Gunjan Aylawadi is an Indian paper artist based in Sydney, Australia. Through a technique that is as intricate and grounded in geometry as her final pieces, she challenges the ideas of what constitutes art and craft.
What is your earliest memory of drawing or making something?
There are many memories, but one thing stands out. We had a summer project in school for 7th or 8th standard, and we had to make a newspaper over the break. To me, that was the most exciting holiday project ever . I made the most elaborate newspaper, people really had to look closer to realize that it wasn’t an actual newspaper. I think I took the project way more seriously than it was meant to be taken. When I went back to school after the break, I was the only person with this massive newspaper. My parents wanted to laminate it, and photocopy it and have it for the years to come. My teacher was a trainee, and she took the newspaper to show her professors at Delhi University and never returned it. Everyone who saw it then still talks about it, but I guess it’s maybe somewhere in the University. When we were younger, my brother and I would make our own kites, because our parents wouldn’t buy us any when we wanted them. It was more rebellious behaviour than creativity, really. You’re from India, you might get what I’m talking about. There were so many rules growing up, with dramatic consequences, like not to fly kites unsupervised or we would fall from the rooftop and die. My parents didn’t want to supervise us flying kites, and I didn’t want to give up on the idea of it. So I would make my own things.
It was more rebellious behaviour than creativity, really.
I absolutely get that! So even in school you were sort of dabbling with the idea of graphic design, which is essentially what this newspaper project was.
I would do all my projects, and my brother’s because I really enjoyed it. I would draw charts for school, and I got a reputation within the school for having the best ones.
But you went into Engineering after that.
I always wanted to go to the National Institute of Fashion Technology(NIFT) in India. I wrote the exam, I got accepted to NIFT, Gandhinagar with a good rank. My parents convinced me to not do that, and to become an engineer instead, the way parents do in India. So I did that, but it wasn’t something that ever interested me. Delhi has this thing where the National Capital Region (NCR) has many engineering colleges that guarantee employment when you graduate. So it doesn’t really matter to anybody where you study, as long as you can land a job with one of the bigger companies. I went to Maharishi Dayanand University (MDU) for Computer Science, I took on the responsibility of the internal press and designed the school newspaper. I worked really hard on it, and not on my studies.
What were you using to design the school newsletter? Did you have to teach yourself anything?
I designed the whole thing on Microsoft Publisher — I didn’t have access to Adobe programs at home, and Publisher seemed to do the job. We had a team of ten people, and they would go out and interview others, and write articles, opinion based pieces, taking pictures, generally covering what happened on campus. It was a really cool bi-weekly newspaper that we made with some really basic tools.
At the end of four years, did you know that you didn’t want to be an engineer? Or was your heart just not into it from the beginning?
I was still thinking of NIFT. I’d made a deal with my parents, I would do an undergrad in engineering, but I would do a masters in NIFT. I wrote the exam again. I got accepted to NIFT Delhi, which is what my parents wanted anyway — for me to be in Delhi. At the same time, I also had a job offer from Infosys Limited… like I said, employment was pretty much guaranteed after graduation in those days. Once again, people convinced me to take the job offer, rather than spend two years back in school and risk not having a job later. When I think about it now, it was a pretty bad idea. People who went to NIFT at that time are doing some amazing things in Retail Design in India now. I gave in to the pressure and went to Infosys. I cleared the training program pretty easily, but when it came to actually starting work, I was on bench for a while because people were waiting to be assigned projects. I volunteered to make my team’s internal communication material; they used to send out mailers, plan events. So using some really basic tools again, I designed mailers and things. Somebody from the company’s corporate communications team saw these, and they asked me to join the team because they had a vacancy. And that’s how I got rid of my computer science background for good and moved on to internal communication for Infosys.
