Rupy C. Tut’s Landscapes of Belonging

SAN FRANCISCO — Rupy C. Tut: Out of Place is one of two current shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco (ICA SF), a non-collecting institution that recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, and that was established with support of local artists in mind (and art viewers as admission is free). Out of Place consists of a handful of paintings by Oakland-based artist Rupy C. Tut, created for ICA SF’s entry gallery in a program showcasing local artists under founding Director Alison Gass. In other words, the work in Out of Place was made with this place, and space, in mind. Tut’s works, springing from traditional Indian miniature painting made large, radiate both rootedness and displacement. Her paintings are “out of place” in each sense of the phrase.

“This is an effort to belong, to feel in place,” Tut said in a recent artist’s talk. “The show is called Out of Place because many of us feel this way. We feel it and we do it to others. It can mean America. It can mean the contemporary art world. When you’re searching for belonging you see a lot of places where you don’t fit.”

A first-generation immigrant who settled in California at age 12, Tut’s Sikh family comes from India’s Punjab region. Her understanding of place is informed by varied landscapes and cultures, and by generational experiences of exile. She grew up with her grandparents’ stories of the Partition of India and of changing lands and places, and she experienced her own dislocation as a child. Like most first-generation Americans, she inhabits more than one cultural space. She is also the mother of three children under the age of six, including twins. “Motherhood,” Tut noted, “is a nationality to me.”

The first work in the show, “Portrait of a Woman” (2013), is specific to that point of view. It depicts a dark-haired woman standing in profile, hands resting on her pregnant belly. She wears an orange suit that fits her swelling body from neck to wrists and ankles. Covering the suit are dozens of eyes, staring out in all directions. Surrounding the pregnant figure is an almond-shaped mandorla of blue, filled with undulating lines that might represent air or water. It is, Tut says, “a coolness that protects her.” Radiating the perimeter of blue as if stitching the figure to the surrounding scene of green foliage are rays of gold. The painting emanates feminine power, and a sense of deep safety and calm.

Tut’s “Portrait of a Woman” is a kind of cross-cultural Madonna, reminiscent of the central mother figure, mandorla, and sun rays of Our Lady of Guadalupe so familiar across California via Mexico. But in addition to the Catholic Queen of Heaven, Tut’s painting also reminds me of “The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I” (c. 1600–1602) by the Tudor miniature painter Isaac Oliver, where eyes adorn the orange drapery of the all-seeing monarch.

Tut is no doubt aware of such references (“There’s an art historian stuck inside me,” she says), while always connecting back to the 18th-century Indian tradition in which she works. She trained in this tradition for some eight years, and creates every aspect of her work, from paper to pigment to image to final painting. Of her process, she says, “It’s a lot.” And that muchness is the point, specifically the labor of creating and repeatedly burnishing hemp paper, with its ragged edges, and the weeks-long process of making pigments — all of which is an important part of her work’s content. This long labor that supports and forms her paintings is like so much women’s work: invisible. It is “the labor of women that is never recognized,” Tut said; “it is always erased.”

While it’s rare in India for women to take part in the painting tradition practiced by Tut, it’s equally rare in Western art for an effusively pregnant woman to be so recognized. And Tut’s women are large: They take up physical space, reflecting the artist likewise seizing space — within the picture plane, on the gallery wall, in the art world — all while utilizing a traditional miniature brush even as she creates larger-scale paintings. 

The remaining paintings in Out of Place include a landscape, “All in a Day” (2023), in traditional registers that Tut compares to seeing the world through a moving car window, and three paintings of women situated in landscapes. Two are pendants of reclining figures in desert scenes. In “A Drop in the Desert” (2023) the woman lies supine on a bench, exhausted, while in “Placing Self” (2023) she is in elegant repose (“The Instagram curated version of what I think I look like at 9 pm when the kids are asleep”). Both figures are bigger than the landscape they inhabit. Both offer women the balm of rest, however they can get it.

The final painting, “Searching for Ancestors” (2023), is the last one Tut made for the show, and her first painting on linen. Not a woman in a landscape, but woman as landscape, both forming and finding her place in the world.

Tut’s art is, to me, immediately likable. This is not to call it uncomplicated or unchallenging. But it has instant resonance that many women long to see in art. Mothers in their power and beauty. Women at rest and acknowledged for their strength. Tut’s women in Out of Place wear the form-fitting suits traditional in Indian miniature painting, and ones similar to those worn by Marvel superheroes. If the artist is asking the question, “Can an 18th-century Indian art form express 21st-century California life?” the answer is a resounding yes. Tut is cultivating a traditional art form in fresh soil, where it interrogates the past and present, and from them creates something new and vital and beautiful. As an artist, and a mother, she demonstrates the resilience in beauty — its yes in the face of the world’s doomsaying no’s.  

Rupy C. Tut : Out of Place continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco (901 Minnesota Street, San Francisco, California) through January 7, 2024. The exhibition was curated by Alison Gass.

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