Australian Idols: Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran

As he prepares for Vivid Sydney, the ceramist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran talks to T Australia about critics, conservatives and the religious figures he draws on.

Article by Jordan Turner

The artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran in his studio in Gladesville, Sydney. Photography by Jordan Turner.The artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran in his studio in Gladesville, Sydney. Photography by Jordan Turner.

There is a sudden break in Sydney’s wet weather deluge and the Sri Lankan-born artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran is drinking herbal tea from a champagne flute in his Gladesville studio. He sits among tables filled with clay works, some drying and others waiting to be fired. In front of him is a sketch detailing his much anticipated installation for Vivid Sydney, to be unveiled in just eight weeks.

“It is going to be quite a strong, powerful image but it needs to be really filthy and wild and over-the-top,” Nithiyendran says of “Earth Deities”, a seven-metre-high sculpture that will be exhibited at Hickson Road Reserve, a coveted spot between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House, with Luna Park in the background (from May 27 to June 18). “It’s an amazing location to create a dialogue around Sydney mythology,” he says, “because architecturally, from the outside looking in, it is surrounded by Sydney’s major iconographies. That’s what I’m engaging with in the work.”

A ceramic and mixed-media artist, Nithiyendran, 33, has captured international attention with his vivacious reflections on ideological and politicised figures. His works have been exhibited at the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW, Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival and Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai, where he recently held his first solo show in South Asia. On describing his work, Nithiyendran says, “I’ve never been interested in realism. Even as a child, I never wanted to get a pencil and copy something. I’ve always been interested in more speculative approaches to the world.”

The exact materials for his Vivid installation — which he describes as a four-legged structure with four heads — are yet to be finalised, though Nithiyendran says it will include LED lights, smoke machines, painted metal and a dystopian soundscape. “With my aesthetic, I can be flexible,” he adds. “I’m not making symmetrical structures that need to be finished a certain way, so often when we encounter problems, there are really creative solutions.”

Nithiyendran’s family migrated to Australia in 1989, when he was 11 months old. His parents come from very different backgrounds; his mother, who is of Dutch Burgher heritage, had a Christian upbringing, while his Tamil father was raised in a Hindu household. Nithiyendran has never been religious, but he experienced both faiths in his childhood. “I remember always loving the imagery at the temple, but not liking the imagery at the church,” he says, admitting that he feared the latter.

“As a child, it wasn’t philosophical, it wasn’t ideological; it was just pure and immediate,” he adds. “I remember going to Sydney Murugan Temple when I was about five — I always loved the sculptures there because they were superhuman; they had blue skin and lots of arms. When I started studying this kind of imagery, my interests were more connected to the mechanics in which they emerged — and that’s what I reference. But I think that moment as a child, of seeing the contrast, was really significant.”

In the years since, Nithiyendran has come to represent a rapidly changing art scene. In 2015, he won the Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award, one of the most significant honours a ceramist can receive for a body of work. “The year I won, the awards shifted to more contemporary or conceptual iterations of what the medium could be,” he explains, adding that ceramics tends to be a conservative medium, prized for its functionality rather than political expression. On accepting the award, Nithiyendran received a torrent of antagonistic emails and online comments, some of which accused him of “dumbing down the medium”.

“What’s interesting, though,” he says, “is even 10 years ago, having ceramic sculptures in contemporary art was rare. Now it’s quite normalised.” His most recent public sculpture, “Double-sided avatar with blue figure” (2020), stands at the entrance of Home of the Arts in Surfers Paradise. In a mythical sense, the large, ferocious guardian figure represents the symbolic scaring off of evil spirits and bad energy. In a contemporary sense, it is an invitation to enter the art space and to think freely. The work has been highly praised and harshly criticised, the latter mostly online and from the local community.

Nithiyendran does not take criticism to heart, nor has it changed the way he creates. As he sees it, boundaries are there to be pushed and rules are made to be broken. What would art be today if Marcel Duchamp had never appropriated everyday objects? And if Louise Bourgeois had not revolutionised installation art, or Ai Weiwei gave up the fight for freedom of expression? All that said, creating your own space in which to exist is no easy feat, especially when you are one of the first to walk a particular path.

“The thing is, a lot of criticism is unfounded a lot of the time,” says Nithiyendran. “It’s based on people’s warped perception of you and what they believe your success to entail. You have to know how to approach that.”

He laughs when he tells me about entering the Archibald Prize, which has become a kind of hobby of his. “I am a big believer in engaging diverse audiences: people who aren’t necessarily engaging with contemporary art on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “I think it’s really important to think about lateral ways for artists to engage audiences. It’s why I do festivals, because it brings people to engage with your artworks in ways that they might not usually.”

As for the Archibald Prize, Nithiyendran has entered a few self-portraits over the years. “And I’ve been referred to as a serial sitter, because there’s often portraits of me in the Archibald, where I would sit for other artists,” he says. Then he laughs heartily and tells me about one of his favourite reviews: “One time, someone said, ‘For his own good, I hope he sticks with ceramics.’ ”

The poet Sara Mansour.
The poet Sara Mansour, of Bankstown Poetry Slam.
The choreographer Stephen Page.
The choreographer Stephen Page, outgoing artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Leading Lights

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran will speak about uncomfortable truths and the stories that define us at Soul of the City, part of Vivid Sydney’s series of free talks. Held at the Australian Museum, the event will be moderated by T Australia’s own publisher and editor in chief, Katarina Kroslakova, and will feature Stephen Page, the outgoing artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, and Sara Mansour, of Bankstown Poetry Slam (June 15, from 6.30pm).

Other highlights of the Ideas line-up include the singer-songwriter and arts lover Troye Sivan, who will speak about beauty, creativity and queer politics in a frank conversation with the TV presenter Patrick Abboud (May 29, from 5pm). Plus, the Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, the subject of the film “Bombshell”, will join the TV host Lisa Wilkinson in a dialogue on power imbalances and toxic workplace culture (May 29, from 1pm).

This is an edited extract from Issue 6. To read the full story, pick up a copy of our new issue in newsagents nationally, order online or subscribe to receive T Australia straight to your letterbox. You will find it on Page 20, named “Australian Idols”.