Between, Beneath, and Beyond
A conversation with Chitra Ganesh
By Jaret Vadera |
APRIL 4, 2017
Chitra Ganesh: My story begins in New York in the mid 1970s. My first memories are of Sheepshead Bay, and a blackout during the Summer of Sam, and of the Bengali immigrant families who helped take care of me. I lived in Hyderabad for a year with my Masi and Mama, a very significant year for me.
One of the summers I spent in India I recall sitting in a auto (rickshaw), watching a gargantuan Bollywood poster being made. I was fascinated watching the process of this huge poster coming to life, and the men who were painting it. I remember being visually oriented from a very young age. I was drawn to the handmade, to the materiality, and rawness, of the human hand that touched a surface to create a representation of something else.
I also remember seeing Keith Haring’s chalk drawings on black poster paper all around the NYC subway, and putting my hand over a place that had already been smudged to see if this was indeed drawn with chalk. I couldn’t quite believe that something so striking, piercing, and wild could be made out of the same material used to explain addition and subtraction at school.
My first creative endeavour was teaching myself how to write in cursive, when I was five, from a book my mother had bought me. That and sewing, learning embroidery, drawing kolams with my grandmother. I came to realize later how these were gendered forms of creativity, thought of as women’s work, or craft. As an only child, it was helpful to have tools to create worlds upon worlds of my own. My parents encouraged this and signed me up for art classes when I was about six or seven. I learned to draw, and paint, and to work with pastels and color pencils.
The moment when I decided to be an artist?
It seems that it must have always been there. But it seems a bit hazy, because in my family, this kind of career trajectory was not meant to happen. It was not considered economically viable, like a bad trade for all of my family’s hard work. It was not something that anyone I knew growing up even dabbled in. My mother often reminded me that art was not a financially stable field to enter, but could be pursued as much as I wanted as a hobby.
In that way, much of my time was spent feeling like I wasn't really an artist, that I couldn't really be an artist. There was a vibrant scene of South Indian classical forms like carnatic music and bharatanatyam within our community, but these often felt disconnected from my own aesthetic experiences, referents, and aspirations.
In my final year of undergrad, I remember having an argument with one of my best friends who wanted to apply to the Whitney Independent Study Program, and suggested that I should also think about it. I reacted so strongly out of my deep frustration. I felt that this was an impossible career path for me. I thought this was an option for only wealthy folks or people from a family of artists, but never people like me. I decided to get a job teaching junior high school in Washington Heights and then continued to work in education with teens. My work and my personal life changed dramatically in 1998 when my mother passed away. After that I began making paintings in my apartment, and transitioned to teaching part-time.
Around the same time, I met artist Jaishri Abichandani, DJ Rekha, and many other inspiring women from the South Asian Women's Creative Collective. It was an eye opening experience for me to meet other South Asians who were interested in the arts, some of whom pursued them professionally already. We began to create exhibition opportunities for ourselves and to show our work together. It was a vibrant time in the late 1990s in New York City, and I was part of an incredibly progressive desi community that included organizations such as the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, and Youth Solidarity Summer.
It was around this time that I decided to go to graduate school. It was a decision to invest time and space in myself for myself, and to see what would happen if I were to focus and take my artwork more seriously. After my mother’s passing, the feeling that life is indeed very short motivated me to take leaps which might have otherwise taken much longer.
CG: Yes, will, persistence, patience and faith. Graduate school was difficult, complicated, and in retrospect, rewarding. It was a huge transition in so many ways. I was coming from a liberal arts background where I focused on semiotics, feminism, post-coloniality, poetry, and translation. I was already out of school for a few years, working as an English and Social Studies teacher. In Columbia’s MFA program, some of my peers were already thinking about the market, and had an uninterrogated notion of art history that was primarily Eurocentric.
I still didn't think I could actually be an artist. I didn't relate to the broader and more exclusionary aspects of my field, to the economies of high art, and the lack of diversity in contemporary art. Partly because I was involved in a number of progressive communities in NYC that were so supportive, affirming and rewarding.
Attempts to find images that reflected my subjectivity in mainstream art and culture often meant reckoning with the anthropological colonial lens that prevails in both the selection and contextualization of art objects, alongside disturbing mass mediated representations of South Asian subjects circulated in the United States. The reception that my work got from some of my peers and graduate school faculty made me realize how important it was for me to articulate my own thoughts and approaches to object making, and the cultural histories that informed them. That said, there were a few professors who were incredibly supportive and taught me a great deal-- both in terms of broader approach and in terms of my own painting and drawing based practice.
But South Asian cultural histories, art histories, and contemporary art were altogether absent from my curriculum. I took some classes in anthropology and South Asian studies which were very helpful to fill in some of these gaps.
CG: Yes, the absence of our aesthetic histories from the American pedagogical frames in which we are both trained is definitely one of the erasures I’ve had to navigate. At Brown, I remember being very excited to take an Asian art history course. Bringing my focus on semiotics and contemporary theory, I imagined the would include the work of postcolonial visual thinkers like John Akomfrah, progressive artists like Nalini Malani and Bhupen Khakhar, or even movies like Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. On the first day I realized that Asian in this class basically meant China, with a bit of Japan in there. The art we were to study was beautiful in its own right, but never moved beyond the 18th century. I remember trying to speak to the professor after class to seek suggestions about my interests and feeling frustrated that I didn’t have the language to explain any of this to her.
