Roots of Vision: the physical expression of socio-political issues.

...Soumya Sitaraman.

Originally Published in India Currents Magazine. May '99

The face of the America has rapidly assumed the ethnic and cultural characteristics of the myriad peoples who inhabit it today. It is at its piquant best in the San Francisco Bay area, where a truly world experience is possible whether to feed the palate or the soul. One of the largest growing ethnic groups consist of people of South Asian and specifically, Indian origin. With the influx of such large numbers, the Indian community has developed an independent identity here. Along with such an identity comes the establishment of a functional social fabric within an alien atmosphere. The key to this functionality lies in frequent, critical introspection of our original and transplanted social systems; one that would better define the relationship between the neophyte society abroad and the old, native mother and maintain a pulse on a broader range of issues affecting the micro society.

The visual artist has always been society’s sensitive barometer and critic. The powerful force that is unique to every creative individual assumes socio-political importance as image is manifest by the idea-driven creator. While defining my own issues, I searched for other voices. The dynamic individuals who came together as a result include printmakers, painters, mixed media installation artists, a photographer, a literary artist, a ceramist and a filmmaker. Each has a chosen issue, ranging from the macro ideas of race, gender and ethnicity to the specifics of intercultural and intracultural dynamics. For some, the journey results in personal closure, for others, it is detached observation. While banded together as the nascent group, Shakti, on the basis of cultural and racial ancestry, the work of the individual artists breaks all convention and stereotypes. Common physical ethnic identity starkly contrasts the images seen through the windows to the mind.

The eight artists presented here approach art-making from seven directions, and the range of issues mirrors the cultural Diaspora of India, heightened and focused to suit the time-space of the individual creator. The artists, however, all draw from ethnically recognizable roots. The thread to the past is unbroken, acknowledged in the embracing or rejection of it. A closer look into the work of each artist, Chitra Divakaruni author, Permi K. Gill, installation artist, Rajat Ghosh, photographer, Swati Kapoor, printmaker/painter, Meera Desai, painter, Kavita Bali, printmaker/filmmaker, Soumya Sitaraman, painter/ installation artist, Romilla Batra, ceramistb, and Zarina, printmaker/sculptor, reveals individual depth and perception that forms the basis of dialog and controversy, challenging society into introspection and change.

Author and poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni won the 1995 Pen Oakland Award for her book of short stories, "Arranged Marriages." She has since published "The Mistress of Spices", a novel. Her wonderfully sensual stories reveal the passions and struggles South Asian immigrant women face. Her characters see America through the veils of their upbringing, highlighting the change. Chitra is concerned with the often painful process of change these women experience in their new home, America. The struggle and adjustment these women undergo take priority over the outcome. She says, "My stories are a strange mix of truth and imagination." Divakaruni is one of the founding members of Maithri, a volunteer run support hotline for battered South Asian women.

Obsessed with issues of race, gender and culture, Permi K. Gill, a British artist of Indian decent working in San Francisco, delves into several layers of consciousness and interpretation in her politically conceptual work. Permi uses everyday objects and familiar symbols like washing symbols as political metaphors. Transposed from their functional fixity by her art, these images, while not immediately apparent to all, transform into ongoing dialog with the viewer. People from all walks of life handle them in the process of making clothes and wearing the products. Yet, they are washing symbols, a racial warning: "Wash dark colors separately". Drawing from these subconscious images targeted at the American commoner she engages our thoughts to America’s own complicity in the politics of race and ethnicity.

With the heightened perception of the outsider not anesthetized by familiarity, Rajat Ghosh’s critical images bring forward issues that concern all humanity. Triggered by thought and concept, he manipulates images to serve his message. As much as he is involved with the physical processes of photography, his mind’s eye seeks expression of intermixed senses. Rajat consciously weaves the cognitive into his image making. Saana, (perception), rupa, (form and matter), vinnana (conscious thought), and samkhard (construction) all work together to effect emotion. Photography becomes his spiritual connection as he applies the philosophy he was born into on his chosen medium of expression.

