Born 1969 in Bombay, India, JaishriAbichandani immigrated to New York City in 1984. She received her MFA from Goldsmiths College, University of London, founding the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, http://www.sawcc.org, in New York (1997) and London (2004). Abichandani has exhibited her work internationally including at MoMA PS1, the Queens Museum, the IVAM in Valencia, House of World Cultures in Berlin, the Guangzhou Triennial etc.
Jaishri served as the Founding Director of Public Events and Projects from 2003-6 at the Queens Museum of Art, setting its current trajectory for community engagement. She organized Fatal Love: South Asian American Art Now, Queens International 2006 Everything All at Once and curated Her Stories:Fifteen Years of SAWCC. Abichandani has curated a trilogy of feminist science fiction based exhibitions at Rossi and Rossi in London along with several other projects.
In 2017 Abichandani engineered a collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Asia Society and the Queens Museum to organize a three day national convening of South Asian American artists, academics and curators; along with the exhibition “Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions”
Abichandani‘s work is in the Burger Collection, Asia Art Archive Collection. She has been a resident of LMCC’s Process Space residency and honored by the Brooklyn Arts Council.
Feeling the Doublebind
By Deborah Frizzell
Art is not beauty or novelty, art is effectiveness and disruption.
– León Ferrari, Art of meanings, August 1968
The contexts of disruption and displacement cut deeply into the diasporic experience and thus the themes explored by the artists featured in Doublebind: Art of the South Asian Diaspora, an exhibition featured from March 31 to May 30, 2014, at the Ben Shahn Galleries, William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. Inspired by the South Asian theorist Ranajit Guha's identification of the unique ‘doublebind’ condition of migration, gallery director Kristen Evangelista chose five artists with ties to Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines, who work in a variety of media and have distinct perspectives on the South Asian diaspora: Jaishri Abichandani, Hasan Elahi, Naeem Mohaiemen, Yamini Nayar, and Jaret Vadera. Evangelista wisely focusedon a small group of same-generation artists (born between 1969 and 1976) in order to feature multiple related works by each artist, encouraging a depth of conceptual and aesthetic experience for the viewer, while revealing related, opposing or unexpected relationships among artists' approaches.
Oscillating between at least two cultures simultaneously, “doublebind” artists often straddle differing sign systems, idioms, cultural codes, and notions of perception. Personal experience is transformed into broader languages of art, myth and popular culture, articulated within individual artistic practices. Deploying photography, collage, sculpture, video, and new digital media, these artists examine the experience of ‘being of’ and ‘being between’ cultures, peoples, and geographies.
The emblematic linear boldness of Jaishri Abichandani's large scale wall sculpture, Heartland (2010) made an immediate impact centered on the gallery's far wall, compelling a closer look to study the materials comprising its form. Leather whips fabricated in the artist's native India outline Heartland's Janus-like, double-headed eagle whose imperial wings spread menacingly outward; a bulbous tail appendage is made of a cluster of plastic prosthetic breasts, completing a disturbing conjunction of literal material means charged with metaphorical suggestion. The flexible whips embed palpable histories of the horrors of slavery, self-flagellation for penance or to obtain spiritual ecstasy, manifesting themes of dominance and power. These same whips become wild arabesques of undulating lines and three-dimensional waves as Abichandani winds them into Fountain of Youth (2010), a free-standing sculpture erupting and spewing whiplashes encrusted with glittering Swarovski crystals. The flow of unleashed female sexuality merges with ecstatic spirituality in Abichandani's series of small clay figures, Before Kali (2013), evoking ancient terra cotta artifacts transformed into non-traditional hybrid goddesses varnished in gloss oil, embellished with crystals and set within vitrines. The artist activates multiple limbs and suggests narratives. With her language of intimate gestures, improbable bodily contortions and tactile expression, the artist centralizes the female perspective in manipulations of clay, refusing a disembodied history. By helping new meanings emerge from inchoate possibilities, Abichandani allows us all to become midwives of the imagination.