I did that for about two years, and that’s where I met my husband as well. He was moving to U.S.A, and I moved with him and also wanted to pursue my dream of getting an education in visual arts or related disciplines. By this time, visual merchandising and corporate communication had become potential options for me. I applied to the School of Visual Arts in New York, but missed the deadline and didn’t do a very good job of putting together the application either; I got rejected. I decided that I would apply again the following year, but things changed, and we had to move to London. I started applying for jobs in corporate communications there, but we had to move once again, to Australia. That’s where I finally decided to do the education that I wanted to do. But instead of corporate communication or visual merchandising, I decided to do industrial design. I was smitten by this furniture designer Tanya Aguiniga, whose work I’d seen online, and I thought that was pretty cool and something that I would want to do as well. She was an industrial designer, and I thought that an industrial design course would enable me to make work like that. I realised later that’s not how it works.
What was the time between these big moves?
All of these moves were in a span of two years. It was a lot for that amount of time, which is why I didn’t get the chance to do what I wanted to do either in the U.S. or in London. Once we moved to Australia I decided to study again. I enrolled in Sydney TAFE Design Center Enmore for a diploma course. They had shorter courses that were more hands on, and prepared you for the industry.
What kind of projects did you work on while you were there that led you to conclude at the end of two years, that this wasn’t it?
There was a 2 month period between the time I was accepted, and when I had to start at school. I had free time, and I really enjoy making stuff. My husband and I had moved into a new home, and I wanted to decorate it — I’m the sort of person who prefers making things over going out and buying. I was making stencils and cut paper pieces, because I was neater and more polished with those than if I had to apply paint. I used cut paper for posters, and gifts for friends. I tried weaving with paper at some point. The whole DIY, vintage thing was really big then, and I was looking at these bird cages that a lot of people were making in different colours. Instead of painting them, I thought I could cover the wire with coloured paper instead. I got a bird cage and started wrapping the wires with paper. There was one day when I got really tired, I’d rolled up all the paper to cover the wire, but I didn’t have the energy to glue them. I just left them on the table and went to bed. The next morning, the paper had opened up, it didn’t seem like I could use it anymore. I wanted to bring in fresh paper and start over. But these curled papers were on the table in front of me, and I found myself staring that them. I was really fond of ikat patterns at that time, and I felt like those curled strips of paper resembled that. I thought if I stuck the strips to paper, it might emulate that effect of an ikat fabric. I tried it and it looked pretty bad. It wasn’t coming out the way I thought it would in my head.
Normally, I never have patience with things, but I don’t know why I refused to give up on this. I just felt like if I did it properly, it would turn out right. So I tried again, and again, and again. There was one version that was sort of turning out well, and my husband saw it and felt that if I did it really really well, then it would be something unique. I really respect his opinions, he’s such an abnormally patient person, it’s something I try to follow. I was patient with the piece, and it did turn out really nice. I put it up on Etsy, and someone got in touch with me, saying they liked my work and would I want to be part of a group exhibition? That’s how the art thing happened. I had started college by then, and I was doing this on the side. When I said yes to an exhibition, I didn’t realise that it would blow up into where I am today. Someone else saw the work at the first exhibition and offered me another one and so on, and it hasn’t stopped yet. Touchwood.
Did any of your work with paper cross over with the work you were doing in college?
The paper curling technique didn’t come in at any point because any time I brought up the idea of combining it with my college work, my professors weren’t very encouraging of that cross over. They were more interested in practical industry applications, and what I was doing wouldn’t really get me a job.
I have considered creating products with this technique though, but conserving paper is such a laborious task. In one of our first assignments we had to create a flatpack lamp, and I wanted to bring in the paper technique as a surface. But how do you keep all this paper from going bad after a few years?
Producing multiples would be a problem too.
Well, there is a market for one-off productions. But then, paper is still considered a flimsy material. I couldn’t see people paying money for something that naked and exposed to the elements, that would surely get destroyed over time. You want one-off products to have a life, and paper doesn’t do that really well.
At what point did you realise that the work you were making needed to be preserved as much as possible, and did it change how you were making things in any way?
