From India to Australia: Ankon Mitra’s artistry unveiled

By Our Reporter
Ankon Mitra // Pic supplied

Ankon Mitra is a visionary artist whose creative journey spans architecture, landscape design, sculpture, and installation art, anchored in a profound reverence for geometry, nature, and cultural narratives. Trained as an architect, Mitra’s exploration of folding techniques has redefined his artistic expression.

Mitra will be showcasing his craft at the Indian Ocean Triennial Australia (IOTA), a not-for-profit arts organisation based in Perth, that hosts the Indian Ocean Craft Triennial every three years. The festival program engages the Western Australian craft community, featuring approximately 70 exhibitions and activities alongside the international exhibition.

For IOTA 2024, Mitra is updating the traditional art of folding Origami by using digital technology. The old and new folds are converted into CAD/CAM patterns and lines of code. This allows him to mix and match different patterns to create amazing new 3D shapes.

Mitra’s architectural training provides a holistic perspective crucial for his multidisciplinary approach. “Architecture gives a comprehensive view of a process and its purpose,” Mitra explains, stressing the importance of context, functionality, and integration in his art.

One pivotal moment in Mitra’s career was curating India’s first expansive art, architecture, and design exhibition focused on paper, titled ‘On Paper Of Paper.’ This ambitious endeavour aimed to elevate paper art in India, akin to the evolution seen in ceramic art decades ago.

With 75 artists and designers from around the world and over 40,000 attendees, the exhibition showed Mitra’s role in fostering a vibrant community around paper as a sculptural medium.

Mitra’s global impact extends to Australia, where his work resonates deeply with the cultural and historical narratives of the region. Inspired by the ancient connections between India’s Gond tribal areas and Australia’s First Nation tribes—both part of the Gondwana supercontinent—Mitra will explore parallels in artistry and storytelling.

Central to Mitra’s creative philosophy are maxims like “Geometry Aims at the Eternal” and “The Universe is Mathematics,” which inform his rigorous yet poetic approach to art-making. Origami’s mathematical precision resonates deeply, resembling a computational code unfolding into intricate geometric patterns—a metaphor for unraveling the universe’s mysteries through art.

Recognition has followed Mitra’s innovative spirit, with awards like the All-India Gold Medal for Sculpture and the Lexus Design Award acknowledging his contributions. These accolades not only validate his artistic vision but also amplify his voice in advocating for interdisciplinary collaboration and the revitalisation of traditional crafts in contemporary contexts.

Spirituality permeates Mitra’s creative process, akin to a ritualistic meditation where he “sits with the folds.” Rooted in Hindu practices, Mitra finds a parallel between the repetitive creasing of origami and the meditative act of chanting mantras with prayer beads. This immersion in craft as a spiritual practice fosters a profound connection between mind, hand, and material—a transformative experience he strives to share with his team and audience alike.

In conversation with Ankon Mitra.

▸ Could you explain the concept of ‘Oritecture – Origami + Architecture’ and how it bridges the gap between different disciplines?

An ordinary room is made from twelve 90-degree folds at the edges where the floor, walls, and ceiling meet. This idea amazed me. Architecture relies on folds: a flat metal sheet becomes strong enough for a roof with enough folds. Folding adds strength and reveals hidden qualities in the material. Inspired by engineers and architects like Nervi, Dieste, Candela, Gaudi, and artists like Hauer, who used folding without naming it, I coined “Oritecture”—Origami + Architecture. “Oru” means one fold, “Ori” many folds, and “Kami” paper in Japanese. “Tecture” comes from the Greek “Tektōn,” meaning to build. “Oritecture” means “To Build with Many Folds.” I hope to enter this word into the English dictionary someday.

What was the most challenging aspect of curating and designing India’s first expansive art, architecture, and design exhibition focused on paper, ‘On Paper Of Paper’?