Her Stories Review by Holland Cotter in New York TImes
The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective was founded by the artist Jaishri Abichandani in New York City in 1997, when identity politics was in the air, but artists from much of the Asian diaspora were still being given the cold shoulder by the art world here. By providing strength-in-numbers support and access to resources, the collective helped move a generation of artists ahead, as this small power generator of an anniversary survey demonstrates.
Ingeniously packed, floor to ceiling, into the Queens Museum of Art’s lobby gallery, the show is made up of work by dozens of artists, some of them original collective members, others recent arrivals. Shared features include a feminist perspective, an activist spirit and a resistance to melting pot assimilation. Beyond that, though, formal variety is what’s most striking.
Ethnic stereotypes are deftly punctured in Jayna Mistry’s strenuously exotic fashion photos and in Meenakshi Thirukode’s film in progress of art world striving. Chitra Ganesh’s mesmerizing warrior-goddess self-portraits; Samira Abbassy’s dark-skinned fetish figures; and Ms. Abichandani’s photographic self-image as an extraterrestrial all give the concept of “undocumented alien” a new meaning.
The definition of South Asia is stretched, too — Ms. Abbassy was born in Iran, Ms. Mistry in South Africa — as are formal categories. Sculpture means tiny creatures woven from dryer lint by Marcy Chevali, but also Ruby Chishti’s life-size figure of a water buffalo with a plumbing fixture for a head.
In Bhanu S. Palam’s paintings, humble houses look like shrines; in Yamini Nayar’s photographs, tabletop tableaus look monumental. Craft, quality and preciousness are alternately respected and dismissed. Ideas are everywhere.
The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective has made common cause with similar groups devoted to music, dance and literature. These disciplines have been integrated into the show — organized by Ms. Abichandani and Josheen Oberoi — in videos of performances (by Arooj Aftab, Parijat Desai, Sonia Kumari Mehta, Parul Shah and Samita Sinha), and in a mini-library of recently published books for browsing.
At 15, the collective is still growing, attracting new members. The need for it has not significantly diminished. Only, it seems, within the increasingly isolationist and hermetic New York art establishment are certain questions — about who we are, where we came from and where we’re going — out of style. In the rest of the world these continue to be vital inquiries, as suggested by this cosmopolitan celebration.
Stargazing Review by Avni Doshi in Art Asia Pacific
In a recent show at Rossi & Rossi in London, artist and curator Jaishri Abichandani brought together the work of five artists, including herself, in a discussion about the ways popular imagination and fact surrounding the act of looking up at the night sky come together to shape sexual identity. The idea of stargazing, she says in the catalogue essay, “is understood as the absorption in chimerical or impractical ideas.” By pursuing the boundaries where fact becomes science fiction, Abichandani’s “Stargazing,” searches for the outliers, anomalies and bodies that fall beyond the reach of normative heterosexuality.
Abichandani’s own photos playfully incorporate self-portraiture in images of characters from the popular television series Star Trek. The characters in the television show age differently than people and operate within a different spectrum of sexuality. Desexualized in some ways, the portraits reference a change in the artist’s understanding of her body and sexuality in relation to age, childbirth and motherhood. In Klingon as Self (2012), Abichandani superimposes her own image on that of an extraterrestrial male warrior. With long hair, a stylized beard and muscular build, the artist’s own individuality is clouded within the stereotypical image of the Klingon soldier. Klingons are not supposed to be driven by personal desire, but instead give themselves up to the greater good of the community. By combining her own image with that of an unquestioning soldier, Abichandani raises questions about how her own role within society has altered since becoming a mother. While giving birth is in some ways the most obvious reflection of a woman’s sexual life, is it also the conclusion of her perception of herself as a sexual being? If not, how then does a woman formulate her sexual identity? The self-portraits reflect these questions as well as an intense longing to be recognized as a multifaceted sexual being.
The title of Anita Dube’s work, Neti Neti (2009), literally translates into “neither, nor” and refers to an ancient Hindu chant which describes the universe not by what it is, but by what it is not. The work, a maze-like constellation of enamel eyes, opens up a grid suggestive of omnipotence. The idea of a description which cannot actually describe but can only fill in the surrounding gaps of negative space, suggests the impossibility of a definitive identity, sexual or otherwise.
