An Interview with Chitra Ganesh
By: Shabina Lafleur-Gangji
As a South Asian woman I feel the complexities around how colonialism have shaped our minds and imaginations are rarely explored. So often brown bodies are depicted as non-sexual and dirty. This is why Chitra Ganesh, a Brooklyn based artist, has always inspired me.
Ganesh explores topics like shadeism, sexuality, diasporic experience and colonialism in a way that allows the viewer the
Shabina Lafleur-Gangji: As an artist, what inspires you to explore sexuality and depictions of darker skinned brown women in your work? What is the role that art can play in helping us reclaim our histories and our imaginations?
Chitra Ganesh: I am interested in expanding the bounds of what kinds of female bodies are visible, legible and represented in both art historical and mass mediated contexts, such as fashion, entertainment, and popular cultures. More often than not, we come into contact with an extremely limited pictorial range of female bodies –whether this is in mainstream culture or within the realm of the art historical canon. Art historically speaking, within the traditions of Western Classical and European art, brown and black women are frequently adornments to their (white) protagonists and counterparts- anonymous maid servants, wet nurses, handmaidens, slave labor, and so forth. They are literally relegated to the pictorial margins, or blend into the backdrop. The ambiguously gendered subordinate black figure in Manet’s “Olympia” is a key example of this, where brown and blacks women’s anonymity props up white female sexuality. In mainstream representations across the globe, dominant images of women veer towards extraordinarily thin, young, hairless, light skinned, and more. My own frustration and boredom around this reductive visual monotony in part inspires me, and so I make the kinds of images I would like to see in the world. Art gives me, us, the capacity to imagine something beyond the existing norms- space where non normative bodies, attitudes, and affective or psychic states can inhabit, thrive, and desire in a potent imaginary field. Among many other things, art and a gender based critique of power are exceptional liberatory tools to harness as we move forward.
Shabina: How do you feel that the experience of class/ of shadeism differs from South Asia to countries like United States and Canada?
Chitra: As I see it, each particular place has its own geopolitical context, a history of hundreds (or hundreds of thousands) of years that inform attitudes towards skin color. In both Eastern and Western hemispheres, skin color has long been a signifier of class– a differentiating marker between manual laborers, say, and a ruling class who have the privilege of being at home while others toil under the sun.
On the South Asian subcontinent, these distinctions certainly converge with caste oppression, which mandates the harshest and most brutal forms of labor to be performed by Dalit populations. The US certainly has a very unique construction and framework of race. One thing that this election has taught me is how much of our national history and current politics are built on the back of anti-black racism and the legacy of slavery. On the one hand, anti-black racism and the caste system both produce social and economic oppression that are alive and well today, and in many way, form the backbone of their respective nations. On the other hand these two histories are irreducibly singular, though they can be strategically considered in the same frame to render legible how these oppressions continue to operate in everyday life on the 21st century– for example, to raise visibility around issues of caste oppression in an American context.
Shabina: How do you feel the colonial legacy impacts the way South Asians are seen and the way we related to our own bodies?
Chitra: I think attributing the preponderance of South Asian subject formation to British Colonialism doesn’t do justice to engaging the incredibly complex politics and history have operated in South Asia long before and after British occupation. I think the British colonial legacy in one piece in a much larger puzzle of histories and attitudes that inform how we may see ourselves and one another. The legacies of American imperialism and xenophobia also perpetuate these continued poles of orientalism and illegibility that South Asian women, for example, have to face on a daily bases. Our identification(s) in the US may be as is as much a product of how misogyny, islamophobia, and xenophobia continue to operate here. Incidences of anti-muslim hate based attacks have risen 67% in the US in the past year – and this is the tip of the iceberg, only that which has been reported. And how frequently do we see these issues, or Standing Rock, for example, mentioned in mainstream American politics?
Shabina: One of your more recent exhibits Protest Fantasies focuses of global resistance to violence on bodies and land. Can you talk what the inspiration was behind it?
Chitra: The particular theme of Protest Fantasies came about by just being really struck and amazed by the power of protest in this moment. It’s been an ongoing part of my life, whether in 2003/4 to protest the Iraq War or any number of things, but then really looking at a lot of the images of die-ins and talking to another artist friend of mine, they look almost like history paintings. The gestures are just extremely performative. There are so many versions of how people are thinking about protests now.
One piece Rana Plaza depicts images of the women who survived the Bangladesh sweatshop collapse, and this is their one-year anniversary performance, getting ready to march and sing. It’s indistinguishable from performance art. Similar to monks who set themselves on fire as a form of protest against China’s oppression of Tibet.
The piece Femme Power captures the rich emotional texture of wanting to resist — tears of rage that ferment into something. It brings out the part of an otherwise peace-loving person that can’t deal anymore.
I feel that exposing that pain with a sense of agency is really powerful. It’s not a kind of victimization. I think empathy is as important as fantasy. And art enables empathy. And if you remove some of reality from the story, people feel more comfortable empathizing with a different character. I think that’s how science fiction works, for example.
We’re artists, and our role is also that of translator — to translate things from one mode of expression to another within our own practice. To get from journal to memoir to essay to a poem, and use that translation to invite the audience to step in. I feel like myth does that too.