The View from Afar
In works such as Sugar and Milk (2008, digital print), Chitra Ganesh attempts to excavate marginalized characters like the femme fatale.
Brooklyn-based artist Chitra Ganesh spoke to a packed house last week as RISD’s first Vikram and Geetanjali Kirloskar Visiting Scholar in Painting. The program highlights RISD’s growing emphasis on global engagement by bringing in visiting artists and scholars with strong connections to Indian culture. Introduced by Interim Provost Pradeep Sharma, Ganesh presented her work in the Metcalf Auditorium and then participated in a panel discussion with Professor Dennis Congdon 75 PT, Assistant Professor Angela Dufresne and Assistant Professor Avishek Ganguly.
Speaking about her drawings, installations, text-based work and paintings, Ganesh says she endeavors to “excavate and circulate buried narratives and marginalized characters typically excluded from official canons of history, literature and art.” Not surprisingly, many of these marginalized characters are women. “Why do the female characters always leave the story?” she asks. “And why must the seductress always be squashed? I’m responding to female tropes like the femme fatale.”
Ganesh explains that her work is heavily influenced by the mixed images of Indian culture she grew up with in New York City – from kitschy, mass-produced likenesses of Indian gods on placemats and calendars to contemporary, often intentionally shocking photographs of India published by such magazines as National Geographic. “In my first paintings, I was dissecting and reassembling these haunting images,” she notes.
She also says her work is influenced by the iconography of Hindu, Greek and Buddhist mythology, 19th-century European portraiture and fairytales, song lyrics and contemporary visual culture such as Bollywood posters, anime and comic books. She finds Indian Chitrakatha comics, which are printed in English and distributed abroad, especially compelling in that they helped her to connect with other Indians and Indian expatriates when she was young.
“The comics mediate between ancient Hindu myth and modern, mass-produced culture,” she explains, noting that in her work she attempts to bring the eroticism and violence portrayed in these influential images to the surface. “By highlighting the violence and performative artifice inherent in popular representations of gender and class, the works explore problems of representation in the post-colonial era,” she says.
Ganesh studied comparative literature and semiotics at Brown, earned an MFA from Columbia and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012. Her work is included in the permanent collections at MoMA, the San Jose [CA] Museum of Art and Saatchi in London, among others, and has been exhibited nationally and internationally at such venues as the Brooklyn Museum, White Columns, Momenta Art, the Gwangju Art Museum in South Korea, the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai and Centro Cultural Montehermoso in Spain.
Although her work is often considered too explicit to be shown in public spaces, Ganesh strives to engage audiences beyond the confines of museums and galleries. For instance, last summer her 11 x 28-foot comic-inspired piece Her Nuclear Waters was on view as part of the Broadway Billboard series at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens.
In response to an audience question about her recent trip to India, Ganesh said that her ability to blend in with the mainstream culture there allows other elements of her work to take center stage. “In India the work is not about my being Indian,” she notes. “It’s more about nostalgia, time and eroticism.”
Ganesh will return to campus in the fall to teach a painting seminar and exhibit her work in RISD’s Painting Gallery.