Mithu Sen’s mixed-media drawings identify male sexual anxiety. Her work conjures shame and confusion surrounding the male body, and its desire to be a controlled and fortified form. Sen places her protagonists in embarrassing and potentially nightmarish situations. In one drawing, from a pair titled You Owe Me! (2009), a man looks down at his penis only to find a pregnant belly in the way. In the other drawing, he defecates on the ground while sobbing.
Chitra Ganesh’s large prints echo the form of popular graphic novels famous in India for illustrating religious stories, with their flat and brightly colored images and simple textual explanations. Ganesh’s narratives, however, undermine this popular form by including myths from various cultures along with her own interpretations of dreams and literature. In Melancholia (Mask of Red Death) (2011), a multi-breasted celestial deity births dozens of skeletal creatures from her mouth, which crowd the starry sky. In turn, one of the skeletons has begun to devour the deity’s leg. Ominous text reading in part, “She, a garbage picker whose future is our past. And eyes that rip black holes from which our secrets fall,” both explain and confound the imagery. The imaginary celestial beings are depicted in pain, miserable and enslaved in their bodies. Instead of bounty, they are surrounded with decay. Both the words and imagery seem to suggest a terrifying cycle of birth and death, in which the female body is objectified and consumed.
A particularly surprising departure in “Stargazing” can be found in Nida Abidi’s video Weatherproof (2011), which is perhaps the most candidly and unabashedly hopeful of the group. Her video shows a veiled woman transformed into a space traveler, blasted into outer space. With its flat, primary-colored penciled lines, the visual language of the piece is decidedly childlike. Abidi’s fantastical narrative emphasizes potency rather than limitations. The character’s hijab morphs into multiple forms, taking on the shape of a condom, and even a helicopter that propells her in the air. The artist uses humor, sexually suggestive imagery along with the fantastical story to subvert the notion of oppression traditionally associated with the veil.
While this exhibition is a part of an ongoing conversation on the slippery parameters of gender and sexual identity, each participating artist brings their own individual questions about otherness to the forefront. For Abichandani, curating this show was an attempt to further investigate the story of the other, which she explored in previous curatorial endeavors, including the group show of Iranian diaspora artists, “Shapeshifters and Aliens,” in 2011. The notion of the alien or unknown being provides a powerful metaphor for the experience of the outsider. By drawing from mythological and otherworldly themes, Abichandani lends otherness an oft-ignored sense of grandeur and awe. Not belonging, in this instance, becomes a space of imagination and transformation, ripe with possibilities.
"Whats Sauce for the Gander" Lead Profile by Tom Finkelpearl in Art News Magazine of India, Diaspora Issue
The Unites States constitution mandates that every ten years the government will conduct a census that counts every single person living in the country. This is a notoriously cumbersome and inaccurate project. Hundreds of thousands of people are left out of the count, and there is a lot at stake including federal funding and seats in the House of Representatives. For the 2000 census, a young artist and activist named Jaishri Abichandani signed up to work for the census as a “South Asian Specialist.” She spent months traveling through communities that she knew well – the complex social networks of South Asian New York – and making sure that people understood that they needed to fill out the census forms to be counted. Although Abichandani was employed by the federal government, her work at the census was thoroughly consistent with her artistic practice. She was working with and for communities who had been under-counted and under-represented, using her vast networks within South Asian New York to advocate for political and social visibility. Over the nine years that followed, she has walked a fine line between community action and aesthetic expression, between socializing and organizing, between life and art. In last four years, her personal artistic creations have begun to emerge more strongly in a promising artistic career, but her centrality to the South Asian arts community in New York remains a complex combination of factors.
Jaishri Abichandani arrived in New York from Mumbai in 1984 at the age of fifteen. She finished high school in Queens and attended Queens College, receiving a Batchelor of Arts in 1991. In the 1980s and 1990s when she lived there, Queens was one of the most ethnically mixed places that the world has seen. In the center of the most culturally diverse county in the United States, where 138 languages are spoken, Abichandani lived in a building where Hindi echoed through the halls along with Russian, Spanish and a host of other languages. Queens College was also brimming with the cultural friction and interchange of the county. Like many artists, she started with the familiar and local. Her early photographic work created just after college focused on her family and the immigrant communities that were the context for her developing social and aesthetic imagination.
