapper', Paper Journal, 6 November 2019, https://paper-journal.com/interview-bharat-sikka-the-sapper/

[2] Cat Lachowskyj, 'A Life's Work', LensCulture, 2019, https://www.lensculture.com/articles/bharat-sikka-a-life-s-work

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