On one hand, as artists and visually engaged people, we are struck by an absence of diversity in museum and institutional spaces. But in the domain of media images that circulate widely, a different kind of erasure is enabled by an instrumental imaging of South Asian female subjectivity. I am thinking here of images like Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl, which was on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985. Interestingly McCurry’s picture, and the projections which the young photographer placed onto the body of an unknown brown girl, were deconstructed by the subject of the photograph herself years later. Sharbat Gul was found, seventeen years later, in 2002, and it was clear from interviews and pictures that she was angry about her image being used and seen without her knowledge or permission.
The 2010 Time Magazine cover was more openly critiqued during its circulation. It is a justification of US intervention in Afghanistan, once again invoking a brown skinned female body to map geopolitical conflict, and manufacture a need for military intervention under the aegis of rescue. Such disturbing repetitions, both in national mainstream American media, as well as within children’s stories, official histories, fairy tales and more, require resistance, through the proliferation of alternate narratives that push beyond the mind-numbing repetition of stereotypical signifiers.
Your questions around shape-shifting are really evocative. Within the mainstream contemporary art dialogue my work was initially apprehended as first and foremost as Indian, in part because the global art market generally classifies non-white artists primarily within regional or racially marked frames. I experience more freedom and complexity of interpretation within a queer, or queering framework, and also through exhibiting my work in India.
My interest in working with Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics initially came from reexamining, with great fondness and curiosity, a body of literature and the particular visual language and grammar of comics. I was interested in the palette, line quality, anatomy, and colors in both Indian and American comics from the 1960s and 1970s. The queering of the comic frame was not a preconceived intention before beginning my comic work, but rather it grew out of exploring and sitting with the material almost 20 years after having first encountered it.
CG: I love this set of images that you bring to my mind. I also attach potent affective memories to reading Amar Chitra Katha comics, to the smell of books and musty storerooms during summer vacations in India that coincided with the monsoon season in Jamshedpur, Calcutta and Hyderabad. I would spend day after rainy day reading these comics on my own while waiting for my cousins to come home from school. I love that we have shared affinities as contemporary artists who navigate multiple narratives as a point of departure to imagine new possibilities, and that we both grew up reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series! Beyond that, I love how you connect these very early reading practices to current strategies for creating work.
The idea of an archive is often received as a stable entity – records in a library, primary documents in official archives, in which the objects in the archive reflect some kind of essential and objective truth. When we revisit unofficial and more personally inflected archival forms, though, such as family photo albums, scrap books, etc, one can see much more of the decision making process that goes into deciding what ends up in the archive. I’ve always wondered what goes missing, and why. Who was that great uncle who immigrated to Malaysia, who was absent from all the photos? Why did he never stay in touch? What about that very close family friend who one day disappeared? Who many years later I learned left home was dating a black man? The denial of our community’s anti-black racism was articulated through these absences and silences. These kinds of personal questions that I asked about erasures when I was younger were brought to bear on institutional frameworks, and political structures in my art practice and political engagement.
Index of the Disappeared, my long term collaboration with Mariam Ghani active since 2004, is rooted in notion of archiving around absence and erasure. In the weeks and months after 9/11, we were confronted daily with missing flyers and commemorative tributes all over New York City to those who lost their lives in the attack. As time went on, developments such as the Patriot Act, the institutionalization of American exceptionalism, and a rise in Islamophobia began to crystallize. This happened in conjunction with my own experience of hearing in parallel about disappearances of people within our community. Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, the lawyers and activists who were supporting them, and neighboring communities being detained, profiled, interrogated, deported, and in some cases permanently disappeared through death via neglect in detention and holding facilities. Of course, these threats of erasure continue in our current political environment with the resurgence of a much more aggressive ICE presence and mass deportations in immigrant neighborhoods throughout the country.
It is through fragments of conversations and the prisoners’ voices that allowed the architectural plan seen above to surface. It was visualized not from blueprints, or legal documents, but through the call and response communication between prisoners who listened for the number and distance of voices within absolute darkness and constant solitary confinement. So my interest in archives comes from rendering visible what remains missing, unknown, untold. I am interested in centering characters, moments, and narrative arcs that are consistently relegated to the margins. This is part of what makes the work that the South Asian American Digital Archive does, and the repository of images and documents it has accumulated over the last several years such a valuable resource for artists like myself and the other Fellows who are exploring and responding to SAADA’s fragments and bodies of information via their own artistic practice.
Ok, for my last question, do you have any advice for younger artists just starting out?
Live within your means, go as deep as you can when you are making your work, and know that there are numerous structural, historical and market based forces that converge to create an artist’s position in the world. Chances are, the challenges, struggles, and questions you wrestle with all have a precedent. Read about other artists’ lives and study the evolution of their work. Try to stay in conversation with like-minded peers and colleagues that can both support and challenge you. Have intergenerational conversations, and friends who work outside of the arts. Something it took me a long time to understand was that certain roadblocks and tensions I experienced were not about me, but were structural. Know there is a precarity and balancing act inherent to most artists’ lives no matter how smooth or easy it may look from the outside. Think of making art like a long distance runner, and let your work unfold at its own pace.
Jaret Vadera is an interdisciplinary artist and cultural producer who lives and works between New York, Toronto, and India. Through his work, Vadera explores how different social, technological, and cognitive processes shape and control the ways that we see the worlds around and within us.