Interviews

Empathy, Fantasy, and the Power of Protest: A Conversation with Chitra Ganesh

Chitra Ganesh, "Action Plan" (2015), acrylic, hair, rubber, metal (drain), digital print on canvas, 60 x 48 in (image courtesy the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco)
Chitra Ganesh, “Action Plan” (2015), acrylic, hair, rubber, metal (drain), digital print on canvas, 60 x 48 in (image courtesy the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco)

Radical embodiment is a disorienting double negative for people of color. The words “radical” and “embodiment” bump into one another as each aggressively attempts to proclaim singularity. Eventually they will fuse, producing the inevitable overlap of a racialized identity. To attempt to simply live collides with daily efforts to live wholly. As Melissa Harris-Perry has written, “One cannot stand up straight in a crooked room.” For persecuted bodies, oppression goes hand in hand with survival. Therefore, radicalism must exist beyond protest; life must thrive beyond political warfare. The ability to fantasize and imagine other worlds could bring about authentic living.

In artist Chitra Ganesh’s latest exhibition, Protest Fantasies at Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco, protest becomes something more than rebellion — it becomes internal. The paintings have a tonal radicalism that aligns with rioting bodies. They show portraits of women who struggle with protest every day. But the women are not always fighting. Some are responding by living, rather than living in response. Rejection becomes a resource.

It has been a year of hysterical unrest: a rent crisis on both coasts, dying black and trans bodies, black teacher pushout, all bookended by the California drought. Ganesh’s painstaking response was to work. Earlier this year, her mural of the goddess Kali, “Eyes of Time,” was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum. Currently, Ganesh is the 2015–16 Estelle Lebowitz–endowed visiting artist in residence at the Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities at Rutgers University.

Artist Chitra Ganesh in her studio
Artist Chitra Ganesh in her studio (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

And there is Protest Fantasies, for which Ganesh created 16 complex pieces in five months, centering on the psychological implications of living in a hostile environment. On a sweaty August morning, I interviewed Ganesh in her Brooklyn studio. Her bold work surrounded us, fresh out of the oven before it left for the West Coast. We discussed art, queerness, and how we stay nourished during this deficit year of transition.

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Chitra Ganesh, "Camera Contact" (2015), acrylic, glass pebbles, beaded necklace, automotive glass, false hair braids, sequins, plastic snakes, sand and charm bracelet on canvas, 60 x 48 in (click to enlarge)
Chitra Ganesh, “Camera Contact” (2015), acrylic, glass pebbles, beaded necklace, automotive glass, false hair braids, sequins, plastic snakes, sand and charm bracelet on canvas, 60 x 48 in (image courtesy the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco) (click to enlarge)

Erica Cardwell: Tell me about the show.

Chitra Ganesh: The particular theme of this show 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.

EC: What are some sci-fi models that inspire your examination of the future, these “protest fantasies”?

CG: Growing up, we had really misbehaved in English class, and so our teacher always [had us reading] Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick. So really from a young age, I have been able to see how predictive these sci-fi writers are and were. But also the thing I loved about science fiction is that race has an embedded presence.

EC: The energy is really powerful in these pieces. They feel like murals or public art. You have managed to collect a lot of different voices. They look and feels like something a community created. Can you tell me about this painting of the women with eyes in their foreheads?

Chitra Ganesh, "Rana Plaza" (2015), acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60 inches
Chitra Ganesh, “Rana Plaza” (2015), acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60 inches (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

CG: These are 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.

Chitra Ganesh, "Power Girl" (2015), acrylic, glass, flower ornament, false gold chain and ornament on canvas, 22 1/5 x 24 2/5 in (click to enlarge)
Chitra Ganesh, “Power Girl” (2015), acrylic, glass, flower ornament, false gold chain and ornament on canvas, 22 1/5 x 24 2/5 in (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

EC: I love the “femme power” fist with fingernails. Tell me about her tears.

CG: I wanted it to capture 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.

EC: Your work teaches women, especially women of color, to release respectability, and that trauma can be a springboard, conditioning life and leading us to develop a survival vocabulary. This is how we live on our own terms and within another world of our creation. In your piece “Melancolia I (The Thick of Time)” (2010), the phrase “an eye that cannot cry” responds to this isolation. Could you tell me more about that?

