Tag Archives: Visual Culture

The Indian matchbox: a telling element of our visual culture

A feature on my Indian matchbox project, from today’s issue of The Sunday Guardian:

Sunday_Guradian-Matchbox_Collective

The Indian matchbox: a telling element of our visual culture

SHWETA SHARMA

While Big B has a fetish for pens, Quentin Tarantino is known for collecting board games. Similarly, Bengaluru-based illustrator Matt Lee, who came across a matchbox at a roadside chai stall a couple of weeks after he moved to the city from London in 2007, has by now built up a collection boasting of more than 600 matchboxes.”

As an artist and illustrator, collecting matchboxes is part of a wider interest that I have in documenting and categorising illustration and visual culture from around the world. The first matchbox featured an illustration of a killer whale with a caption above that read ‘dolphin’. I found this quite amusing, and kept it. Looking back, I think that my first connection with Indian matchboxes was that aside from being great examples of disposable design, they often seemed quite random, and made me smile and keep on collecting” he says.

On being asked about the reason for building a collection so vast, Lee says that it is the new design that keeps him going. He adds that across such a vast country like India, he can only ever have a fraction of the designs available. “So the series is never complete. Each new design I come across does not offer a resolution; but rather adds to the collection and the continuing story,” says Lee.

Interestingly, the matchboxes also signify personal memories for Lee. The visible ‘scars’ of the battered boxes tell a story, which according to him map the places he has visited, and the experiences he has had. He describes his collection as something which is ‘about design that is visual, tangible, yet personal and also somehow elusive and unquantifiable’.

“I often receive emails from people asking if I’d like to trade them, but it’s not about that for me. The satisfaction is in the process of building a collection that holds sentimental significance rather than material value. When I look at the labels I am reminded of many things; an early morning walk through Periyar National Park with my father and brother, getting lost amongst the narrow lanes behind the Ghats in Varanasi, eating fresh fish in Fort Kochi and many conversations with friends in Bengaluru,” he shares.

Lee, who says that he is attracted towards Rs 1 matchboxes, however makes it clear that he does not go out of his way to find or buy matchboxes; instead he prefers to stumble upon them. Talking about his favourite ones, he says, “From a purely design perspective I really like one that I came across in Jaipur a few years ago. The label shows a lit match on a deep blue background. I like the simplified graphic form, the balanced composition and the selective use of bold flat colour. It reminds me of the Priester poster designed by Lucian Bernhard in 1906.”

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Collections at Fictilis

100 of my Indian matchboxes are currently featured in ‘Collections’, a show at Fictilis Gallery, Seattle. This “collection of collections” runs until 30th March.

Information about the exhibition and the artists involved can be read here. Photographs from the opening can also be seen here.

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Collections at Fictilis Gallery, Seattle

‘Collections’ at Fictilis Gallery, Seattle. Featuring 100 of my Indian matchboxes.

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Collections

Collections that require some kind of creative categorization or idiosyncratic taxonomy. Collections that draw attention to the processes and politics of collecting.

Opening March 1st 2012 (reception 6-9pm) at FICTILIS. [Facebook event link.]

A collection of collections. Featuring work by:

Center for Genomic Gastronomy
Gina Coffman
Michael Demers

Adam Farcus

Timothy Furstnau
Alan S. Hokins
Tim Hutchings

Mary Anne Kluth
Matt Lee
Noah Pedrini
Ben Pranger
Mary Rothlisberger
Hugh Russell
Dominic Sansone
Sarah Sinclair
Abby Spangel Perry
Ryan Thompson

The world’s largest collection of “mailpiece security screens” (or envelope patterns).  A collection of “meteorwrongs” (rocks mistakenly identified as meteorites) from the Arizona State University’s famous collection.  A set of ceramic models based on a geologist’s verbal descriptions of favorite rocks. A small, traveling natural history museum that holds a lovingly assembled and ever changing exhibit of natural objects.A collection of sticky notes found all over the world. Selections from the Play Generated Map and Document Archive of paper documents created during play. A collection of 120 shoe heels found on the streets of Chicago between the years 1989-1992, with map marking each location. Photographic documentation of lost tennis balls. Twenty 1970s photographs whose provenance is unknown. A collection of matchboxes from the India. An archive of collections of dried slugs, pet coffins, clay and shell sculptures, sweater lint art, and more from a 1980s childhood. 30 variations of Cobra Commander action figures arranged according to color. Crushed Crush bottles and cans photographed exactly as they are found.  A collection of used 35mm film canisters, flattened and photographed in a uniform method. One month’s worth of preserved food for an adult human. Two years worth of nail clippings. Four years of beard clippings. Seven years of drain catch from a New York City loft. A collection of tiny, unholdable pieces of bar soap melded together. A lifetime of daily to-do lists.

