Performing the Domestic Ritualistic Mark

Pratibha Nambiar

To cite this contribution: 

Nambiar, Pratibha. ‘Performing the Domestic Ritualistic Mark’. Currents Journal, Archipelagic Encounters (2021),

Download this article      ︎︎︎PDF

Keywords:  household ritual, mark-making, drawing tool, temporal practice, domesticity, expanded drawing

Pratibha Nambiar’s art practice revolves around drawings, rituals and objects. The consideration put forth in this text and the artwork is part of an ongoing research project that uses spice infused soap as a material and the fundamentals of drawing to address domestic rituals, in particular the often unseen and invisible domestic rituals of the Indian household. The following text will further elaborate on the practice-led research experiments that I have developed, including the generation of soap-based drawing tools and gestural wall drawings. Throughout the processes of my project I looked to ask: what are rituals? How are they formed? and how can they better reflect the invisible and intimate labour of the domestic?

Pratibha Nambiar, Saturation, 2020-2021. Wall drawing, soap, spices and cloth, dimensions variable.

This article will outline my experimentation and exploration of soap as a material and tool for art-making. As my art practice has developed, I have employed drawing as an investigative, transitory and temporal medium to explore the material and conceptual facets of space, time and the body in a domestic environment. I decided to use spice infused soap as a tool for creating marks in my artworks due to its material relation to the domestic sphere. Before I began this process, the most important questions that I had were: how can I create a drawing tool that could introduce one to the domestic space in an Indian household? Is there a drawing tool that reminds us of intimate domestic labour? Is there a drawing tool that reminds one through its material and mark-making of the compassionate human force that sustains most households?

I aimed to address domestic labour and the unrecognised invisible everyday rituals, like cooking and cleaning, that are central to this labour. I was concerned with the repetitive and ritualistic actions of a homemaker, acts of care expressed through cleaning and cooking for the family that often remains invisible and under recognised, especially in comparison to paid professions. I was hoping, through the process of using soap as a medium for my drawing, that I could elevate, render visible and develop an evocative dialogue through a series of quotidian ritualistic actions that approximate those of the homemaker.

As the project developed, I was also re-examining the term ’ritual’. Throughout my process I realised for a set of repetitive actions to become a ritual that it relies on the way an individual or a group of individuals’ may look at and organise the world around them.1 In other words, rituals are processes that express the way we act in the world. While exploring and gaining a better understanding of rituals, I was drawn to ‘everyday’ rituals, distinct from institutional or religious rituals, that are formed almost by necessity and seemingly automatically due to their daily repetition. During my inquiry into the idea of rituals, I was fascinated with the intimate unnoticed ritual of keeping a home, understanding the body and how it deals with everyday tasks such as maintenance.

Curcuma long, crocus sativus, coriander sativum, cumin cyminum, citrus x aurantiifolia and ash: processes of drawing

The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are or how we operate in the world.2
- William Kentridge

Kentridge broadly yet aptly describes the process of drawing as a method to better understand our role in the world and as a record of a person's interaction with space. Drawing has been a process for me to better understand and study the intimate domestic toil that exists in every household.

So began my experimentation. My initial goal was for my artwork to echo the smells of an Indian kitchen. I started by adding spices like Curcuma long (turmeric), crocus sativus (kumkum), coriander sativum (coriander), cumin cyminum (cumin), citrus x aurantiifolia (lime) and ash into a soap mixture. Though not a spice, crocus sativus is used as a symbol to represent female energy (as recognised in Hindu practices). I have used common spices like cumin, coriander, turmeric to bring the everydayness of working in a kitchen to a studio environment. When I once more transposed my work from the relatively private space of the studio to the public space of the gallery, I wanted to extend and mimic my original engagement with domestic actions of cleaning and cooking. Turmeric (known for its distinctive stain) is the most used spice in an Indian household. It is used as an antiseptic, to sanctify a space, and it is also the most important ingredient in most Indian cooking. Thus, even in my practice, I have used it quite frequently.

