The artist is a finalist in three of Australia’s biggest art prizes in 2019. (ABC Arts: Teresa Tan)
When Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran plays god, he likes his creations to be eye-catching, gender-neutral, or to grow many arms and legs.
The contemporary artist, who this year was a finalist in three of Australia’s biggest art prizes, works across sculpture, ceramics, painting and drawing.
He recreates himself over and over again through self-portraits — and it’s through the act of creation that he finds himself most comfortable.
“I actually don’t feel myself if I’m not making artwork, so I need to be in the studio every day,” he says, though he admits that “sounds very much like a Hallmark card kind of thing to say”.
Multi-limbed self-portrait (after ceramic figures) was a finalist in the 2019 Archibald Prize.
This year, his work is attracting a new level of critical acclaim.
Along with the Archibald Prize for portraiture, this year Nithiyendran is a finalist for the Sulman prize for the best subject painting, genre painting or mural project, and the Ramsay prize for Australian artists under 40.
His Archibald entry, Multi-limbed self-portrait, alludes to a child’s drawing of an octopus, opening the work up for younger fans.
“I try and make my representations celebratory, open, inclusive — but also bringing spectacle into it,” he says.
This sculpture is part of Nithiyendran’s Bronze Deities, a finalist installation for the 2019 Ramsay Art Prize.
Nithiyendran’s “sentient characters”, as he calls them, comment on everything from structural whiteness and the patriarchy to anthropomorphism.
Every image he crafts has a face, in an effort to extend humanity to all of his creations and those who interact with his work.
Although religious iconography often features in Nithiyendran’s creations, the artist — who was born in Sri Lanka to Hindu and Catholic parents and grew up in western Sydney — is an atheist.
He often finds critiques of his work bluntly focus on his cultural and religious heritage and concentrate on literal religious references.
“In the context of white Australia there is this real tendency for people to assume non-white people’s cultural background has a greater impact than it actually does,” he says.
He puts his use of religious tropes down to a cultural exploration, rather than a devotional one.
Nithiyendran installed this work, The Cave, for an exhibition in Sydney’s Carriageworks in 2017. (Supplied)
Along with religion, Nithiyendran is influenced by pop culture, pornography and queer theory. The phallus features prominently.
With eyes painted rolling back in the head, his Archibald entry references Saint Sebastian, the patron of soldiers and athletes who was shot with arrows and left for dead.
In a queer reading of the story, the arrows are phallic, and Saint Sebastian’s eyes are “an ambiguous gesture … either agony, ecstasy or orgasmic”, Nithiyendran says.
Nithiyendran was photographed for Deborah Kelly’s “No Human Being Is Illegal (in all our glory)” in 2014. (Supplied)
Nithiyendran intends for viewers to read the overt use of sexualised male imagery in his work as a way to talk about toxic masculinity.
And he is open to questions about the power structures that inform his art and his continued use of phallic imagery.
“The question I always ask myself is, ‘am I just reproducing [power] somehow, by proliferating those images?’ And I think the answer is unclear,” he says.