Myths and the Woman

What makes multimedia artist Chitra Ganesh one to watch out for

Written by Vandana Kalra | New Delhi | Published: September 22, 2013 5:47 am

What makes multimedia artist Chitra Ganesh one to watch out for

In greek mythology,he bore the burden of the earth on his shoulders. Chitra Ganesh prefers to replace Atlas,the bearded titan,with a female nude seated on craters. Her twin faces represent her multidimensional personality and the tattoos on her body represent her experiences. Childhood memories surface through a girl getting her hair braided in a corner — a common scene in most Indian households. Suspended at Gallery Espace,the archival lightjet print titled Atlas is part of the US-based artist’s first solo in Delhi. It denotes two of the most powerful elements associated with her work — strong female protagonists and panels inspired by the Indian comic book series Amar Chitra Katha. Ganesh has modernised the latter in her digital prints that deal with contemporary concerns and in which curvaceous beauties seek transformation against stereotypes. “She is definitely a strong voice among women artists and has a great sense of drawing. The manner in which she plays with Amar Chitra Katha in her work is completely unique,” says Renu Modi,director,Gallery Espace.

Less than 24 hours after Ganesh lands in Delhi from Brooklyn,New York,she has little time to relax. She makes a beeline for the gallery to prepare for the show that begins on September 27. Digital prints are stacked on the floor alongside unfinished works on paper. Suitcases are packed with sundry material — mirrors,beads,zippers,ribbons,leather pieces,even shark teeth collected off the coast of Florida — that might feature in the wall-mounted exhibits. “I just pick things up from different places,some of them end up in my art,” she says. In front of her is a watercolour in progress. There are floral patterns in one corner set against a female head where mechanical pieces and tools form part of the anatomy. The body is made of metal parts,glass eyes,beads and a damaged wrist watch.

It is an example of the latest turn in her work that features part-human and part-machine subjects. She brings together science and myth to broach contemporary issues like environmental degradation and present day imperialism. In her solo Flickering Myths at Gallery Wendi Norris,San Francisco,last December,she showed figures against a celestial setting,wearing cameras on their head,and sporting multiple breasts. “Technology and our understanding of the future are very similar to the kinds of questions that people ask,such as what makes us human,where are we going,what ethical compass should we follow. The distinctions between the inside and outside have become more difficult to figure out,” says the 37-year-old. As part of her Guggenheim fellowship last year,she studied classical American science fiction authors such as Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick as well as archival research of early science fiction films and mainstream popular science fiction print publications popular in the 1970s and ’80s in US such as OMNI. “I researched on the relationship between mythology and sci-fi and also experimented with some animation ideas,intercutting comics and silent film. The technique might be visible in my work in the coming years,” says Ganesh.

Born and raised in Brooklyn,Ganesh never felt distanced from India. Daughter of a banker father and a schoolteacher mother,she grew up listening to Carnatic music and learning Bharatanatyam. Relatives from India visited frequently and summers were usually spent in India,between Jamshedpur,Bangalore and Kolkata. That was also when Ganesh was first introduced to Amar Chitra Katha comics. “My cousins used to go to school,and I was home reading their comic books. Back then,they seemed like any other comic. I read them and put them aside,but somehow the narratives stayed with me before surfacing in my work. It was not a strategic choice,” she says.

Art,too,was not an obvious career choice for the English literature graduate from Brown University,Rhode Island. Her initial foray into art was restricted to taking short courses,until she decided to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2001,followed by an MA degree in art from Columbia. “I have a huge family with around 30 cousins and none of them are artists,” she says,talking of how her artistic career initially invited scepticism.

Gallerists too were unenthusiastic about her text-based narratives and imagery straight out of Indian comics. “There was no instant connect for them,” she says. The rejections,Ganesh notes,often persist,but now she is comfortable with her art. It helped that her work received attention over a decade ago — one of her initial series,Tales of Amnesia (2002-2007),where the protagonist Amnesia steps out of the submissive role assigned to her to assert her authority — was widely acclaimed. “I noticed how women were often defined relationally to men,as someone’s mother,wife,sister,but not with an autonomous identity of their own. I wanted to create nuanced and complex ideas from the feminine,where women are agents of change,trying to break down boundaries,” says Ganesh. In 2009,at MoMA PS1,she painted a wall installation The Silhouette Returns,inspired by Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ 1980s graphic novel Watchmen based on the investigation into the death of a superhero,who as it turns out,was murdered when she came out as a lesbian.

One of the dilemmas that critics face in judging her work is the ambiguity in being categorised as either wholly Indian or American. Ganesh says she is happy distancing herself from labels. Her work is replete with references from Buddhist and Greek mythologies in addition to its deep connect with India and the US. Her 2007 mixed media wall writing Hair Poem was a comment both on the act of shaving the head as an offering to Hindu gods and the export of hair extensions to America.

Last summer,Ganesh studied the early silent cinema productions of India,Germany and the US for the exhibition The Ghost Effect in Real Time at Tilton Gallery,New York. “I became curious about historical/visual relationships that might have existed between Germany and India,” she says. The works were derived from film stills and silent Indo-German co-productions in the 1920s between Himanshu Rai and Franz Osten,which culminated in a trilogy of films based on Buddha and the Mahabharata. “I learned that acting was considered inappropriate for women,so men often played female roles till Anglo-Indian actresses came by,” she says. An off-shoot of that discovery led her to create wall-sized charcoal portraits of screen icons like Theda Bara and Devika Rani; one of the works also refers to the film Raja Harishchandra,India’s first feature film.

This wasn’t the first time Ganesh had Bollywood on her canvas. In her Mumbai solo in 2008,she used lenticular prints of Zeenat Aman from Satyam Shivam Sundaram. Ganesh hopes to catch up on Bollywood more as she will shuttle between the US and Delhi over the next few months because of personal commitments. Having worked in collaboration with artists before — with American Mariam Ghani in 2004 on the difficult histories of immigrants in the US,with artist and author Christopher Myers in 2008 on a site-specific installation in Shanghai — she is also excited about the prospects India might bring. “I’d love to work with Mithu Sen and Dhruvi Acharya. Collaborations introduce new elements to people’s practices. You figure certain problems you cannot address on your own,” she says.

At the moment,though,she is consumed by the solo,creating a site-specific work that marries the east with the west. “The central figure will be a woman with a water mask,who looks somewhat like Ganesha,” she says.

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