CG: The “eye that cannot cry” is also the larger vision of time, or the eyes of time. Time is the protagonist in this poetic fragment, loosely. It is the eye that sees everything, in waves of both joy and suffering. The position of being able to see the world with open, clear eyes and not be paralyzed by the trauma and suffering or throw one’s hands in the air. But to engage with life and power dynamics in their full complexity. The eye that cannot cry (anymore): being all cried out from having a long-term understanding and experience of the pain of others and the infinitely painful consequences of oppression; being ready to move beyond tears, to not allow the tears to limit the humor, joy, action, strategy, or anger in planning and protest. Perhaps it also alludes to moving beyond being victimized and navigating moments of emotional suffering to channel these into powerful, collective love and action.

Chitra Ganesh, "Pussy Riot" (2015), acrylic, faux flower petals, textiles, tinted plastic, rope, broken mirror, faux fur, leather, glitter, and glass, 60 x 72 in
Chitra Ganesh, “Pussy Riot” (2015), acrylic, faux flower petals, textiles, tinted plastic, rope, broken mirror, faux fur, leather, glitter, and glass, 60 x 72 in (image courtesy the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco)

EC: You have a painting of Pussy Riot, but they’re brown and that’s really cool. So it’s contentious, right? They’re definitely magical superheroes. What do you think about trauma as superpower in regards to your work?

CG: I do think that is a reading. I want people to engage with a multidimensional lived experience. Growing up with racism, as a person of color you have to put your best foot forward.  You can’t air anybody’s dirty laundry. I feel like those very bold performative gestures [in the piece] are directly engaging trauma. I was talking to the artist Simone Leigh, and we were saying that people don’t have empathy, for example, with black pain. And you could say that about people who are in poverty. [Observers] are just so used to seeing certain people struggle, they feel like it’s fine.

EC: And it needs to stay that way. Maintained.

CG: 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.

EC: And Afrofuturism. As a writer, if I “fictionalize,” internally, my story, I am able to write it. And others are able to engage with my story.

CG: 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.

A work in Chitra Ganesh's studio
A work in Chitra Ganesh’s studio (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

EC: After discussing trauma and myth, how would you describe political art?

CG: This is something that I’ve felt challenged by differently during my practice, because a lot of people think of political art as being didactic, both artists and audiences. But I think people that appreciate art and see it on the street don’t have any problem with that didacticism — murals, for example. Or, not that they they don’t have any problem with it …

EC: It’s not as surprising … ?

CG: It becomes part of the sights and architecture of the everyday. Also, in different time periods political art has had different looks. Right now, I think it [uses] video installation and photography as media, which is also something that I have done or do. Previously, it was more murals, like Mexican muralists. Or in India, people who depicted goddesses in the nude had to live in exile. Even a man painting a naked woman in some contexts could be very radical, even though it doesn’t feel like that now. So, I think it’s also the context. Political art is also, of course, drag.

Chitra Ganesh, "The Finger" (2015), plastic, nylon, clay, peacock feathers, and foam on canvas, 11 x 14 in (click to enlarge)
Chitra Ganesh, “The Finger” (2015), plastic, nylon, clay, peacock feathers, and foam on canvas, 11 x 14 in (click to enlarge)

EC: And sometimes the imposition of political art on bodies of color is frustrating and tricky, because in what context are our bodies inherently political? When we’re the creators, we can dictate that, but not always. From my perspective, art is political when it predicts our future.

CG: And somehow it can transcend more people’s belief systems. I think sometimes the more fantasy enters my work, [my art] is immediately read autobiographically, or like a news story.

“Oh you’re commenting on the plight of women in South Asia.”

“No, actually, South Asia has a much more vibrant discourse of feminism than all of y’all would ever imagine in the US.”

The plight of (x) creates power differentials that I don’t want to be involved in.

Chitra Ganesh, "Hanuman (Baltimore)" (2015), mixed media on canvas including sindhoor, artificial hair, vinyl glass, beetle wings and fabric, 60 x 48 in (image courtesy the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco)
Chitra Ganesh, “Hanuman (Baltimore)” (2015), mixed media on canvas including sindhoor, artificial hair, vinyl glass, beetle wings and fabric, 60 x 48 in (image courtesy the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco)

Chitra Ganesh: Protest Fantasies continues at Gallery Wendi Norris (161 Jessie Street, San Francisco) through October 31. Ganesh’s solo exhibition continues in the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series Galleries (Douglass Library, Rutgers University, 8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick, NJ) through December 10. The artist will give a public lecture at Rutgers (Mable Smith Douglass Room, Douglass Library) on November 3 at 5pm.

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