Holy Femininity, Batman!

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Her dark materials Chitra Ganesh
Her dark materials Chitra Ganesh. Photo: Vijay Pandey

Not very long ago, a campaign featuring pictures of bruised goddesses sparked the imagination of everybody in possession of a Twitter account. For those few weeks, social media was raging with comments about the failure of a campaign that portrayed calendar-art goddesses as victims of domestic abuse. Whether you liked it or not, you would probably agree that it had you hooked, and so was not such a failed campaign after all.

Taking a familiar image and subverting it is possibly the best way to surprise the audience, and make it think. For the artist Chitra Ganesh, Brooklyn born and bred (with a single year lived in Hyderabad), it is the language of Amar Chitra Katha and Archie Comics that she uses, twists, subverts to make powerful points about women and womanhood.

For her first solo show, Chitra creates a world so contradictory that it confounds any attempts to understand it. The comic-book style and shiny-glittery surface draws you in, but don’t expect Jataka Tales or Tantri the Mantri.

In Chitra’s world, a woman’s self-portrait (called The Mirror Face) isn’t coloured with one-dimensional vanity. This woman has limbs growing from her face, and claws from her fingers. But she isn’t all self-critical; Chitra represents her inner wisdom through her keenly-observant third eye. With eyelashes as long as Daisy Duck to boot.

Chitra, 38, majored in comparative literature and semiotics at Brown University in Rhode Island, but also studied the classical artists and spent much of her time painting nudes. “I noticed that we were always painting women — in fact, all the artists we studied painted women — but there were very few women painters painting women in the classical era,” she says. The representation of women in the press was another area of interest, both intensely fascinating and irritating. “Some women achieve larger-than-life status in the public eye, especially in the event of a tragedy, becoming symbols. But we don’t know who they are,” she says. “Steve Mc-Curry’s Afghan girl, for instance.” This male-gaze-female-muse school of female representation pushed Chitra to start painting women, focussing on different expressions of femininity.

Almost all the works have a hypnotic quality. In one, a woman lies on a bed surrounded by teeth waiting to devour her. The woman appears composed, in full control of the situation. But she could also be dead. Her dress glitters from a distance; made of broken mirrors, she is literally a reflection of you. “This one’s inspired by horror movie posters, the type in which the prettiest women get killed first,” Chitra says. Only, in this, the woman looks too collected to be a typical horror-movie victim.

In another piece, there’s a woman who is almost drowning, her head half out of the cerulean waters. She is at once being dragged down into the water and rising from it. She exhales eye-shaped bubbles. There’s another: just a shot of a woman’s mid-section, with Turkish evil-eyes for breasts.

The woman is the centre of this world but she’s always surrounded by hostile forces. Broken mirrors, shark teeth, fish hooks, sea water dragging her down; the world is dark and belligerent. But her expression is always one of peace and equanimity. Never does she look threatened or fearful, never is she the victim. Never does she need any saving. “My women are always agents,” says Chitra, with a tinge of parental pride. “There is such violence and hostility a woman has to go through and in these works I show her complex negotiation of the world.”

This negotiation of the complex world — albeit in fantastical scenarios — forms the core of Chitra’s work. “I like to look at the body as a site for conflict: the dismemberment of body through conflict, the violence being a metaphor for the literal and cultural violence heaped on a woman.” Be it honour killings or discussions around the hijab, the woman’s body is a site on which the collective desires of society are projected. Given that her art about womanhood inhabits the large grey spaces between stereotypes, it isn’t always necessarily easy to communicate her ideas to audiences. (In the US, for instance, her work is often misinterpreted as being only about Indian women. “Isn’t this the life all women everywhere have to lead?” she argues.)

But this is where her style comes in handy. With loads of glitter and everyday material thrown in, her style is accessible to an audience that might otherwise be intimidated by contemporary art. “Comics are so universal and the viewer feels equipped to understand them. Most people read them even if they don’t read.” Comic book images are reflective of the lack of pretension everywhere in Chitra’s work, her use of everything from roofing material, gulaal, sari fabric and burlap sacks for onions to immerse her audience in the normal, the humble. Of course, there are also mirrors, watches, fish-hooks and shark teeth. It’s her way of showing that the most fantastical struggles are rooted in the mundane.

“My style didn’t evolve so consciously,” she says, “but I am glad it has taken the shape it has.” Her earliest work was mostly installations, until she began to experiment with comic-style sketches for a project commissioned by the Queens Museum of Art in New York a decade ago. “Comics turned out to be an apt idiom, because when you strip through the colour and the garishness, they are all about power, struggles, violence, the instilling of ideologies,” says Chitra.

The centrepiece of her Delhi show, at the Gallery Espace, is The Inner Eye, a large installation bringing together all her favourite elements. Disembodied eyes (“eyes are the connect between the inner and outer world”), colourful feathers, shiny bits of paper, onion-bag cloth and pieces of text strewn about everywhere. “What about the threshold?” reads one note; “Memoirs of a bleeding tongue,” reads another. Unqualified, unsubstantiated, these fragments of text and other unofficial registers of language are a key ingredient in Chitra’s work. The installation is an explosion of many of her black-and-white doodles (“many of the works that I’ve considered unsuccessful”) of women — some goddess-like, some disembodied, some wearing bindis, some terrifying. “You may first see a hundred before you finally recognise one,” reads one of the pieces of text, rather prophetically.

The exhibition will be on till 31 October at Gallery Espace, New Delhi

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