In 1997, seeing the need for increased aesthetic interchange, social networks, and public recognition, Abichandani founded South Asian Womens’ Creative Collective (SAWCC). On the model of other New York City coalitions like the feminist “Guerilla Girls” and the Asian-American collective“Godzilla,” SAWCC organized festivals, retreats, panels and exhibitions, and perhaps most importantly created opportunities for critical discourse and mutual support. The organization has grown to include 1100 women in New York, and chapters have emerged in other cities.
Meanwhile Abichandani’s photography was continuing to develop, and after the turn of the millennium, she was beginning to show more frequently and with more notice. In The New York Times, critic Ken Johnson called her photographs “absorbing” and “sumptuous,” comparing them to the snap-shot sensibility of Nan Goldin (August 23, 2002). And her life as an arts administrator was progressing, as she assumed a post as Director of Public Events at the Queens Museum of Art. She was presenting large scale events and organizing shows. Many of these projects continued to focus on South Asian cultural expression, including a series of events and an exhibition called “Fatal Love” – drawing its title from an essay on South Asian community and conflict by Suketu Mehta, another Mumbai native who landed in Queens as a fifteen-year-old. But her focus was broad and included instituting a series of gay and lesbian programs and organizing the museum’s biennale.
Still, Abichandani was not content to be defined as a curator of the work of others if it meant that her own work faded into the background. She took the risk of leaving New York where her career was moving steadily forward to obtain a Master’s degree at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, enrolling eleven years after she graduated from college. Graduate school provided a period of intensive investigation and creation which bore fruit in the continued maturation of her work, provided her with a third point of reference beyond Mumbai and New York, and perhaps more than anything allowed her the breathing room to recast herself as an artist first, and a social organizer second. When she arrived back in New York in 2005, though she continued to organize shows and participate as a board member as SAWCC, she was an artist-who-organizes rather than an organizer who also makes art.
So, by 2009, Abichandani had defined herself “political artist,” not a political organizer, and though she speaks of her cultural production and engagement in “activating feminist networks and curating exhibitions” the balance seems to have definitively switched toward her own artistic production. She is currently engaged in a group of ambitious series. Photography is still an important aspect of her work as exemplified by her “Reconciliations” series which digitally merges international cities into a seamless single image. But she is not any longer bound by medium, and some of her most successful recent work has been painting, sculpture, and video. The approach of these works is consistent with her earlier work – a mixture of cultural representation, feminism and politics – but the form is more complex, and the vision is wider. One of her most ambitions works takes the form of an enormous swastika: “Rise and Fall” (2008) is made from 70 whips, and the cultural references are challengingly complex, from the ambiguous multi-cultural significance of the swastika itself, to the color scheme echoing the Israel and Iraqi flags, to the Christian cross, the source of the whips in India, their relationship to religious self-flagellations and sexual dominance, and so on. The work stands twenty feet tall, and the sweep of references is dizzying. Some of the references are inevitably inaccessible to many viewers, but this might also be the point – that there is such cultural complexity in objects and ideas that one can not grasp them all. Without leaving behind what she learned in work that The New York Times compared to snapshots, this grand installation signals an artist with the increasing confidence to take on big issues in a big way.
In the 2010 census, demographers will note a steep increase in South Asian populations in American cities. Large Indian and Pakistani populations are being joined by new legions from Bangladesh. But a more complicated story will be told in their growing cultural and political power. This influence is not only a story of numbers but of community leaders, connectors, and creative individuals. Jaishri Abichandani has been an important player in the cohesion and definition of South Asian New York – a role she will continue to play even as her aesthetics ambition continues to grow, and her creative vision moves beyond community self-expression without forgetting who she is and where she has been.
London opens the door to the East.
