Meet Ramesh: the bad boy of Australian ceramics

Rebel with a cause

Text: Yeong Sassall

Image: Alexandra Drewniak

This Sydney-based artist is breaking new ground with his provocative, sex-fuelled installations, and the art world is standing up to take notice, say Ros Brennan 

Walking into one of Ramesh Nithiyendran's exhibitions is like stepping into some bizarre Eastern European sex museum turned psychedelic rave cave. Fluorescent splashes of colour, graffiti, dysmorphic figures, wild fragments of hair, phallic symbols and not a straight edge in sight. As Ramesh explained, "I've always been physical and messy when it comes to art. I like big, bold gestures and a physical and embodied creative process. It's opposite to that quiet, contemplative, meditative thing that works for some people."

The first thing you notice about the Sri-Lankan born, Sydney based ceramicist is his sharp sense of style. He dresses like a bona-fide cool kid of the art world; a swagger that belongs on the streets on Brooklyn or Berlin. Adidas, beanies, long unruly hair, piercings - his personal style is very much entwined with his art aesthetic. "There is some currency in being perceived as a bit edgy and boundary-crossing. It helps that I have dark skin, long messy hair, and a big septum ring as physical things to anchor my controversial-ness," he continued. 

Ramesh is part of a new league of artists spearheading the renaissance of ceramics in Australia, bringing a sculptural approach to the medium and shaking up a scene that was defined by its steadfast adherence to tradition. But this approach hasn't been without its critics. "I've gotten flack from potters-who are unsurprisingly older, white men-who think I'm shitting on 'their' medium," he says, adding, "But that's kind of thrilling."

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While Ramesh has a solid grounding in traditional ceramic techniques - having studied both a Bachelor and Master of Fine Art at the University of New South Wales - his practice has evolved into a space where experimentation and reckless abandon rule the roost. Just as the saying goes, 'learn the rules so you can break them like an artist.'

And break the rules he has. Ramesh creates raucous, bold installations featuring a series of 'rough-edged, new age idols'. These hand-moulded ceramic forms are often stacked to form totems or perched atop customised plinths, vessels through which Ramesh explores various streams of popular culture including pornography, fashion, sex, art history and religion (despite him being an overt atheist).

Only four years out of his Fine Arts degree, Ramesh's CV reads like someone who's been in the business for decades. In 2015 he won Australia's most prestigious ceramic prize, the Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award, he was held solo exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia, the Ian Potter Museum of Art and the Shepparton Art Museum, as well as being selected to exhibit among the countries most promising emerging artists in The National: New Australian Art 2017 and the 2016 Adelaide Biennial.

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His accolades speak volumes about the resonance and impact of his work; he is clearly exploring unchartered territory and curators are taking notice. It also sheds light on the dedication of this prolific young artist who, contrary to his bad boy image, brings an excruciating level of care to his work day in, day out.

"I've found the key to securing opportunities as an artist is being really professional and organised and easy to work with," Ramesh explains. "I think really good artists are actually quite lateral and business minded. In order to sustain their career, they need to have a creative and thoughtful business approach to what they do."

Ramesh's work is currently on show at The National: New Australian Art, Carriageworks, Sydney until June 25, 2017. You can also catch him in a solo show at Sullivan + Srumpf, Sydney opening in October 2017, as well as in group exhibitions in at the ARNDT Agency in Berlin and the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh.

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