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Asian Art Newspaper’s interview with Chitra Ganesh, London

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New York based artist Chitra Ganesh is much more American than Indian, having studied literature at Brown University and painting at Columbia, Ganesh is firmly part of an incredibly mobile multi-cultural generation absorbing and appropriating their ancestral culture from well outside of the sub-continent. It makes for a very sophisticated body of works that draws on preconceived notions of Hindu philosophy and cultural mythology. Employing a stylised comic strip aesthetic Ganesh challenges feminist discourse and female desire with an epic story of figures and flesh cavorting over a modern narrative of half-baked words and dream-like speech-bubbles. Ganesh’s contemporary take on the familiar comic format subverts much of the original script of a statuesque god seeking good over evil.

At first glance these comic book graphics appear slightly trivial but for Ganesh these colourful storyboards immediately evoke notions of gender based power, which are the corner stone of a culture saturated in the imagery and the mythology of men leaping through the sky with silver swords and their submissive counterparts being held against their will. For Chitra Ganesh the comic book appears to epitomise and even perpetuate a perverse sense of good over evil that has become fundamental to Indian culture. Such scenarios are at the centre of such classic literature as Ramayana in which men and women indulge in episodes of absolute and unsolicited power. The stylised simplification of a comic book is central to Ganesh’s earlier work Tales of Amnesia 2002-07 in which as the artist suggests the audacious female character confronts subscribed notions of good over evil and compliance over adversity in order to explore alternative models of femininity and power. By rewriting popular history, Ganesh appears to want to empower her character Amnesia with an opportunity to directly challenge, with much thrust and vigor, the original fairy tale. For Ganesh such preconceived social codes have always been heavily influenced by religion and literature. Ganesh’s visual multiplicity animates an accomplished body of works and thus with such complexity at the root of Ganesh’s practice, there becomes an incredibly urgency to do this interview, to find an opportunity to engage with one of the leading lights of the contemporary art scene from her industrious New York studio.

Asian Art Newspaper: Is the tapestry of your cultural heritage Indian mythology and your Indian identity, how important is that to your practice?

Chitra Ganesh: I often draw source imagery & inspiration from formative experiences with visual culture posters, architecture, graphics, or song lyrics – frequently from images that had a striking impact on me when I first encountered them; This includes the South Asian cultural material I lived with in my home, such as comic books and calendar – refrigerator art, and visual imagery that circulates in South Asia I encountered on frequent trips back to India over the summers. My interested in mythological narratives is also not confined to South Asian culture. Common themes that shape myths across cultures interest me, such as their focus on a hero’s journey, or mythologies’ storytelling structures, such as how they often being in media res or in the middle of things, and overturn our idea of a linear narrative with clear beginning, middle, and end.

AAN: What medium and which works do you consider your most significant? From Tales of Amnesia 2002/2007 and The Awakening 2004 are examples of works in which you have generated visually arresting images where you have re-approached existing fables. You have suggested that you are ‘intervening upon such fables’, rather are you not reinventing them?

CG: Tales of Amnesia and the Awakening both invite the viewer to reconsider familiar narratives and iconic moments that have been compelling to me. I hope the images I produce work towards shifting the locus of meaning in these narratives draw the viewer’s attention to a different or often overlooked moments in those narratives or icons. In the Awakening, these include the complexities of a female martyrdom, the convergence of femininity and violence, or the consequence of failed rebellion. This process happens along historical, literary, and personal axes in my work. Take for example, the installation how I found her. This work seeks to open up a visually arresting moment that was intensely personal, that of discovering my mother’s dead body on the bathroom floor. While the content is not based in fables or social history, the conceptual strategy of rendering an erased moment visible for myself and the viewer, cuts across all three pieces. I did not create any of these three works as a result of setting out to ‘reinvent history’ – a daunting and unrealistic proclamation for a singular work of art. Fables and myths are always already reinventions, playfully questioning our notion of an original cultural fragment, author, or text. The Ramayanam or Monkey King Story, in its many iterations across Asia, as well as the life of Buddha, whether told in ancient scriptures, in graphic novel form by Osamu Tezuka, and most recently in the televised animation series “Avatar”, are all examples of that. Intervening in art historical discourse, changing the shape of the canon, as well as questioning what an art historical canon chooses to include or render invisible, is a conversation I plan to contribute to with a several bodies of work, produced over the course of a lifetime.

AAN: What is it that troubles you most about such early comic publications as Amar Chitra Kathas? Is yours a crusade to write much of the macho hieratical content of such comic literature out of your drawings and replace it with overtly pornographic and provocative imagery?

CG: I am not at all troubled by Amar Chitra Katha, or any other comic form, for that matter. Rather, as an avid consumer of comics, graphic novels, and graphic art, I take great pleasure in these forms, both ACK as well as all kinds of other comics, from Archie to Neil Gaiman and Joe Sacco, as well as graphic novelists like Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and Alison Bechdel (Fun Home). In fact, certain ACK tales provide quite a sharp take on South Asian social/cultural history, while simultaneously maintaining specific social and gender norms, as do many folk tales, post 9/11 contemporary action flicks, and so forth.

I would never describe my own visual interests and thinking as a ‘crusade’ – a word which to me indicates a religious zeal and desire to proselytize to audiences that encounter the work. I am not at all interested in creating work that promotes a particular message, or is didactic in its approach. Eroticism and violence have always been key components of mythologies and fables – whether this is Little Red Riding Hood’s Big Bad Wolf as a warning against warning against sexual violation of unmarried girls, strong intersecting currents of sexual awakening and violence that shape vampire stories, or children being dismembered, boiled alive, and cannibalized in Grimms’ fairy tales. M work seeks to comment and elaborate upon narrative elements that are always already present, but remain perversely hidden nonetheless, within such stories.

