India Today International Article on SAWCC (South Asian Women’s Creative Collective) & “UnSuitable Girls” project

The Women Speak Out

They are sexy, spunky and subversive and their works are wry comments on issues of gender and violence

by Lavina Melwani

A group of spunky twenty-something second generation Indian American women have chosen to call an exhibition of their works “(Un)suitable Girls”. In the works on display they talk of their dilemmas and their dreams through pen and paintbrush and yes, even with a mouse. Says Tara Sabharwal, who along with Nandini Chirimar has curated the show. “These works show the South Asian scene is really coming of age and defining it parameters. These artists have grown up being Indian in America, so perhaps they’ve had pressure from family to e suitable girls, and they must define their own unsuitability.”

The show which opened at the Paisley gallery in Manhattan has been picked up by the Joseph Papp Public Theater, as a part of the New Works Now! and Asian American Theater Festival, where it will be on show until April 30, Neyda Martinez of the Public Theater culled the work of seven artists from “(Un)Suitable Girls”, for this new show at the Public Theater’s Shiva Gallery. “They (the artists) are very smart, they’re very sexy and thery’re very subversive. At first glance the pictures are very beautiful but then they convey very wry and sardonic messages,” says Martinez.

(Un)Suitable Girls” encompasses the work of fourteen artists and diverse disciplines. Fariba Alam, who spent last year in Bangladesh on a Fulbright fellowship for photography, presents her series Eye to I. Amita Bhatt uses photography and painting to create a new language exploring gender and violence, her work was placed second in the Texas Art 2000 show. Resurfacing: That’s What She Said by Karla Murthy, a documentary filmmaker, comprises four video images of the Murthy sisters recollecting childhood memories.

Among the artists are Tejal Shah, a recipient of a Kodak Traveling Scholarship grant, and Sonya Shah, who was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to India and is pursuing her MFA at the Art Insitute of Chicago through a Jacob Javitz Fellowship. Shah’s self-interrogation series “conveys messages using different inflections, different tonalites, different facial gestures to provoke and engage. It’s very starkand it provokes questions in the viewers,” says Martinez. Prerana Reddy is a recipient of the NYU Cinema Studies Department grant. Anna Ratha has curated the Cafe Nema Local Artist series, while Shalini Kantayya is the co-founder of RAISE, a network of artists that create programmes and workshops to empower young people.

Annu matthew has chosen to use surrealistic Bollywood movie posters as a parody and critical commentary of her experiences as a woman growing up in India. These colour-drenched documents comment on everything from the nuclear bomb to arranged marriages. Matthew, assistant professor of photography at the Univeristy of Rhode Island, says, “If’t about how I felt more like a commodity than a person looking for a life partner, especially with the dowry system in my community.” Says Martinez about Matthew’s work, “She’s totally appropriating propaganda, a really accessible art form, the poster. She manipulating the images and including her own commentary about the negotiations women must make.”

A bride and her monkey bridegroom tell a complicated, ambivalent tale in Chitra Ganesh’s painting Wedding Night

According to one of the artists, Jaishri Abichandani, “We have such a range of women that are creating work, from really radical and pushing the boundaries to very traditional.” Abichandani, who recently showed her work at the Durban Art Gallery, South Africa, is a photographer who uses self-documentation to explore issues of identity. In her goddess images she juxtaposes herself with images of Durga and Kali and the Virgin Mary, exploring ideas of beauty and stigma and moves to a much more spiritual search.

Safia Fatimi is a commercial photographer for New York, Time Out, and Glamour magazines, but her self-portraits are very intimate, a private image made public. She says of these brightly hued nude portraits:”They all have to do with anger and are shot in untraditional poses. While researching, I saw lots of paintings and pictures of nudes. They were all very passive and hiding themselves. I wanted to do the opposite of that.”

Her images are shot in colour negative film in angry hues of yellow, red and green.

“I wanted to show a bride is basically a constructed thing, and a wedding is a performnance which turns an intimate ritual into a public spectacle, in the process making a woman into an artifact,” says Swati Khurana, a graduate student at NYU working in multimedia and art criticism. Her works on display are informed by the frentic sounds and images of popular culture. Her video Bridal Guide questions social norms that are sacrosanct in Indian society. She hijacked images of her own eight-hour wedding video and juxtaposed it with images she shot at other weddings.

Prema Murthy, whose work will be featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial, shows stills from the Bindigirl website, she herself is the Bindigirl. “I come from a performance art background so I use the website as a vehicle to perform and comment on issues,” she says. On the website she juxtaposes pseudo-pornographic images and places big red bindis on the parts that are usually censored out, using the bindis as something sacred and yet also censored. She adds, “Also in art, when something is sold, the dealer usually puts a red dot on the piece.”

Key in the words ‘Asian women’ and the Net comes up with dozens of porn sites, a sad commentary on the eroticisation of Asian women. Murthy’s website mocks this attitude with come-ons like ‘See Bindi live in her room’ and reveals herself doing mundane things like sitting at the computer thus usurping the expectations of what people might find when they go to such a site. Murthy got a lot of e-mails, mostly from Indian men, who visited her website: “They actually get it!” The younger generation, however, had to spend time explaining it to their parents who seemed a bit uncomfortable with the concept.

In short, the (un)Suitable Girls were really letting down their hair in this exhibition.

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