Country Life Magazine, UK November 3, 2010 (pages 94-95)
....Among the more interesting contemporary works I am aware of so far are the mixed - media creations by Jaishri Abichandani at Rossi and Rossi. On first sight of the catalog, I did not much like the work of this Indian -born, European - educated, New York - based artist, but the more I come to see what I am looking at, the more powerful it seems. The brashly coloured portraits, mainly of women, incorporating whips, boxing gloves, plastic breasts, Swarovski crystals and feathers have something of a fairground feel, but their message is anything but fun, although they might imply hope. They deal with - mostly - powerful women influencing the world for good or evil, including Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sara Palin and Samira Jassim. The last appropriated the honorific Umm al Mumieneen the Mother of All Believers, as she press - ganged female suicide bombers by having them raped and persuading them that only martyrdom would cleanse the shame. This is an overtly political show, and a very worthwhile one.
For a Fresh Gallery Space, Contemporary Indian Art
Jaishri Abichandani is among the lesser-known artists included in the show. But her video “Happily Never After” (2005) is one of the more compelling inclusions, presenting documentary-style imagery of an electric, female fortune-telling robot found at street fairs in India intoning women to follow the example of stoic Hindu women saints. It is a commentary on the pervasive influence of religion in Indian society, especially among women and the poor.
Monday, December 22, 2008
Jaishri Abichandani, born in Bombay, educated in London and living in New York, is a recognised and much travelled artist. Her personal story reflects the broader situation amid the globalising processes where different cultures overlap both tentatively and essentially to reveal similarities and connections underneath their diversities and clashes. Significantly titled "Reconciliations", her exhibition at Sumukha (December 13 to 30), indeed, deals with this phenomenon and its impact on the human mind, emotions and conscience. The youngish artist, who is an activist in feminist and political issues, combines in her work a number of approaches, media and aims wishing, on the one hand, to touch on many aspects of things and, on the other, to stimulate a disrupted yet holistic, and so engaged, response in the spectator. In a manner that conjures an environment, she collects and juxtaposes photography, sculpture and video, while in an equal measure but in different ways relying on their visual effectiveness, intellectual recognition and sensation.
The main part of the display, literally as well as metaphorically, takes a vast perspective on the world as one composite city. At first glance, the large, uniform-size photographic images appear like conventionally attractive but somewhat indifferent views of urban spreads usually framed by hilly landscapes, often mirrored in water. They simultaneously look different and the same to remind of the superimposing and blending memories of several places in a frequent flier on business and pleasure. The density of their architecture conveys much energy, both positive and disquieting that enhances but also weakens or turns vulnerable against the natural expanse. A while, one begins to feel that there is something strange in the tourist brochure-like sceneries which suggest indistinctly a kind of smoothly repaired seam condition, as if excessive elements - buildings and roads - were crowded together sporadically hinting at illogic. As one tries to probe them from close-on, the digital blur prevents it. In fact, it may not be possible to read their specific content without the titles and the artist's explanations. What one senses as comparisons and permeability between alien yet similar cities - areas of commercial force and glamour hiding violence, of human ingenuity in poverty, of wreckage resulting from war, is referred to by Abichandani to history and the history of culture, social and political conditions.
The artist assumes the importance of her concept leading the viewer, this often being successful, sometimes however without conjuring adequate clarity or intensity of impact. Throughout these images of our connectivity and vital oneness, gravity mingles with humour, warmth with sarcasm. If the architectural crowding of the photographic cities mostly omits figures of people but evokes loneliness, the video work about a Pakistani drag queen brings it out on an intimate level.
Time Out Bengaluru 2008
At 10.30pm on Wednesday, November 26, as Jaishri Abichandani arrived from New York to Mumbai, and began making her way into the city, she witnessed sights from terror attacks that she said reinforced her beliefs as a political artist seeking change, but left her wondering when she’d actually be able to make Reconciliations – as her new show in Bangalore is titled – a part of reality. Abichandani talked to Jaideep Sen about international disputes in her images; landscapes of cities in conflict, merged together as one.
What did you witness as you landed in Mumbai [on the night of Wednesday, Nov 26]?
Mass confusion, nobody knew what was happening. On the way, we passed by one of the attacks on the road leading to the airport, and the driver who was coming to get me missed the attacks by about ten minutes or so. If he was on that stretch ten minutes before, he would’ve been in the attack.
