Sweet Sweat Memories (2001) was Hema's first solo exhibition at Gallery Chemould
, but I am reminded of an earlier show, the 10th International Triennale where she won the first prize. She had covered the walls with 2000 cockroaches at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi. Grizzly, creepy crawlies, but also gorgeously hand-crafted. When art was meant to be beautiful, here was this young artist exploring our innate sense of repulsion. The cockroaches actually give one a good insight into what was to become the obsessive way with which Hema crafted her work. So it was with Dream a Wish, Wish a Dream, the monumental landscape of Dharavi where she would cut small pieces of tin to create gigantic scale works. Or the 2,00,000 matchsticks with which she created the Matchstick Chandeliers. Scale was her forte and she was completely unafraid to approach it, just as she was comfortable with space, however large or small it was. The work presented at Lille (France) was the first of many exhibitions abroad. She participated in large-scale surveys of contemporary Indian Art around the world - at the Mori Museum in Japan, the Pompidou, the spectacular collaboration with her mother in Chicago, to name a few.
Her use of material - especially "poor material" - was exceptional. She used tarpaulin and tin to create slum visualisations, matchsticks to create posh chandeliers, she used silhouettes of herself in vinyl to create magical maps of the city, and rice to create the most magnificent landscapes. She embraced every opportunity and approached it like a lioness in her den. Hema worked very hard, whether it was her research on landscape as metaphor, or the obsessive cutting of relevant information for her collages.
Artists when in their studios are the happiest of human beings. Hema never failed to tell me this - when work over-took her, she was in her element. No amount of outside noise, no personal disruption could disturb that sense of equanimity. So when I worried that she was often alone, or even lonely -- she would turn around and say, "Never worry about me when I am in my studio. Nothing gives me more pleasure than me with my work." She was private as a person, but never private when it came to her work - she was bold, she was brave and she took risks.