I have used Indian spices to signify a space most often assigned to women in the home, the kitchen. The smells and the stains left by these ingredients are reminiscent of this core domestic space. In my wall drawings and tools, I was aiming to create a space that evokes familiar smells and stains. The olfactory quality of the work and stains left by my materials are an integral part of my art practice, and have been used as an ode to my mother, as a reminder of the matriarchal contribution to the making of a family and home. 

The churning of the mixer/grinder, the chopping of vegetables, scrubbing and cleaning the floor, and the rolling of the chapatis are all different actions performed in the kitchen. Throughout the development and creation of my drawing tools I was attempting to take on a process of performing these duties. The circular motion of cleaning the floor and vessels, the forward and backward action of rolling out rotis, the circular motion of mixing food in a vessel, the upward and downward movement of chopping vegetables are all gestural, ritualistic activities that were incorporated into my process.

Soap tools were created using basic moulds that were mostly spherical. I felt that an abstract form would make one focus on the drawing tool as a functional instrument rather than as a static sculpture. Initially, the soap drawing tools were displayed as apparently functional sculptures. The viewer was left with the impression that the tool could be picked up and used to make a mark. In these instances the idea of domestic space and action had been overcome with a sculptural playfulness, which prompted me to ask:

How do I bring in the domestic space through these drawing tools? How can the relationship between the drawer, material and surface evoke the concept and space of invisible domestic actions?

To tackle these questions, I began to critically think through my sculptural methods. This led me to experiment with the form of the tools, making the project more interactive. I explored the idea of the white-cube space by placing and hanging the soap in different parts of the studio. People who visited the studio space could adopt an artistic role as they interacted with the material, making marks with the drawing tools on the surface of my studio walls. Using soap tools to make gestural lines on a surface has its own peculiarity. The gestural drawings made by the tools are subtle and fade over time.  

Furthermore, a trace of the waxy soap material and the embedded spices lingers on the hand during and after an interaction with the soap tools. Thus unintentionally letting a visitor carry a piece of the work with them. The interactive mark-making on the walls and floor showcased the importance of the body in creating gestures. But the interaction with the tools yet again felt more playful than the desired connection to the household. I began to ask: Can these gestural marks bring out the tensions and frustrations of performing a repetitive activity?

There are few artists and works who have been integral to the development of this project including the work of Sheela Gowda, On Kawara and Montien Boonma. These artists have explored the concept of space, time and being in an intimate sense. Their explorations of spatial and temporal conditions have inspired me to delve deeper into my own artworks and philosophy. Of particular influence to the project is Sheela Gowda’s work And tell him of my pain (1996-1998)3 that appears like a red dense coil or rope dangling, sprawled and spread across the walls and floor. The work is 350-foot-long and is made with threads which are coated or bounded with kumkum (red vermillion powder) and glue. At the end of this coil is a cluster of steel needles. The work as a whole displays two performative elements. The first, a private performative gesture enacted by the artist in the studio, where the artist takes the needle through the entire thread that made the rope–an incredibly labour-intensive process. The other is a public performance, whereby the viewer activates the work by walking through the room into the space forming a relationship with the installation. For me, the work as a whole represents pain, whether seen in the process of its making, or the way it is displayed as it resembles the act of giving birth. The materials in the work speaks volumes about life and death. What I am drawn to in Sheela Gowda’s work is the way she employs simple, readily available materials and turns them into conceptually rich artworks defined by a minimalist vocabulary. Her work mimics my own desires as I seek in the words of John Berger, ‘a way of addressing the absent, of making the absent appear’.4

Thus began my exploration of the act of wall drawings. While making the wall drawings, I started to consider the relationship between artistic drawing tools and the material used to make marks. I was interested in the temporality of the actions I was undertaking and the process of reciprocating the actions in the soap material I was using to generate the mark. Drawing has the innate quality of recording gestural contours as the artist unravels the space travelled over a surface. Each stroke made is an index of the movements made by the body in a given space, cataloguing the specific moment in which it came to be. The work Saturationis a performative drawing where I re-enacted the repeated actions of everyday cleaning rituals onto the wall of a gallery.