AAN: What do you make of the phenomenal rise of contemporary Indian art? Did you consider yourself more Indian than American when included in the recent survey of contemporary Indian art at Saatchi Gallery in January 2010?

CG: The rise of Indian Art as a category is clearly tied to and propelled by market interests – capitalism’s strategy of taking a form or object that may have been considered outside the mainstream, subaltern, or subcultural, incorporating these objects into its fold, and creating income generating market based on easily digestible and defined categories, such as that of “Indian Art.” As cultural production has had a rich and vibrant life for thousands of years across South Asia that has not been dependent on, shaped by, or in reaction to the west, it does not surprise me that South Asian collectors are interested in supporting the works of their own. It is also no coincidence that the rise of Indian Art in the west is concurrent with the rise of India’s visibility as a key player in contemporary global markets, and increased hype around Indian culture (Bollywood, Yoga) and South Asian figures (Padma Lakshmi, MIA, or Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal) in the mainstream American media. My own identity does not lie exclusively between binaries such as Indian and American. Categories I inhabit much more comfortably are those of queer and New Yorker, rather than defining myself in relation to national origin, or what kind of visual art I create.

AAN: How significant is collaboration for you? Having already worked with your American contemporary Mariam Ghani, do you consider it a way to expand on your existing practice?

CG: Collaboration continues to be a significant part of my process. I have collaborated with a number of artists whose practice includes a variety of creative fields, including film making, new media, illustration, and activism. The formal and aesthetic concerns our divergent practices bring to bear on the work has been very fruitful for producing images and installations that are strongly guided by the underlying interests in my work, but often take on new visual forms. For example, in the question, a recent collaboration with American artist and long time friend and colleague Christopher Myers, explores themes that represent a convergence of both our interests the relationship between excess and elevation, and beauty and debasement. For this installation, created on site as part of an exhibition curated by Lilly Wei at Pearl Lam’s gallery Contrasts in Shanghai, we created a number of pieces integrating both our visual iconographies and modes of working. Certain pieces connect to visual strategies that appeared previously in my work, such as wall installation with sculptural elements, or text woven from human and artificial hair. Others came to fruition via Christopher’s aesthetic sensibilities, which including free-standing sculpture, costume, and the incorporation of found object into the work.

My collaboration with Mariam Ghani, Index of the Disappeared, has been the longest and most in-depth collaborative process I have engaged in, spanning over 6 years, including publication, installation, critical writing, web-based commissions, organizing lectures and talks, as well as image-based practice and site specific installation. Our collaboration shares my driving interests in articulating subjects and discourses that have been erased from or submerged in public consciousness, and bringing these issues to the fore. Index of the Disappeared has also carved out a space in which both of us activate and grow our engagement with writing, language, and text, which plays a key part of our individual as well as collaborative practice. Our most recent installation is currently included in the exhibition Art of War, and up at the central public library in Buffalo, NY. The Guantanamo Effect combines a curated selection of books and other material from the branch collection with a selection of primary source documents from the Index of the Disappeared archive, amassed over six years of collaborative research into post-9/11 detentions, deportations, renditions, redactions, and other disappearances. This particular selection examines the origins of the CIA torture program, the complicity of medical practitioners and psychologists in the program design and refinement, its application to rendition & prisoners in black sites, its spread to military prisons and embodiment in the Guantanamo SOP, the effects of this on international conventions and laws, & the challenges to these practices by legal and human rights activists. The installation also includes photographic prints (based on photos shot in Afghanistan), large-scale vinyl texts, and free postcards (also available at CEPA) that combine fragments of text abstracted from documents in the Index archive with proverbs, protest slogans, and poems.

AAN: In terms of art and literature, whom do you consider significant for you? Do you draw greater motivation from American culture or is it your cultural otherness that holds your personal attention? Can you find a thrilling originality between these two polar positions?

CG: My academic training in Comparative Literature, Art & Semiotics introduced me to a very wide range of literature from many countries. My inspiration comes from literary and visual texts originating in a wide range of countries and spaces, including the lyric poetry of Catullus and contemporary writer Anne Carson, as well as popular cultural referents, such as comics and song lyrics. Clarice Lispector and R.K. Narayan and Osamu Tezuka have also been an abiding and powerful influence in my creative endeavors. Amongst some of my all time favorite visual artists whose work I’ve been revisiting recently are Paula Rego, Max Beckmann, Bikash Bhattacharjee, & Kiki Smith. I would characterize my practice as dynamically inflected by a multiplicity of cultural matter and referents rather than being bound between positions alone.

AAN: Who would like to work with next, given the opportunity?

CG: I have recently begun working in animation & film, and hope to continue my exploration of these time-based media as well as my long-term interest in artists’ books. I’d like to develop my practice within in these massmediated formats to tease out the possibility of suggesting alternate narratives and realities in media that unfold over time. Much of my recent inspiration is also drawn from popular forms, such as science fiction and psychedelic poster art from the 1960s. It’s occurred to me that in many ways science fiction narratives, or the questions posed within this genre—about human existence, alternate realities, the nature of time, and the limits of death and life continue the discourse and cultural work initiated by mythology or folklore, within a 21st century context.


Rajesh Punj, August 2010


Written by Breathe Arts

August 16, 2011 at 11:42 am

Posted in General

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