India is just beginning to appreciate Paper Art, similar to how ceramic art was viewed 20-25 years ago. Ceramics have since become a respected niche in Indian contemporary art, and Paper Art is now going through a similar evolution. Despite interest, concerns about durability in India’s dusty and humid climate persist. Artists are innovating techniques and preservation methods. The decline of paper in industry due to digital advancements offers a chance to reinvent it as a sculptural medium. I’ve been an early advocate for large paper installations, which become strong with folds. With 75 artists and over 40,000 visitors, the ‘On Paper of Paper’ event was a critical and commercial success. I’m grateful to India Design ID, Apparao Galleries, the participants, and the community of paper art lovers. Paper Art has a bright future in India, and an Indian Paper Triennale is in the works.

In your work for IOTA24, how do you integrate traditional origami techniques with modern digital tools like CAD/CAM?

I first folded a piece of paper to generate the 3D shape I had in mind. Then we unfolded it, scanned it and created a CAD version of it on the computer. Perforations in the design we planned completely on CAD. The first trial was printed by an A1 printer and then folded by hand. We saw some ‘translation gaps’ and went back and fixed them in CAD. Then 1800 sheets of A1 sized paper were laser cut on a high precision laser bed. They were joined/glued together by hand to create longer strings, and then painstakingly and meticulously hand-folded by me and four other ‘folders’ in my team. We added the strings/cords into the modular lengths that enable the works to be hung from the ceiling. The last step was the hand-painting / addition of the red colour onto the elements but again using a hand-held electric compressor machine with a spray nozzle. All the work in the studio is a combination of traditional hand-making and digital/machine inputs. We are very proud of this hybrid practice. India has a large and young work force and I see this as a way forward to gainfully employ the next generation and make ourselves a tiny part of India’s massive growth story.

Can you share your thoughts on the cultural and historical connections between the Gond tribal areas in India and the First Nation tribes in Australia, and how these connections inspire your work?

I was very surprised when I first learned about the geological connections between India and Australia. Millions of years ago, both were part of the southern supercontinent ‘Gondwana Land.’ The Indian landmass broke off, drifted north, and collided with the Eurasian plate, forming the Himalayas. The Australasian plate drifted south to its current location. I don’t know if proto-humans existed then, but it was thrilling to discover that the ancient Gond people of India share attributes and stories with Australia’s First Nation tribes. The forest plateaus in India they inhabit, called Gondwana, have red soil and rocks. I’ve long wanted to visit Uluru, whose rock paintings resemble Gond tribal art. I’m no ethnography expert, but I love the idea of this ancient connection. I used the red of Uluru and Gond soil in my work for IOTA to symbolize this bond. Like the universal languages of geometry and math, colors and shared stories can unite us beyond superficial differences. I’m inspired by the book “Gadi Mirrabooka: Australian Aboriginal Tales from the Dreaming,” which has deeply influenced my work for IOTA.

What role does spiritual practice play in your process of ‘sitting with the folds as though in ritualistic meditation’?

I am a practicing Hindu. My mother gave me a Rudrāksha Mālā (like a rosary but made from seeds of the Elaeocarpus Ganitrus tree) along with prayers to chant while turning the beads. The number 108 is very meaningful to us. When I discovered Origami, I realized that the repetitive creasing and folding, especially in Origami tessellations (my specialty), had a similar effect to turning prayer beads. I began chanting my mantras as I folded, designing the folds in multiples of 108. While I could only use the Rudrāksha Mālā for about half an hour, I could fold for hours, losing track of time and entering a blissful state. I would emerge from the process joyful and triumphant. Initially, I practiced alone, but now, with a team of 50, I’m trying to train everyone to reach this state of immersion. It’s fascinating to think that our noisy studio could become a hub of spiritual practice. Indian philosophy teaches that reality exists at the threshold of apparent dualities. By overcoming dualistic thinking, unity can be achieved.

(The Indian Ocean Craft Triennial 2024 opens in August)

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