Radha Pandey’s Pictorial TaxonomyFebruary 24, 2015
Despite growing up in New Delhi, one of India’s most crowded and polluted cities, every summer was another jungle adventure for AIE Artist’s Book resident Radha Pandey. Thanks to creative, supportive parents, one of whom was a wildlife documentary filmmaker, Radha’s early childhood instilled within her a special connection and awe for the natural world.
“My parents had a big part in making me pay attention to the little things,” Radha says. “I’d have to be really quiet, sitting in the middle of the jungle, not much to do except look around and observe what’s going on.”
Now splitting her time between India and the United States, Radha makes intricate, tactile work that draws from scientific practices of anatomy, classification, and cataloging to explore how people relate to their environments. Primarily a papermaker, she uses Japanese and Indian papermaking traditions with a methodical attention to detail, process, and sustainable materials.Radha is visiting WSW to produce her artist’s book, Taxonomy of Shapes, which organizes a series of everyday objects by their form. Thinking about the geometry of human environments, the work playfully undermines Western systems of scientific classification.
“Along with Bibles, some of the earliest books were herbals and books of anatomy,” she explains. “That’s basically how the study of anatomy was able to be dispersed more widely: because of the book form and the making of paper.”
Radha’s master’s thesis was inspired by anatomical and botanical books from the 10th to 19th centuries, which set standards for interpreting the natural world. Her 2014 artist’s book Anatomia Botanica pairs complex, layered illustrations of three plants from Radha’s childhood with their binomial nomenclature. Incorporating handmade paper, letterpress printing, reduction linoleum, hand coloring, and interactive pop-up elements, the book itself is a beautiful specimen—and a testament to Radha’s love of process and control.
“I love anything that’s really process-oriented,” she says with smile. “And I love problem-solving. Papermaking and printing are all about problem-solving.”
In the palm of her hands, Radha folds and unfolds a pocket-sized codex―made from cream-colored Sakamoto and translucent, waxed Kitakata paper―that will become Taxonomy of Shapes. The book classifies a series of manmade and natural objects by their shape, in an effort to challenge Linnaean taxonomy, the first system of biological classification.
“I was thinking of a different way that all of that could be categorized to question the whole system,” Radha says, describing how Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution uprooted many beliefs established one hundred years prior by Carl Linnaeus. The clash between these two systems, Radha says, revealed the arbitrary nature of their logic, so she developed her own equally arbitrary, yet more intuitive taxonomy that relies on visual perception.
Map-folded and accordion-bound, the book’s architectural structure will house a series of small, letterpress-printed pictograms, a selection of which will be revealed by window cutouts in the Kitakata overlay. The reader will be introduced to the same set of everyday objects, grouped differently by their circular, square, and triangular forms. Radha calls it “a guide to a new way of looking at your environment.”
Though she’s not making the paper for this book herself, Radha’s attentiveness to materials is evident. She’ll cut all the square and triangle windows by hand, and use a diecut to remove the circular windows. The Kitakata overlays will then be folded, unfolded, waxed, refolded, and attached to the accordion book block. There’s plenty to do in the upcoming weeks.
Drawing from her observations of the natural and manmade world, Radha playfully calls into question how people perceive what’s around them and subtly argues for a more mindful way of living. “I want it to read as a wayfinding system,” she says of her book. “A system of navigation in this new world, where we look at things totally differently.”
Radha Pandey received her MFA in Book Arts from the University of Iowa. She’s worked with paper extensively throughout India and the United States, and teaches workshops on traditional Islamic-style papermaking. “Part of my reason for making paper is to keep that tradition going,” she says. Read more about Radha’s work on her blog, www.radhapandey.blogspot.com.