It absolutely did. When I started out, I was making things for myself; how did it matter what I used? But then people started wanting to buy these pieces, and it hurt my conscience to think that I hadn’t done the best thing for them to be able to have this piece for a long time. They’re going to live with this piece, and I couldn’t bring myself to sell something that was not of the best quality. Back then I didn’t even understand that there was a difference between what I was using and what art materials were. I was just using colourful paper that I found in stores; I didn’t know that there was a concept called sun-bleaching. The Australian sun is so harsh, I’d never seen sun like this before let alone know what sun-bleaching was. I observed that my papers were getting bleached and I knew that if it happened to what I was selling to people, it would be awful. I found acid -free paper, and I did some research and found that there were papers that I could buy that had a longer lifespan, and hold on to their colour better. I started using archival safe glue to make my pieces, and generally investing in better quality art materials.
Did you have any concepts in mind when you started making these pieces?
None at all. I was making these things for myself, so I could do whatever I fancied. It was art for pleasure and not art for business. When someone saw my work on Etsy and asked me to exhibit, that’s when I figured I had to get serious about it and consider what I wanted to make, that I was happy for the world to see. Before Etsy, I wouldn’t show any of the early work to anyone. I mean, everything is on Instagram, but back then, my Instagram was for my family and friends. I had a couple of months to make my pieces for the first exhibition, and I knew that this process would take me time. My first answer to that was geometry. There is so much certainty in geometry, you draw a line and know where it will intersect with another line, and what shape that will lead to. Everything else in my life has been so uncertain, I get a sense of peace from drawing these lines. I enjoyed it so much, I kept making more geometric pieces.
There is so much certainty in geometry, you draw a line and know where it will intersect with another line, and what shape that will lead to.
You’ve been working with more organic forms as well.
There was one show coming up, and I knew geometry didn’t fit that theme. I was trying stuff out, and in that process, I started letting the paper curls lead the way. There’s only so much control I have with this medium. I can make the curls really well, but how they sit on the paper, and how layers upon layers lead to a shape, is something that I can control only if I have lines drawn on the paper. Without those lines, the paper leads me to a certain direction. I was trying to make a piece and get the paper to look a certain way, but they just wouldn’t. But when I let the paper do its own thing, the result was way better than what I could have imagined. I loved the result so much, I knew it was something to explore in the future. I like having control over things, because I’m a control freak. But not having control also led to something. Apart from directing the first strip of paper that gets put down, I simply let the paper layer.
It’s okay for me to let go, I feel, because it leads to something beautiful that I could not have thought of myself. A lot of artists talk about how they’re only a channel or a medium, and somebody else is at work. The organic pieces were the only time that I’ve felt that way, that it’s not something I willed into existence, but something that is happening through me. This is somebody else’s plan, and not mine, and I’m fine with it.
I’m trying to correlate this with what you said about geometry. The results of these pieces must have been comparable to the feeling you got from the certainty in your other work.
Yes, it was definitely freeing. Especially after growing up in India, where there’s so much competition and you have to fight to show that you exist, and make yourself heard. That’s how the ‘I have no opinions’ piece came about, I felt like it was okay to not have to express yourself all the time. There are times when I see someone’s really organized cohesive work, and I wish I could be that person who does everything in only black, or only white and whose life is that sorted. Then I look at my own work, and there are all these colours — sometimes they look good together and with others I wonder, where I am going with them? Why can’t I have a defined colour palette in my life? If there was one course I could do today, it would be one on colour and how to make them work with each other. I feel like I need that sense of colour. I keep hating things that I make because I didn’t choose the right colour.
I’ve been having this conversation as well, about struggling with larger colour decisions — should my choices be theoretical, should they be purely based on taste, do I need a consistent colour palette across all my work…?