You’ve spoken about a vision of “one modified, unified world”. It’s perhaps the right time to talk about that.
Yes, it’s talking about how these artificial boundaries exist between countries, and how in the reality of people’s experiences, we don’t really live with those “hatreds”, and where is this world going to go if we continue to live like this? I’ve used the series Reconciliations to ease out historical tensions, and each image ends up easing out a different relationship that perhaps people believe exists between spaces.
You also mentioned “subvert historic, geographic and political boundaries”.
None of these are images that I shot myself. All the images I’m using for the series are taken off the internet. And yes, I use them very heavily in my work.
The series came about when I was participating at an exhibition in  New York at P.S.1 Museum of Modern Art, and all the artists were required to produce work daily about something that had happened in the media in the last 24 hours. I set about trying to make something that would talk about the Latin American anti-American pact between Hugo Chavez and [Fidel] Castro and [Juan Evo] Morales, and I found these two images – one of Chile and one of Peru, and I put those two together in one cityscape. And they worked beautifully. From thereon, the series grew, and I created the images based on the relationships that cites and countries had with each other.
How did you choose the cities?
You have, for example, Havana and Pyong Yang – basically Cuba and North Korea – in one image, talking about communism. There’s another, where you have the slums of Bombay [now Mumbai] and the slums of New York, talking about different “franchise populations” and how they create parallel economies and navigate the cityscape and survive. There are contemporary topics, like in the one I made for Bangalore – you’ve got the silicon valley of California and that of Bangalore fused together – talking about commerce and a whole lot of other things – of virtual identities and realities.
And there’s an image of Tehran and Karachi that was particularly tough to make because a lot of cities are not on the internet and that includes cities in Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh. So I had a friend who was in Tehran at that point send me an image from her rooftop, which I fused with an image of Karachi that I got off the internet. That was very specifically also talking about that person who sent me that image – Sara Rahbar, an Iranian artist. She’d fled from Iran and gone through Pakistan to then move to the United States, and that’s a trajectory that many refugees have taken from that part of the world. The Tehran-Karachi picture is about those kinds of poor boundaries which, as you can see, is having such a huge impact here now. Everyone’s so concerned about the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and here we have this…
You create pictures that are largely geographic and landscapes...
the reason is that I have to actually match up the landscapes, the lights, the structures to each other, to make the images work, because it is the relationship that dictates what the image ends up being.
The ironic part is that I’m from Bombay and I’m Sindhi, and my family comes from Karachi. And I’ve been trying to make this image of Karachi and Bombay for a few years now – and it just doesn’t work. I cannot find the right images to match up to make this one image. Somehow it just doesn’t work.
[In the show] You’ll see images of Bombay and London, talking about colonisation, and of Ramallah and Jerusalem, which talks about the conflict there, and Tehran and Karachi. With the Pyong Yang and Havana image, I chose not to work with Russia and China, and went with the smaller communist countries; sometimes you don’t want it to be that direct and obvious, and you want to have a bit of subtlety.
When did you realise you were intent on being a political artist?
I think I’ve always been a political artist. The first time I showed here [in Mumbai] was in 2002, at [Gallery] Chemould, and that show was all political works. The intent for my work has always been absolutely political.
When I was growing up in India in the 1970s and the ’80s, it was a very different time. My parents were very idealistic, patriotic Indians, and I grew up with this whole notion of freedom fighters, and independence meaning so much to us. And then you go to America and find your are a third-class citizen.
You basically learn to deal with what class means, what race means, what heterosexuality means, what patriarchy means, what white supremacist patriarchy means.
And if you’re an intelligent person, you start to articulate how you feel about those things.
East Wind 'a Blowin...
By Michael Mills published: April 03, 2008
"The South Asian artists in this show are so far out of the box they rattle the place "
"Exploding the Lotus" is heavy on conceptual art — to the point, perhaps, of inducing a mild headache. The show, now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, was jointly curated by the center's curator of exhibitions, Jane Hart, and the New York-based Jaishri Abichandani, who's also represented in the exhibition by a trio of works.
