Deepa Mann-Kler

India meets County Down in Deepa Mann-Kler's new pen and ink on canvas art

‘Numerous pens sacrificed their lives… their nibs worn down to stubs,’ to bring Deepa Mann-Kler’s new exhibition Black Line, White Space into existence. From an artistic point of view it was worth it, although the pens might disagree.

The 19 pen and ink drawings on canvas are an odd mixture of the simple and the baroque. At first glance the clean lines and white space of the canvas seem almost minimalist. Get closer and you realize the amount of detail that makes up the deceptively simple image.

Mann-Kler leans in close to the pointillist peacocks in ‘The Choice', holding dark hair back from her face with one hand. Even she doesn’t know how many dots have gone to make up the image. ‘At one point if I had time I would have counted all the dots. There must be... thousands. I was going to make up a figure there,' she giggles.

Each drawing has been crafted with just as much painstaking care. In 'North Star' she drew each blade of grass separately, giving the landscape a depth that looks as if it might ripple in the wind.

Mann-Kler’s favourite piece is ‘Winds of Change’ where a woman stands firm in a maelstrom of hair, butterflies and dandelions

Beautiful though the art is, it isn’t perfect. Mann-Kler points out lines that aren’t perfectly straight where she had to let the weave of the canvas direct her pen. It was an experience she found freeing after working in paint on other surfices.

‘I had an idea in mind as I started each piece,’ she explains, 'but the final thing of how it would look was unknown to me. It just depended how I felt a line should go or a detail. That was lovely and I love the fact that each piece is so distinct.’

She did experiment with paper instead of canvas, but it didn't have the feel she was looking for. Besides, she points out, 'There's something about having a canvas in your house'.

Mann-Kler drew on two sources of inspiration for the exhibition, at the Canvas Gallery in Stranmillis. One was her own Indian heritage, even though she left India when she was only seven. ‘I’m considerably older now, but it’s there, it’s always part of you.’ It can be seen in the mehndi (the traditional henna-body art of India) influenced patterns that braid ink over the canvas.

The Down landscape also has its part to play. ‘I love the openness of the sky. When I go back home to Leicester it feels like there is a huge concrete scab over everything. We don’t have that here and I don’t know if we always appreciate how fortunate we are.’

Man-Kler wants her art to remind us of that, ‘They’re celebrating love, they’re celebrating nature.’ The two concepts – love and nature – twist like mehndi patterns through the exhibition.

In ‘Imagine’ a woman in a heavy robe blows a kiss of flowers across the canvas, while in ‘I Surrender’ the two women dissolve into drifts of flowers as they part from, or lean into, their kiss.

‘It’s almost using nature as a climate, so the flowers become a waterfall, the flowers become your whole environment and overwhelm you – as falling in love does.'

Black Line, White Space is at the Canvas Art Gallery in Belfast until May 22 and at Leadlines Studio in Dunadry from May 27 until June 4.

Tammy Moore