‘hello could you remind me what is in the onion salad please? i know it’s v few ingredients, i can’t stop thinking about it’
‘Haha of course x Lemon juice, red chili powder (lots but as much as you can take), salt. You can also add chopped coriander on top. Hope you like it’
On the front of a postcard––which on the back holds the exhibition text––the onion salad in a black bowl on a yellow and pink floral tablecloth, soft and warm in velvety swathes of oil pastel. I think about that salad all day, how it would crunch between my teeth and fizz on my tongue, the sharpness shooting my nose and easing my lousy summer cold.
I will have my cake and eat it too, an exhibition by Ragini Chawla, softly opened last Monday afternoon at the Goethe Institute. This unusual timing was decided by Andy and Robert to be the most convenient for the many potential attendees who work in the service industry or galleries. Curated in collaboration with Ane Lopez, the exhibition is a presentation of works by Chawla from the last three years, during and since, graduating from the Masters in Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art during the hellish (strikes, workshops closures, covid-19) year of 2020. The exhibition is situated in an old wash house in the back garden of the Goethe Institute. Inside, the brick-shaped cracked white tiles that cover the larger room are familiar, lining courtyard spaces between buildings in the city centre.
I google the phrase, ‘I will have my cake and eat it too’. The wikipedia page for its original casting, ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it’ informs me that its first recorded use was in a letter from Thomas, Duke of Norfolk to Thomas Cromwell in 1538 and that the phrase appeared within evidence that led to the apprehension of the Unabomber, Ted Kraczinsky. For Chawla, in knowingly optimistic yet unfeasible admission, it’s about attempting to have it all and then preserve it all.
In the tiled room, partially a dedication to her grandmother (Chawla began a project of archiving her recipes in 2021 as a way of documenting her life) we see snapshots of the kitchen, food in process and decay, memories gelatinised. Frangible renderings of a banana peel and a small packet of rice in fine air-drying clay; a drawing of a floppy orange peel on paper curved around the tiled wall; another drawing of two disembodied hands peeling a ghostly potato; the invisible peels disappear into a thin pencil suggestion of a bowl. From a large board leaning against the wall, Chawla’s grandmother, in thick pastel, her white hair luminescent, keeps a close eye on us.
The smaller grey room is warm and dim. As I walk up the short steps, a small painting of a pair of flaccid blue skiing gloves that look like the head of a horned animal with dark eye stares up at me from its restful lean against the wall. Everyone in this room is in a state of respite: a figure, her mother, in soft pencil and hazy yellow wash extends her arm, mouth in mid-slumberous chat, just woken from a nap, on a scrap of foam board. Another three figures are in sluggish repose, an intimate and droll portrait of Chawla’s close family, where the centre of the unstretched canvas is all soft fabric folds and bellies. The canvas is lit by two soft pendulum lights at either side, a cosy setting for a family snooze. Painted after a long period of being away from home and her family, Chawla teases out complexities in domestic and gendered familial dynamics with natural wit. Intimacy extends through the depiction of this quotidien scene of awkward exchanges; there is a gentle sadness and cheeky tenderness.
Outside, in the back garden, bowls of berries and cheese twists stand on high tables, and ubiquitous cans of Tennents lounge in a blue ice bucket. I munch on a strawberry and chat with Chawla as more friends arrive. With great sentimentality, I realise then, and maybe it’s something about being in this garden, or a place I’ve never been before on a Monday afternoon, or this gathering of proud friends, or maybe it’s the cheese twists, that this all feels like a real celebration: a celebration of Chawla and her practice, and of an exhibition that, in its emotional and ephemeral capturing of life and its tacit intimacies, is all about celebration.
Caitlin Merrett King is a writer and programmer living in Glasgow.
Ragini Chawla at Goethe-Institut, Glasgow, until 30 June, www.goethe.de/ins/gb/en/ver.cfm?event_id=23030649