The participants are identified in the introductory wall text as 21 established and emerging artists from South Asia living primarily in the United States. Actually, they're all from the Indian subcontinent, with about two-thirds of them Indian or Indian- Filipino and most of the remainder from Pakistan. One artist is from Bangladesh, and two apparently declined to give details about their national origins. The art itself comes in a variety of media, including wall drawing, painting, works on paper, site-specific installations, photography, sculpture, and video.
I mention these details in an effort to get some sort of handle on this challenging show. Ditto this, from the promotional materials: "As this global hot-spot merges into mainstream Western Culture, methods of expression are re-examined, honored, and scrutinized, addressing fundamental issues of the region including war, feminism, and the endurance of spiritual practices — all issues at the forefront of South Asian contemporary life and culture." Entering the main gallery, you'll immediately notice that this is a multimedia exhibition. Video screens of various sizes flicker, and sounds waft through the space. Works fill glass
cases and dot the floor as well as line the walls. Let's start with a relatively easy piece, Vandana Jain's GE Highway (2006-08), which occupies a section of floor in more or less the center of the space. Made of cardboard, strapping tape, and chalk, it features eight interconnected General Electric logos that form a continuous loop of a miniature highway.
Beyond its self-evident surface, it suggests a benign comment on corporate sponsorship and advertising, maybe even a subtle critique of colonialism. A display case nearby houses a dozen trophies custom-designed by the artist Swati Khurana. They bear such titles as Most Reluctant Housekeeper, Most Disheveled Child, Least Generous Sister, Most Mannish Granddaughter, Least Available Daughter. These questionable awards, the text panel informs us, go to "South Asian women who collectively and independently have made choices to step outside of their own socially accepted norms." Fair enough. Another easy one, with a sly sense of humor as a bonus.
From here on the going gets tougher. I was initially drawn to Rajkamal Kahlon's intriguingly titled acrylic Algebra of Infinite Justice (2005) because of the hot pinks and other bright colors associated with more traditional Indian art. The imagery, however, belies the seductive surfaces — flowers shaped like skulls, people with missing limbs, disembodied body parts, an instance of (nonconsensual?) sodomy. I had to turn to the text for clues: "the use of violent imagery framed by psychedelia and the human body turned grotesque through its traumatic encounters with colonialism, military rule and torture."
Hmm. No such assistance is provided for many of the other pieces, or else the "help" proffered proves less than helpful. What to make, for instance, of Naeem Mohaiemen's Red Ant Mother Chad Meet Starfish Nation (2008), a pair of C-prints accompanied by cryptic text? Hint: The work apparently has to do with the 1975 military coup in Bangladesh, but aside from the superficial beauty of the stark, nearly abstract images, it remains opaque. Nor could I get much past the pretty ceramic tiles that make up Fariba Alam's Car Top Picnic and The Night Journey. And for some of us an appreciation of Sa'dia Rehman's Fairy Tales (2007) will no doubt be complicated by the "eew" factor that arises when we read that the ink drawing is adorned with snippets of the artist's pubic hair.
A handful of works are visually appealing without regard to their intellectual content. Among them are Kanishka Raja's Nine/Ten (2007), a kaleidoscopic graphite rendering of architectural elements; four C-prints by Yamini Nayar that use miniature sets to toy with notions of perspective and proportion; and Ansuman Biswas' self/portrait (1999), a still from an interactive video modulated by the artist's heart rate.
Inexplicably, the curators blunt the impact of a suite of six color photographs by Mareena Daredia — one of the show's strongest contributions — by breaking it into two groupings displayed in different areas of the museum. Entitled Zahiba: Slaughter House, it's from an ongoing series of images documenting the preparation and slaughter of halal (Arabic for "permissible") meat in the Muslim world. And given how barbarically the creatures destined for our tables are often treated in American factory farms, the work is also a rebuke to Western culture, as becomes clear from the accompanying text detailing a procedure designed to be more humane. The animal's eyes and ears are first checked to ensure that it's healthy, and the animal is given a drink of water to satisfy its thirst and to calm it. A prayer is recited. Finally, one cut of an unserrated blade severs the esophagus, trachea, and major arteries in the neck. The photos remain unsettling, but at least they chronicle a process intended to retain a measure of the animal's dignity and to minimize its suffering.
