From cosplay to steampunk: Artist Chitra Ganesh on her multi-discursive practice – interview

Mixed media artist Chitra Ganesh references history, contemporary visual culture and literature to create new narratives of femininity and power.

Art Radar caught up with the artist for a long conversation while she was at work at Lakeeren Gallery, Mumbai. We asked her about aspects of her formal training, the influence of New York’s art scene on her work, as well as the themes of female figures and merging bodies with objects in her work.

Chitra Ganesh, 'The Unknowns: Figure (Ma)', 2009, charcoal on paper and mixed media, 101.6 x 203.2cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Chitra Ganesh, ‘The Unknowns: Figure (Ma)’, 2009, charcoal on paper and mixed media, 101.6 x 203.2cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Chitra Ganesh (b. 1975), of Indian origin, was born and brought up in Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from Brown University in 1996 with a BA in Comparative Literature and Art Semiotics, she attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2001 and received an MFA from Columbia University in 2002.

Ganesh’s solo exhibition “Drawing from the Present” is at Lakeeren Gallery from 25 July to 30 September 2014.

Chitra Ganesh, 'Nuclear waters' from Broadway Billboard series, 2013, archival lightjet print, 11 x 28ft. Image courtesy the artist.

Chitra Ganesh, ‘Nuclear waters’ from Broadway Billboard series, 2013, archival lightjet print, 11 x 28ft. Image courtesy the artist.

Of Indian origin, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, how has this ‘identity’ influenced your artistic practice over the years? Has it come with certain assumptions, expectations or criticism from the audience?

I think it has. The United States has a very specific cultural context, in which geographic and racial identity take on a very different resonance than they do in many other countries. I think because of this, in a few instances, there is an expectation to use my ‘Indianness’ as the primary lens for reading my work; that because my works situate female protagonists and fragmented bodies in the same frame, that I am somehow commenting “on violence against women in India”.

For this, it has been very important to create and locate multiple discursive contexts for my work in order to make its many layers accessible beyond the scope of a reductive reading such as the one above. In each location my work is read, certain references are gleaned and understood, while others are less available to viewers in that cultural space. For example, there is not the same keen interest to understand my work as being about an Indian experience here in India – the kinds of messages that viewers access go beyond this identitarian frame to include Indian visual culture referents such as the Amar Chitra Katha, early mythological paintings, etc.

At the same time, there is a strong trajectory of feminist art practice in the United States, including artists such as Martha Rosler, Janine Antoni, Carolee Schneeman and Ana Mendieta – a trajectory which is helpful in moving my work beyond certain geographic limits. I have also been enormously influenced and supported by my engagement with African-American contemporary artists and arts community in the United States, something which is less likely to animate the reading of my work in an Indian context.


Chitra Ganesh, ‘Fire and Water’, 2009, charcoal on paper and mixed media. Image courtesy the artist.

Your practice encompasses drawing, painting, photography, installation, mixed media and performance. Could you tell us about your formal training and exploration of different mediums? 

My formal training was in painting and printmaking. I was, and still am, primarily drawn to painting and now, increasingly, drawing. These continue to be the anchor of my practice, but I very much enjoy working in other media – specifically video, collaborative projects, text-based works, and photography.

I believe that each medium is accompanied by its own set of visual referents. In previous encounters, the audience may have had with that medium, and how those previous experiences of, say, viewing photography in fields such as fashion or photojournalism would inform their reading of contemporary art. I enjoy thinking about what kinds of visual contexts an audience might bring to the work, and adding something different – perhaps slightly disruptive – to reframe their process of viewing and engaging with my visual works.


Chitra Ganesh, 2014, wall drawing. Image courtesy the artist.

How would you locate your work in the global context? Tell us a bit about the cross-cultural aspect of your work.

Coming of age within New York City’s multiple art scenes has been enormously influential to my work. From the years when I was thinking about going to graduate school to when I received my MFA from Columbia (1999-2002), the art scene, socio-political landscape and economic conditions that young artists encountered in New York were quite different. For one, the city was much more affordable – now it is extremely difficult for young artists without external financial support to live, work, and have time to experiment with making art while exploring a variety of social and artistic scenes. There were also many artist-centred institutions that offered opportunities to young and unknown artists – from employment to juried submissions and small community-based curatorial projects that created a platform for those who were virtually unknown to share their work in a public context. This is still happening in some ways, although I think that technology’s expanding visual interfaces, from Instagram to Facebook to Twitter, now constitute some of those platforms.

At that time, I attended workshops at museums and [non-governmental art organisations] geared towards supporting young artists, got lots of feedback on my work, and learned how to write grant proposals, put together an artist statement, and present my work to new and sometimes unwelcoming audiences. I was able to work a few different jobs, create work in my flat, and meet with friends and artist groups there.

Two particularly important New York-based spaces that were important for my development were the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC) and Art in General, an artist-centred initiative nestled in between Chinatown and Tribeca. SAWCC is a nonprofit multidisciplinary arts organisation in New York City that aimed to give desi women artists a platform to exhibit and share work. At that time, there was only one gallery in New York that showed contemporary South Asian art, Bose Pacia Modern (now closed and operating as the +91 Foundation), and few people would have been able to name an artist of Indian origin in the global art scene outside of Anish Kapoor. SAWCC organised public exhibitions in ad hoc downtown art spaces, monthly meetings where artists presented their work, and so on.