It’s a very tricky thing. I know I said I wish I could pair colours better, but I feel like when they pair too well, they can become boring. Sometimes putting colours that don’t belong together in the same space can have results. It would take longer to absorb them. Sometimes it’s easier to live with something that you’ve had a struggle with than something that was just a natural fit. Specifically, I’d point to my piece Tikrar. I consciously made the floor piece disconnected from the wall. I didn’t think the colours worked together, and I hated the piece so much that I destroyed it.
Both the floor and wall piece?
All of it ended up in the recycle bin. That’s how much I hated it. I lived with it for almost a year because my husband wouldn’t let me throw it. He went away on a project for 2 months, and I threw it.
Now that I look at the pictures of the exhibit, these are the only images that I can look at for more than 2 seconds — there is some amount of interest in the colour choices that makes me pause as well. But there was something about it that just didn’t make sense. I’m sort of glad that I don’t have to look at it everyday.
I’m still in shock that you actually destroyed it! How much time did you spend on it?
The wall piece took about a month. And when I say a month, I work for 16 or 17 hours a day. It did take a lot of time. The ones on the floor took about a week each. I guess ‘time’ is such a difficult conversation to have. I mean, everybody asks, how much time did you spend on this and it turns into a discussion about time and how difficult the process is. There are other things in life that are really really hard to do, and people still do them. Doesn’t make this meaningful or valuable. Everyone wants to know about the time, but what’s the point?
What are your thoughts on how art and craft are seen as separate entities (and frequently with one being seen as more ‘important’ than the other)? Especially because of what you just said about time and relevance, and how ‘craft’ is always seen as something that is time-intensive but not valued as much.
This is something that I’ve struggled with. I don’t know, maybe it’s a sign of the times that no artist wants to be called a craftsperson, and vice versa. It’s almost offensive to some people that they are called craftspeople, even though everything is really a craft in the end. In context of India, it’s an especially bad case, because the people who spend all that time making the things that make us ‘Indian’, are the least respected. Their lives are really hard even though the end result of their work is something really really beautiful. I got familiar with Japan and how they treat their crafts, there is just so much respect from society for people who do their things well. The government declares people masters in their field, after they spend an entire lifetime doing something. They’re revered, even if they aren’t paid like top businessmen. That has changed my view a little bit, on this subject. Initially, I really hated the idea of being somebody who ‘does craft’, but I don’t care about it so much now. When I started to do this work with paper, my first demand on myself was that I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to do something that everyone else is doing, because then what’s the point of me spending any time doing this. Now it’s moved onto if I want to be like all other artists and considered a great artist in the conventional sense, then what’s the point of starting with wanting to do something different. The only time it gives me pain is when I sell my work, not to people, but to galleries. There’s always the doubt about how to approach them, will they consider what I do art? It’s a question that always bothers me, but maybe if I do this for longer, it will go away. I guess it’s about doing it till it becomes normal.
I’m coming back to the idea of time again. I read in an interview, you talk about the idea of slowing down. Why is this important to you?
Because this was something that was forced upon me in some sense. I was never a person who could think about what she stood for. I was very much a person to whom having an opinion mattered, it did not matter where that opinion came from or how much thought I had given to it. In all the moving that we did in those two years, when I was still thinking about what it was that I wanted to do…it left me with a lot of time, when things just did not move. It showed me that there was another way of living, that could give me what I wanted. I didn’t even know that this way was a possibility, or that it existed. Like when I worked in the corporate world, I wanted certain kinds of things, and I felt like I knew what the way to them was. But at the same time, I questioned a lot, what the meaning of it all was. Why am I doing this? To what end?
Like I might look at a beautiful pot and think about how someone spent hours making it, and how amazing it is that they get to live with such beautiful work. In that moment, I forget that I do that myself; I’ve to remind myself that that is me too.
It’s not something that I asked for, it was given to me and it changed my life. It gave me what I thought I would get by being somebody who moved really fast in life. Now I know that to do something that is meaningful, one has to slow down, think about what they want to do, what they stand for. There is a lot of thinking that needs to be done, it’s not enough to simply read something and say ‘that sounds right, I stand for that’. It’s what that I try to push through my work as well, that slowing down is a gift actually.