Deeply introspective, Swati Kapoor searched to express the Universe, and from it, herself. Swati’s paint flies in linear abstraction, shooting out from different points of origin around the paper, exploding from the confines of the painted surface and into silent strands of invisible energy beyond. Philosophical in concept, her abstraction rebelled against the ornamentation that went with traditional womanhood. Yet, in its essence, she discovered and embraced the ultimate Indian philosophy of God as energy and self. It turned into a dance of self discovery. Swati’s prints, by contrast, are extremely minimal and taciturn. These deliberate monotypes of specific space define in silence the same power as the paintings.

Meera Desai, approached the confluence of two cultures with questions of identity. Meera’s bi - cultural background reveals itself in the intricate embroidery that embellishes solid planes of color: a delicate thread of identity that flows between two worlds. Her oil and acrylic on canvas are layered autobiographical experiences. The canvas is her fabric of life, full of its inherent contradictions in harmony. She reveals the vulnerability of the material, and life, by piercing the tightly stretched surface with needle and thread, giving the rigid plane a pregnable dimension. The repeated images and designs remind one of the mandala, creating conscious recognition of the individual through the overall design. Of her work, Meera says, "Like skin, my paintings are sites where inner and outer worlds collide."

Kavita Bali continually strives for new ways to communicate the human experience through art, especially graphic and sculptural design. Above all, cinema-which she uses as an emotionally potent kind of "painting on film" to express her own impressions of others' individuality. Her pieces are all very intimate, whether executed on a personal or a grand scale. In much the same way, filmmaking offers her opportunities "to cut to the heart of a culture," and themes of cultural heritage pervade much of her work. Kavita explores the symbolic personal worlds of women throughout life from contrasting Eastern and Western perspectives. As the relationship between the inner and outer worlds shifts, so do the range of available options and opportunities. To her the Eastern woman finds inner liberation despite societal boundaries in contrast to the ostensibly liberated Western woman’s want of clear delineation between personal and societal roles.

The constant expression of my deep rooted Indian bonds within the realms of a vision as a woman has led to imagery that speaks with individual voice. "Union", a recent work, prompts the reevaluation of traditional and modern systems of marriage. My themes of relationships and identity directly involve the individual. For example, the installation "Traditional keepers of seed" inspired by a lecture by Vandana Shiva illustrates the threatened role of the indigenous woman as the retainer of crop seed. "Ashwatta" likens the Banyan Tree to the systems of relationship maintained and nurtured by women. Art reviewer Anjali Sircar writes, "(Soumya Sitaraman’s work) involving on one hand, modernism’s most radical pictorial impulses - and on the other, to the pre-modern tradition of painting as an activity that involves deliberation, premeditation and the rational engagement of the artist…they convey the abstract attributes of the natural world". Through identification, a sense of relatedness rather than dissonance, I invite the viewer to discover the philosophy of my work.

In order to bridge her formative years in Himalayan Hill stations to her life in Berkeley, CA, Romilla Batra, a ceramist, has chosen to depict the vagaries, delicacy and power of nature. As a child, surrounded by the imposing might of the ranges with its compelling views and rugged terrain, the treasure of every life form valiantly conquering the odds to survive and reproduce imprinted on Romilla. Her porcelain, miniature miracles of intricate and intimate creation, evoke the marvel of life. As she throws herself into the making of another pot, Romilla creates closure in the circle of her life.

Born in 1937, in Aligarh, India, Zarina’s adult life took the course of a vagrant traveler, often thrusting her on strange shores. She sought and established stability through her art. Her quiet and strong personality exude into understated, yet eloquent autobiographical etchings and sculptures. Her simple lines evoke the memory of a safe space, a seed, an enclosure: a home. Her symbolic archetypes of "home", etched in China Colle, carry the invisible thread of memory. Images are urged forward by titles like, "Far away was a house with four walls," and "My father’s house" that seem to be a part of a story. The boundaries defined and yet extremely simplified, allow heightened anamnesis in some spaces and less in others. Of retrospective importance, these visual anchors punctuate the running documentary on her life, enabling her to define home wherever she is; to root and uproot without the pain of impermanence.

About the Author:

Artist and researcher Soumya Sitaraman's vision of art and art-making as a voice of connection and social interrelation resulted her involvement in several art organizations and unique new ventures. Involved in promoting social causes through art, Soumya has organized successful exhibitions at the Triton Museum of Art, and The Euphrat Museum of Art. Soumya serves on several boards and committees throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. She is also an active member of AAWAA: The Asian American Women’s Art Association.

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