One of the factors that makes the social media platform Tiktok stand out from many others is the opportunity to present very nuanced aspects of culture. While it continues to be banned in India, people have found work-arounds to present authentic content. From fusion dances, to inside cultural jokes about brown parents, the playing field has opened up. There has always been a lot of formal and informal discourse within the South Asian community, especially among those living abroad, on how much of their desiness they want to embrace and how much they would rather do away with. In the 90s, books like Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and films like Bend it Like Beckham presented the dual realities of being an Indian abroad. Over time, and with a lot of video content on social media platforms to document this shift, an increasing number of people are able to choose how much or how little they want to adapt.
It usually varies from region to region, ancestral heritage, and how long their family has lived in America. However, when it comes to art, a diaspora tag comes with its weight, influence, baggage, and impact. It calls for a deep self-assessment and navigating the value this association brings or takes away. In a socio-political time when conversations are full of debate around identity politics and reform, it might come as a surprise that many South Asians in America want to distance themselves from the label of diaspora.
So rather than foreground the identity of artists, curator, and Chair of the Printmedia Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Shaurya Kumar invites artists to engage in a conversation around what it means to be a contemporary Indian artist for E/Merge at the National Indo-American Art Museum in Lombard, IL.
E/Merge brings together nine artists who work in mediums ranging from sculpture, sound, installation, painting, textiles, and print. While the current programming at NIAM changes frequently, the works are part of a longer exhibition that will be up until early next year. The following is a result of conversations with the curator Shaurya Kumar and artists Kushala Vora, Neha Vedpathak, Sarika Goulatia, and Avantika Bawa– four of the nine artists whose works are currently on view at NIAM.
Manisha Anil Rita: Can you walk me through your vision for the exhibition?
Shaurya Kumar: This exhibition came at a moment where nationalistic dialogue is taking place in both the USA and India. But also at a time when demonstrations such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate are also taking place. I hope the show also encourages reflection on what being a diaspora artist means. I hope that it is educational, inclusive and showcases the diversity that exists within a diaspora community. The exhibition has a variety of media, different narratives, and brings together different histories.
MAR: How did you go about finding artists for this show? It’s a pretty extensive list with artists spread across mediums and geographical regions of the country.
SK: It’s not as large and as inclusive as I hoped it would be, but it’s also a result of everybody knowing everybody. I tried to be conscious of not including the same names we often see when people think about Indian-American artists or those who identify as South Asian diaspora artists. Instead, I wanted artists who have purposely kept themselves away from the tag or sit on the fringes. It took some time to convince a few of them to be a part of this exhibition and assure them that they would be celebrated for their work and not only for how they identify. I want to mention that identifying as a diaspora artist is a means to an end but it’s not the end itself.
MAR: Did you already know about other artists part of the show? Or was this the first time you came across their work?
Sarika Goulatia: I knew Avantika virtually but I got a message from Shaurya through my website and it felt fake at first, so I looked him up and it turned out to be legit!
Neha Vedpathak: I didn’t know anyone before the show, I had heard and seen Kaveri’s work because I lived in Chicago for seven years.
NV: Shaurya and I were part of a show in 2019 curated by Betty Seid, in New York at the Sundaram Tagore gallery– which is how I knew of him. Shaurya and I bonded over our mutual love for Chicago (where I had lived for seven years from 2007 to 2014) and talked briefly about contemporary Indian artists living and working in the states. I was really surprised and pleased when I received an email from Shaurya in late 2020. He presented an opportunity to participate in NIAM’s inaugural exhibition which left me both curious and suspicious. I was initially skeptical about the strength and premise of an identity- based museum but at the same time, I also knew that this would be a brilliant opportunity to educate and expand the conversation and understanding of contemporary Indian art within and outside the Southeast Asian diaspora.
Avantika Bawa: I gave him your name (to Sarika). I also knew of Kuldeep Singh, Sreshta Rit Premnath, and Sarika’s work, the rest I found online. I don’t like the idea of being lumped into the cliche Indian art scene. Take for instance this show in Pittsburg called India in Focus in 2015 and 2016. Even shows in New York become predictable because they tend to show the same artists often. It’s like being part of a little club. So unless you live there, it’s hard to be a part of the conversation.
MAR: Tell me about your work for the exhibition?
SG: Initially Shaurya wanted me to include a different work but it was too large and difficult logistically. This is the third iteration of my work which deals with death and loss. It’s a quieter and more somber piece. The idea was to offer people a space to meditate on the people that they have lost, making the viewer the protagonist. In all honesty I chose this piece because it’s easier to understand, I wanted to educate, that there was a narrative they could see. I wanted to offer them an opening to engage with contemporary Indian art. The drilled hole worked with Avantika’s dot and the pin drawings that I do relate to Neha’s work. I really enjoyed how my work connected with other artists.
