New York Desi Artist Shares Memories and Inspiration

City Inside Her, by Chitra Ganesh. woodblock and screenprint (2014)

“City Inside Her,” by Chitra Ganesh, woodblock and screenprint (2014) Image via theaerogram.com

South Asian-American visual artist Chitra Ganesh has an exhibit titled “Eyes of Time” at the Brooklyn Museum through July 12, 2015. Writer Kavita Das (and one of Ganesh’s oldest friends) interviewed the artist for The Aerogram on her childhood in New York and how Indian folk art and popular culture influence her work.

My parents always encouraged my interest in art. At age six, they took me to Saturday morning art classes at the back of a real estate office on Utopia Parkway in deep Queens where I learned still life with pastels, amidst a sea of Farah Fawcett-coiffed Queens girls. But as you know, the idea of pursuing art as a profession in our community was just non-existent. The closest thing to role models were Carnatic musicians who came to perform, aunties who taught dance, mothers who knitted for newborns in the community, pattis who drew intricate kolams from memory, and uncles who painted at night after mind-numbing civil service jobs.

Ganesh explains some of the inspiration and elements in her art including references to one of the most famous Indian comic series dating back to the mid-1960s, Amar Chitra Katha, or ACK, and the Indian folk art of kolam:

KD: You have an interesting way of referencing, subverting, or emphasizing Indian traditions and beliefs in your work — from traditional kolam designs, to Indian mythologies, to Amar Chitra Kathas, which themselves are interesting interpretations and curations of Indian culture. How did you experience these Indian traditions and beliefs as a child? What led you to draw upon them as an artist?

CG: Both Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) and kolams were everyday visual references, which existed both at home in NYC and on summer trips to India. Their simultaneous appearance in both places bridged two distinct and equally important geographies of my childhood. You are so right — ACK is very much a curated selection — and like many encyclopedic collections, reveals its nationalist politics, priorities and intent through repeating certain story lines while ignoring others.

I draw on these images because I feel how potent a collectively shared set of visual images can be when they are reconsidered. These comic fragments were submerged in my deeper memory banks, and haunting in ways I couldn’t understand until I saw them again with adult eyes. Some gave me a sense of belonging and comfort, others I experienced as irrelevant and questioned — it was a range of experiences.

Read more at The Aerogram to learn why some in New York’s Hindu community are criticizing Ganesh’s work and to watch a time-lapse video of her installation at the Brooklyn Museum.

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