Working at Art in General was very important as well. I created lectures for school and college groups around contemporary art, and saw up close how a truly artist-centred space – one which subsisted primarily on grants and foundation funding, nurtured very young artists and had an active international residency programme – functioned on a daily basis. My artistic coming of age in New York’s diverse and charged multiplicity of art scenes and most importantly, outside of a market-centred understanding of art production and consumption, played a vital role in shaping my work.

References from history, literature and contemporary visual culture all play a role in forming a layered narrative in your work. Could you elaborate on your creative thought process? How do you go about researching and envisaging new artworks?

Sometimes, I read articles on topics that interest me, for example, some current developments in climate or space research, and I follow these threads via further readings, sketches, and casually playing around with creating new visual imagery that responds to the research. At other times, I have ideas that are generated from literature, which compel me to do further historical research, such as looking at architecture, storytelling and other creative media from this period.

This has been the case recently, for example, in re-reading the fiction of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai. My inspiration also comes from print culture, such as posters, flyers, magazines and newspapers, as well as other democratic visual languages in everyday life, such as graffiti and street art, illustration and the complex world of comics, including cosplay, steampunk, etc. I often take photographs as materials to use for studies, in the process of collage, which is central to my practice.

Chitra Ganesh, 'She the Question, Head on fire', 2012 archival lightjet print, 178 x 127cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Chitra Ganesh, ‘She the Question…Head in Flames’, 2012 archival lightjet print, 178 x 127cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Your work is visually bold and arresting, conceptually layered with themes and narratives of female sexuality, violence and power, where the body is the prime location of narration. How do you bring these together?

Largely just from seeing how much the female figure has been engaged in art since the beginning… the cave paintings, the commissioning of art by people in power, the history of the nude in western art and representation of women in the mainstream, in advertising, on television. There’s always a dissonance between the sort of stereotype and the signifier that you see projected than the actual nuance. That is something that informed my interest in this subject. And my interest in certain icons that were outside of the mainstream and whose stories were slightly different, such as Tina Turner and Phoolan Devi, among others.

Collage has been an important aspect of my practice. I like to bring different references, different kinds of visual languages together – geographically and formally different – and seeing new ways of telling a story and presenting a point of view. There are many ways to narrate a story of femininity. Seeing the relationship between figures, trying to combine and make it visually interesting. And having imagery that is extremely overbearing but light at the same time because of the quality of the line and the poses of the women, kind of creating a dual point of entry for the viewers to think about.

Which are some of the specific stories and mythic figures that you have included in your work?

There has been a broad and sprawling range of mythic figures that have come into my work in both significant and liminal ways. A few of the mythic tales and moments that come to mind are: Salome, Judith and Holfernes, Scherezade and the Arabian Nights, the Illiad and the Odyssey, as well as contemporary writer Anne Carson’s rich explorations of classical mythic materials, Sita jumping into the earth (Bhoomi Mata) at the end of the Ramayana, the Mahasiddhas – a sect of the 10th-11th century Tibetan saints who contended with and consumed abjection and horror as a means to self-realisation, the Yoruba pantheon of legends, and more.

My background in and love for literature has been a big influence as well, including, for example, mythic tales such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Pokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s Sultana’s Dream, and graphic novel giant Osamu Tezuka’s eight-volume series narrating the life of the Buddha, including issues such as Buddha’s political engagement, his anti-caste position, which are often absent from more mainstream tellings of his life.

What is your studio like? A number of artworks in the making, a library of comic books, any specific equipment?

My studio is replete with multiple art materials as well as materials of inspiration. There are, of course, many different pigments, glues, and papers. But there are also multiple bits of objects and visual fragments that I collect and amass over time, which seep into my work eventually. These include anything from fluorescent hair extensions to broken glass and mirrors that I find on the side of the road, sequins, mannequin arms and hands, a variety of fabrics and textiles which find their way into the work, rangoli powder and gravel, newspaper clippings, scraps cut out from comics and magazines, vintage comics and manga, a few issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, old love letters, books of poetry and contemporary visual theory, and psychedelic art, just to name a few.


Chitra Ganesh, 2014, drawing (work in progress). Image courtesy the artist.

What are some of your upcoming projects and exhibitions?

Forthcoming projects include a commissioned site-specific installation at the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Galleries, which will be on view from December 2014 to September 2015 – a commissioned work for The Water Tank Project, using contemporary public works to generate awareness around water issues globally and locally. My work will be a 10 by 40 feet mural to be wrapped around a water tank in Lower Manhattan, and a site-specific collaborative project with Bombay-based artist Dhruvi Acharya, which will be featured as a curated program for the India Art Fair in 2015.

I will also be a visiting artist at the Rhode Island School of Design via Kirloskar Visiting Scholar program, a newly endowed initiative being inaugurated this fall.

Jigna Padhiar


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