NV: All the works at the show were created independently and not specifically for the show. They were all made during the pandemic, some in 2020 and others in the first half of 2021. Time tends to play a big role in my work– literally and metaphysically. Even though it felt like time had stood still during the pandemic, for me it felt like it was going faster than ever. I find keeping track of time through my art meditative. I would say it lies somewhere between meditation and obsessions.
KV: I included two pieces — Unearthed and Tools Made by Hand. Shaurya really wanted me to think about what I wanted to show because most of the space in the museum is segmented so that an entire space is dedicated to the work of one artist. So my work asks questions about what we really learnt from our education systems? What makes us behave the way we do?Where do our perceptions really come from?
MAR: Do you identify as a South Asian or Indian- American diaspora artist?
AB: I identify as an artist and I’m proud of my roots. This is the second show I’ve done under the tag of an Indian artist, and I don’t work as an overtly Indian artist. I work primarily with installation, 2D pieces and there is often sound involved.
SG: I identify as an Indian-American artist but I took that label on much later in my trajectory. I distinctly remember this faculty who visited my studio, “Your work has become really Westernized” she said even though this was the first time she was seeing my work. People want to categorize your work by race and identity and when your work is coming from Indian ancestry, they don’t know what to do with you. But I think borders and identities are fluid.
NV: I’ve been struggling with how I identify as an artist, I wouldn’t put that on my resume or put it on my IG bio or whatever. People do come up to me and tell me that I look, seem or make work that is Indian very often. Having distanced myself from India, I have a sense of nostalgia. I am no longer an Indian artist, I am an Indian artist who lives abroad. I don’t really want to be part of the identity politics in the art world. However if people ask if I’m an Indian artist, I would say yes but I wouldn’t voluntarily give myself that label.
Now that I have a one-year old daughter, it feels important that she knows her mother as an Indian artist. But for now I’m going with just an artist.
KV: I haven’t identified as an Indian-American artist at all. Initially when I moved to the US, I would say I’m of Indian origin. Now I tend to say I’m an artist who works between Panchagani and Chicago. It’s a multitude for me when it comes to identity. I don’t completely identify as an Indian but neither do I as an American either because there is so much complexity in those identities that I don’t necessarily want to hold them. I do see them more as a geographical location rather than identity.
SG: I do identify as someone from the Indian subcontinent– my grandparents moved to India from Pakistan during the partition. In the present day I’ve become really cognizant of what’s going on and the shifts in America when it comes to identity politics. A lot of this has been playing up for me, and having my own 14 and 11-year old, the role of identity has definitely become a central point of discussion.
MAR: Has the meaning of your work changed in any way since being part of the show?
AB: My work tends to be site specific. I had originally proposed a projection but then I decided to go with pink dots and they are a response to the dullness of Lombard and the upcoming winter gloominess. Often when people say Indian contemporary art, they think of Anish Kapoor’s black. So I was playing around with that when I decided to use PINKEST PINK which anyone in the world can use unlike Kapoor’s Vantablack. But I hope people interact with it and the meaning will evolve over time.
KV: It definitely fueled my installation. It got me excited! Even Neha’s colorfield pieces and Sarika’s gaping holes inspired me during my installation process. I was also excited to see what would happen to my work if I saw it in this geographic flip of being in a group show of Indian origin artists but in an American context.
MAR: What do you hope from an exhibition of this kind?
SG: My hope considering this is the first brick and mortar center dedicated exclusively to Indian-American art is that the museum continues to challenge itself. I feel that we are so behind compared to other minority identifying groups of people in the US, so this is a timely and much needed space. I know it seems very obvious that they opened with contemporary art but it was also unexpected that they went beyond sociology and history and Bollywood.
NV: The whole reason I’m doing this show is an education endeavor. Also to establish the fact that we are here… and we make art that isn’t always about our identity and Indian roots.
While each of these artists is on their own journey discovering and understanding their cultural identity and the impact it has on the communities around them, this show allows them to break free of those obligations. In fact, for a brief moment, it takes off the outsider gaze and allows each artist to look at their work (and each other’s) as Indians abroad instead of Indians making work about being Indian while abroad. Most often shows are quick to foreground the identity politics of a show; however, by showing their work at the Indo-American museum, the burden of offering context is taken off the artists. Their works can exist in a space where their identity isn’t the core of their work, instead their materiality and socio-cultural concerns are the main draw.