And more….

Exhibition runs through March 30th.

http://www.fictilis.com/shows/collections

The Hindu Interview

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Life in a Matchbox: Happiness is Best Contained

An interview with me, from today’s issue of The Hindu:

A continuing story: Matt Lee talks about how new matchboxes are printed all the time and how his series can never be complete

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Matt Lee is an artist, illustrator and educator from the U.K., at present working from Bangalore.

The first matchbox that I came across featured an illustration of a killer whale with a caption that read ‘dolphin’.

I found this inaccuracy between the text and image quite amusing. Looking back now, I think that my first connection with Indian matchboxes was that aside from being great examples of disposable design, they often seemed quite random and they made me smile.

I began collecting matchboxes soon after I moved to Bangalore from London in 2007.

Collecting these became an extension of a wider interest that I have in hoarding small, tactile examples of illustration and visual culture.

What keeps me going now is that new designs are printed all the time. Across such a vast country as India, I can only ever have a fraction of the designs available. The series is never complete. Each new design that I come across does not offer a resolution, but rather adds to the collection and the continuing story.

For me, the attraction is towards the Re. 1 wax matchboxes that can be found on the street near roadside chai stalls, cigarette kiosks and highway dhabas.

I have collected around 500 matchboxes in my travels across India. As souvenirs, many of these designs signify personal memories. Collectively, the visible scars of the battered boxes tell a story, mapping the places I have been to and the experiences I have had. I often receive emails from people asking if I would like to trade or buy matchboxes from them, but it’s not really about that for me.

There is no particular aesthetic criterion or selection process that I have in mind.

Though I try not to collect duplicates, most of the designs that I come across add something new to the collection.

The visuals that adorn the matchboxes often include historical and religious iconography, Indian pop culture, appropriated western imagery, mundane objects, and lots and lots of animals.

There is no common linear theme, however, the disparate meanings and juxtapositions that are present through the series of designs do seem to encapsulate quite perfectly the heterogeneous and hybrid visual culture of modern India.

I have had offers to exhibit the collection abroad, but at this time they stand proudly on a shelf in the front room of my apartment.

By way of displaying and sharing these with a wider audience, I have photographed each of the designs and the full collection can be seen on my website. At some point in the near future, I plan to make a short film on the printers of Sivakasi, where the matchboxes and packaging for fireworks are produced. It would be interesting to trace the journey of a matchbox from the printers and the wholesalers through to where they are sold and used on the street.

I do not go out of my way to find or buy matchboxes, but stumbling across one that I do not already have always brightens up my day.

For me, the satisfaction is in the process of building a collection that holds sentimental significance rather than material value.

When I look at them, I am reminded of many things; an early morning walk through Periyar National Park with my father and brother; getting lost amongst the narrow lanes behind the Ghats in Varanasi; Chinese fishing nets in Fort Kochi; and many conversations with friends in Bangalore. So, it is about design that is visual, tangible, yet personal and also somehow elusive and unquantifiable.

http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/article2792871.ece

Empty Signs

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A new photographic series of Kannada scripts. Inspired by Roland Barthes’ book Empire of Signs, these images explore signs of cultural logic and convention that are absent of meaning to the nonmember/ outsider.

Creative Review: Indian Matchbox Monograph

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For Creative Review Magazine subscribers, this December’s Monograph features around 20 pages of my Indian matchbox collection. Here is some text I have written for the introduction.

Matchboxes from the Subcontinent. Walking around Bangalore city where I live you will come across matchboxes everywhere. Cheap and disposable, they litter the highways and footpaths, and are scattered around any roadside chai stall, cigarette kiosk or dhaba.

The first matchbox I came across featured an illustration of a killer whale with a caption that read ‘dolphin’. I found this inaccuracy quite amusing. My first connection with these matchboxes was that aside from being great designs, they seemed quite random and they made me smile.

In my travels across India I have collected over 250 matchboxes. Each design has come to signify a personal memory. Collectively, the visible scars of the battered boxes tell a story, mapping the places I have been, the people I have met and the experiences I have had.

The visuals that adorn this collection include historical and religious iconography, Indian pop culture, appropriated western imagery, mundane objects, and various animals. For me, as an outsider, the disparate juxtapositions created through this series of designs have come to encapsulate quite perfectly the heterogeneous and hybrid visual culture of modern India.