Now I know that to do something that is meaningful, one has to slow down, think about what they want to do, what they stand for.
Is that something you want people to feel when they see your work?Absolutely. It came to me because the first time I showed my work, I saw these people who were looking at my work and they had completely slowed down. There was this lady who kept coming back to look at the work, by the end of the night she was quite drunk on the free wine at the show. She came up to me and said “Darling, I have no idea how much you’re selling these works for, but please don’t give anybody any discount, they’re worth every penny that you’re asking for”. She was so touched by it. That was the first time I had put my work out in public, and just to see someone being so moved by me making an effort, doing something at home for myself. It changed the way I looked at art, and what I did. Before that, I was just making things because I wanted to. I read somewhere, and I don’t remember where, that an artist is an agent of hope. That’s how I feel about my work now. I’ll be okay if it does not mean a great deal, as long as it can bring that much happiness to some people.
How do you feel when you have to attach a price to your work?
I’m very generous with people that I really care about. I don’t even want to think about money when it comes to my friends, and if they ever want something, I’m more than happy to just let them have it. That might also be a very Indian thing to do though; we’re raised with that idea that money does not come between friends and family. Galleries are tricky though. I’ve only dealt with ones in Australia, they take commissions for sales that you make while exhibiting your work there. Most people won’t tell you how to price your work. They are happy for you to decide what you want. I’ve learnt through trial and error what the sweet spot is in terms of pricing my work. I’m still learning these things though. I’m lucky that I don’t have to think about it as much as those who are solely dependent on selling their work. I have the freedom to experiment with prices, but that’s probably also working against me because I’m not doing what truly needs to be done.
The process you work with is almost meditative, because of its repetitive nature. On the other hand, there’s so much precision needed, it seems like there’s little room for error — which seems stressful! How do you navigate this?
I think just slowing down while I’m working has helped. I try to be patient and get it right the first time round. The old rule of measure twice, cut once really works here. I have been in situations where I did something thinking it would be fine but it wasn’t and I had to throw those works. Now I’m careful about being slow with it the first time round. Practice also makes perfect. I’m so used to doing it now, if I make one piece twice, the second time is much faster. Doing it slowly and properly are what have helped me get my results.
Were you always a person with a lot of patience?
Absolutely not. I still am the most impatient person on earth in every other aspect of my life. I don’t know how people feel when I say this, but my husband really changed things for me. He’s like Gautama Buddha or something, completely the opposite of me. I love the way he takes care of everything that he does. He has a really stressful job, but the way he maintains his personal things…he could spend two hours cleaning his shoes because he wants them to be perfect. I’ve not seen anyone in my life clean shoes for 2 hours. It used to be frustrating for me to watch in the beginning, like how can you spend that much time on shoes, they don’t mean anything! I’ve come to realize that the more respect you give what you do, it respects you back. I try to do that at least for the work I make. I’m still not there, it may look perfect from far away,but there are mistakes.
I’ve come to realize that the more respect you give what you do, it respects you back.
I think that’s the curse of the creative person, to keep spotting areas to improve in.
Yes, it’s hard to be satisfied with what you’ve done. I’ve got this thing of patiently doing this particular thing properly from my husband, but I’m so shabby and messy otherwise. I enjoy being patient with at least one thing in my life. There’s no other way of doing this work, so that’s a good forcing mechanism to do it properly, and it’s also a good reason to be patient. I need a reason to do things properly. I needed this to learn how to be patient.
Do you ever feel stuck or challenged while working?
Many, many times. More than stuck, I feel like I don’t want to do the same things over and over again, which is why I steered into working with organic forms. There are times when I sit with myself when I don’t have projects or exhibitions to plan for, and I try to think about what to do next with my life and it’s a bit like staring into the darkness. It’s a bit scary. Thankfully another email comes into my inbox, and I get a brief or commission and things start rolling again.