These repetitive lines seen as muted markings that faded over time on the walls, require additional daily interventions to further accentuate the repetitive nature of the artwork better reflecting my concerns around repetitive domestic rituals. From a distance the drawings look harmonious, clean and monochromatic, but on closer inspection the irregularities of the repeated marks become evident. In visual form and through their physicality they mirror the performance of a domestic activity that is done on a day-to-day basis. From a distance the accumulation of domestic rituals may be good for the cleanliness and harmony of a household but the physical labour required to maintain this harmony is tedious, physically draining and time-consuming for the individual. Within the inconsistent circular gestural marks in the work Saturation I reflected and embodied the strain and stress of re-drawing the same pattern repeatedly.

As I worked with the soap, I became aware of its unique material qualities and the way it reacted to environmental conditions. Depending on the particular environmental conditions of the space of drawing and the process in which the soap was made, the tool either shrunk in shape or melted. The soap drawing tool felt heavy, soft and slippery to touch, not unlike a wax crayon. The thickness combined with the softness of the material made the gestural marks tactile. Over time, I noticed that the surface began to react by absorbing the soap marks. To register a deeper mark on a wall more spices were added to the soap mixture that made it appear dense and dark.

In my research through drawing, I realised the importance of the relationship between the mind, hand, my body position and the mark I made. While making the domestic mark of cleaning and washing, I realised the whole process had a constant connection between the external (domestic action) and the internal (body and mind making the mark). Towards the end of the project my use of soap can be broadly categorised in two ways: I had created tools whose form reminded one of home and secondly I had developed a performative process that included the re-enactment of mundane, repetitive intensive domestic actions that were employed in a particular space and time.

Usually, ownership is declared by isolating a certain area with defining marks. Does making the invisible cleaning actions into visibly marked actions declare an ownership over these rituals? This is a question I am left with while performing the wall drawings. As the project and my practice continues to develop, I plan to more deeply explore of caring in a household. How can I replicate the actions of caring by a homemaker into the gallery space? The act of sacrifice, time management, being patient and the problems of multi-tasking that exist in performing these activities all deserve better recognition as an integral form of everyday labour.


1. Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspective And Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press. 1997.

2. Cameron, Don, Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn, Coetzee, JM (eds), William Kentridge (contemporary artists). London: Phaidon.

3. Malaviya, Nalini S. A conversation with Sheela Gowda. Art News & Views website. and TateShots. Sheela Gowda – 'Art Is About How You Look At Things’. Youtube website. 24 June, 2016. and Lenbachhaus München. UNCUT – Sheela Gowda im Gespräch. Youtube website. 8 May, 2020.

4. Berger, John and Dibb, Michael. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC Enterprises, 1972.

About the contributor
Oscillating between drawings and objects, Pratibha Nambiar (b. India) has a keen interest in creating a discourse on the unexplained and the invisible, especially in the performative elements of the everyday.Pratibha had completed her Bachelors and Masters in Painting from Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Bangalore prior to pursuing an MA in Fine Arts at LASALLE College of Arts, Singapore. She also worked as an art educator at Chinmaya International Residential School, Coimbatore (India). Pratibha has exhibited in group shows in India, Singapore and Germany. She has taken part in many artist-run workshops. She also took part in an art residency conducted in Delhi, India.

Currents  is a collaboration between the Centre of Visual Art (CoVA) at the University of Melbourne and the School of Design, University of Western Australia, and is funded through the Schenberg International Arts Collaboration Program. The Advisory Board and Editorial Committee are comprised of staff and graduate students from across the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia.
Currents acknowledges the traditional owners and ongoing custodians of the land on which this journal is produced—the Boonwurung and Wurundjeri people of the Eastern Kulin Nation and Whadjuk people. We pay our respects to land, ancestors and Elders, and know that education involves working with their guidance to improve the lives of all.

ISSN 2652-8207