Saroj Patel creates intricately detailed, tactile sculptures which invite playful audience interaction. She works with a range of materials rooted in Indian traditions as well as found items such as bicycle wheels to create structure. Raised in the UK, Saroj first visited India with her family at the age of three and was amazed by the sensory overload of colours, textures, tastes, and sounds. She has since been drawn to the aesthetics and ritualistic elements of traditional ceremonies. Her practice is an opportunity to connect with these visceral aspects of her heritage and explore the joys and challenges of growing up as a woman between cultures.
Saroj works intuitively, creating organic shapes with materials such as Sari fabric, bells, glass beads, old clothes, steel, and ceramic beans. These items imbue her sculptures with their own stories and connections. The works also leave space for the viewer to bring their own interpretations and she is interested in how the works are read depending on the location they are shown in. Saroj plays with vivid colour combinations, creating rich palettes of purple, red, pink, orange, yellow, and blue in a single work. Texture is woven throughout her sculptures with delicate folds of fabric and elaborate bead work. She often creates site-specific pieces, taking her cue from the environment that will house the work.
Repetition and layering play a central role in her sculptures, mirroring natural forms found in the plant and animal worlds. Many of her soft sculptures experiment with scale and can be read openly: perhaps as enlarged microscopic forms, plants or giant alien creatures. Their scale creates an immersive effect on the viewer, who can relate to the sculptures as similar-sized living beings. The recurrent forms and vibrant tones are evocative of many elements seen in nature, such as biodiversity, symbiosis and mutation. The works suggest that these diverse aspects of the natural world could inspire humans to collaborate more harmoniously and create more flexible divides.
Saroj draws on the ritualistic practices and cultural traditions that have long influenced her. While her sculptures are celebratory of Indian culture, they are also a way to address her own relationship with her upbringing. Growing up in the UK she always felt a tussle between two conflicting ways of life and has found herself struggling to fit all expectations. As a woman in particular, she experienced the pressure of trying to embody two starkly different gender expectations. She pushed hard against assumptions from her wider community that she should marry within her culture, start a family, and pursue a career that was traditionally seen as successful: doctor, lawyer or pharmacist. Conversely, her immediate family encouraged her to be independent, taking an open-minded approach to her choices and direction in life. This example has fuelled Saroj’s inquisitive and candid approach to her artistic practice.
Her optimistic works attempt to find an empowered space that can encompass all aspects of her life. She creates art as a way of holding all elements of herself and bringing together seemingly conflicting views. Since becoming a mother to twin girls in 2020, Saroj has an even stronger drive to create an inspiring example, challenging what it means to be a second-generation British Indian woman. She wants to question rigid ideas of ethnic identity through a fluid and open-minded exploration of her own experience.
Saroj is also interested in the nature of reality and the way in which humans experience the world. Inspired by Indian astrology and notions of space, time and consciousness, she examines how interrelated events, human relationships and physical objects constitute reality. Her works present imagined stories that expand on ritualistic practices and myths; in doing so, they show other ways of being. She sees her practice as having a spiritual aspect to it, finding means of connection between people, animals and the environment.
Donna Haraway’s theory on “tentacular thinking” feeds into Saroj’s work, and she is drawn to the author’s sense of urgency to imagine new ways of relating to all inhabitants of Earth. Haraway wrote in her 2016 book Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what worlds make worlds, what worlds make stories.” This has become an important quote for Saroj, conveying the importance of which stories we tell and how we choose to tell them.
Saroj is inspired by the rich history of women artists working with textiles and large-scale sculpture. She is drawn to Louise Bourgeois’ guttoral explorations of motherhood and conflicting use of soft materials to convey dark emotions and experiences. She also references Lee Bul’s enormous, out-of-this world creatures in her work, inspired by her ambitious use of scale and range of materials, as well as the interactive experience Bul creates for her viewers. Saroj’s work could also be seen as aligned with that of Sheila Hicks, who makes use of repetition alongside organic forms, while keeping an element of playfulness and joy; and Joan Jonas’s exploration of storytelling and mythology, inspired by ritualistic practices discovered on travels around the world.
Saroj Patel was born in Preston, England, in 1983. She graduated from Central St Martins, London, with an MA in Fine Art in 2019. Recent exhibitions include ‘Observational Realities’ (2022) at Clifford Chance, London, which was part of her 2020 win of the Clifford Chance Sculpture Prize; and ‘Materialisation of the New’ (2020), a group exhibition at Darl-e and the Bear in Oxfordshire. In 2022, Saroj took part in Tate Lates’ panel discussion ‘She Made Me Do It’, exploring how women artists shape their practices. In 2019, she took part in Art Night, Hix Art, and Participatory Workshops at Tate Exchange. The same year, she was a finalist in the Hix Award, shortlisted for the Tiffany & Co x Outset Studiomakers Prize and won the Tension Fine Art Gallery Prize.