"Exploding the Lotus" made me suspicious when I noticed that the name of co-curator Jaishri Abichandani was attached to three works. There's always the possibility of an overinflated ego. But after a second pass through the galleries, I became convinced that Abichandani's participation is far from arbitrary — indeed, hers are among the show's most provocative pieces. The curator-artist's two-and-a-half-minute video Bijli: Heart of a Drag Queen (2006) is hard not to notice. Its wailing soundtrack hits you as soon as you enter the main gallery, and the simple imagery — a fully made-up drag queen performing — is projected onto the curving wall at the far end of the gallery. The text describes Bijli's treatment at the hands of a culture not known to be sympathetic to gender bending.
A second Abichandani video, Happily Never After (2005), runs two minutes and 12 seconds and is shown on a tiny DVD player. It's a drily funny little vignette in which a fortune-telling robot delivers seven possible scenarios, none of which is especially appealing. Abichandani's most satisfying work here is one that deftly conflates the traditional with the modern, the secular with the religious. Untitled Camera Sculptures (2003-06) presents a quartet of mixed-media works, each an ordinary camera rendered extraordinary by the application of dozens and dozens of tiny fake gemstones. Abichandani has also gutted the cameras and replaced their innards with tiny figures — including, for instance, a Buddha's head — that transform them into something like miniature makeshift altars. Unlike so much of "Exploding the Lotus," these unassuming little sculptures are heady without playing head games.
Toying with art
By Neha S. Bajpai
Five women artists from across the globe have come together at Delhi's Gallery Espace for a spectacular exhibition on alternative concerns with femininity. Their art looks at the constant flux in one's identity-sexual, social, cultural and intellectual. With an eclectic mix of more than 30 collages, prints, photographs, drawings, installations and sculptures, the exhibition, 'Moving beyond the frame', is truly unconventional not only in its theme but also in its representation.
Symbolising the exertion of male power over female body through objects like leather whips, dildos, plastic breasts and Swarovski crystals, Brooklyn-based Jaishri Abichandani has put together one of the most striking sculptures in the exhibition. Named after the US law allowing women to have abortions, the sculpture 'Roe vs Wade' involves an embellished plastic female breast put up in the centre with eight red whips around it.
"This sculpture talks about the time when abortions were carried out unsafely and references the landmark US Supreme Court case that allowed abortion. The eight red whips represent the eight judges, which included just one female. How could seven men understand the perspective of a woman and do justice? In my college days I used to participate in rallies demanding abortion rights and my work is an extension of the same," says Abichandani, founder of South Asian Women's Creative Collective, a non-profit organisation for the advancement of South Asian artists.
Famous for her 'lingam sculptures', Abichandani says her art takes a lot from India as well as the US. "I was not too sure of how my work would be taken in India but it is as Indian as it is American," she says. Her paintings, too, have subtle references to power centres where women have taken charge. Using jewels, mica and even nails as embellishments, Abichandani has referred to Condoleezza Rice, Sheikh Hasina and Benazir Bhutto in some of her paintings.
While she displays it all through whips and sex toys, Catherine Mosley's six collage paintings are about the relationship between the victim and the predator. 'Swept away' and 'Falling girl' show a female form being subjected to an unforeseen turmoil.
Another interesting artist at the show is Kolkata-based Paula Sengupta, whose works are mostly autobiographical narratives. In her diary-shaped installation titled 'Bay of Bengal and Hugli and Karnaphuli', Sengupta talks about the painful partition experience her family went through. Works by Maxine Henryson, a freelance American photographer, involves everyday objects like trees, women, rivers, clothesline, children and courtyards to create a balance between figuration and abstraction.
Another artist, apart from Mosley, who has used mixed media-print, woodcut, drawing, installation and video-at the exhibition is Sutapa Biswas. Drawing influences from film, art, history and literature, UK-based Biswas explores themes beyond the feminine as well.