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Kumari Nahappan: Sculpting Spices

Words by: Kumari Nahappan
Photo Credit: Kumari Nahappan


Known for her iconic sculptures inspired by local flora, Kumari Nahappan creates sculptures with true Eastern flavor.



Kumari Nahappan is a prominent artist in Southeast Asia. Her practice encompasses interdisciplinary genres, painting, sculpture, and installations. She has forged a reputation for effectively reconciling the language of “international contemporary art” with her own vocabulary and developing a visual identity that is decisively shaped by her cultural roots and beliefs.


When and how did you begin your artistic journey?


After my training in design at the Willesden College of Technology in London in the mid-1970s, I spent seven years teaching at the Mara Institute of Technology in Malaysia (now Universiti Teknologi MARA). The next seven years went in developing a career as an interior designer.

My early training in design gave me an understanding of three-dimensionality and this was something that I had always wanted to pursue. The next phase of my life took me to the LASALLE College of the Arts for graduate studies. My focus then was on concepts, materials, and techniques. I felt that if I could get the heart, head, and hand connected, it would strengthen my practice. I found creating contemplative spaces and exploring the idea of "impermanence" in my practice rather exciting.

With this foundation and a little practical knowledge, I embarked on my artmaking journey.



What inspires you to create?


My inspiration comes from life and life’s journeys, be it spiritual, mental, emotional, or physical.


The color red threads through your portfolio and unifies it. What does it mean to you?


The red in nature, especially flowers impressed me as a child. I found the shades and tones fascinating. As a young girl, it was my task to collect red hibiscus flowers, which I brought home to the family altar in a wicker-basket. When I was a little older, I made the garlands for the deities from white and red flowers. It was then, that I learnt that the five petals of the hibiscus flower or the number 5 was symbolic for the five senses. Gradually, I began to realize that red had an important role in Indian food, an example being the chili. It is customary or practice to hang a string of red chilies at the entrance during as auspicious event to ward off negative energy. Moving along these lines I found that RED was a color that I identified as a source for expressing all my emotions.


Talktime (two twisted chilis) and Aaron + Friendly Nellie (Set of 2)


Could you talk about your creative process?


I am inspiration-driven artist. Once I have a concept in mind, I let it take over me and what I am doing until a complete form is born. It is a ritualistic process for me.

I work with a mix of materials, some manmade and some found objects, and across a spectrum of media, from sculpture to paintings to installation. It is really about where the journey of creating takes me.


What do you hope to convey to your viewers with your artworks?


I hope that they look at my work as a celebration of the ordinary. My artworks are an expression of my personal life experiences – rendered in familiar forms. I want my artworks to be relatable, to allow my viewers to connect to them, and to revive memories for everyone like they do for me.



What are you currently working on?


I am currently working on a series of artworks that combine inspirations from local flora and fauna with found objects. The work is still in its developing stages and its final form is currently unknown to me.