Interview with Leah Oates in NYARTS

Leah Oates: Many artists start as something else for practical reasons, but the impulse to make art is always there. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

Swati Khurana: When I was in kindergarten, my mother enrolled me in an Easter egg decorating contest. Having been born in India and raised a Hindu, I had no idea about the context of Easter or the established aesthetics for egg decorating. While the other kids dyed their eggs in pastel colors and made bunnies with cotton balls, I painted a red tulip and covered it in gold glitter. Really, my egg was the most textbook example of an essentialized Indian aesthetic: red and gold. Maybe because my egg stood out, I won the contest. That, at five, was probably my purest artistic moment.

LO: I’m always interested in how a person becomes an artist and what his/her progression is as an artist. What is your family background?

SK: I am the oldest of three and the only one who was born in India. I had a pretty hard time assimilating, from feeling comfortable speaking English to dealing with the strictest parents (among my school friends.) I felt a lot of pressure to do well academically, and I would be utterly devastated if I brought home a score of 95. My parents would ask where those 5 points went. And I, too, wondered.

I think immigrant children, especially the eldest ones, feel like they are the bridge between their families and the culture around them. They also feel an incredible need to succeed, in very traditional ways. That’s what is so interesting (and frightening) about being an artist—when you are working, and really working, you have to accept failure. Sometimes an idea falls flat, or a piece really doesn’t work. A critique goes badly, or you have a studio visit where you question why you never took the LSATs. If you are trying to get out there, doing calls for submissions and the like, you typically get more rejections than acceptances. Sometimes it feels really scary. And it can be hard explaining that to your family, who really do want the best for you.

All that being said, my mother was a huge influence on my becoming an artist. She was always very artistic, from making her own stationery, to doing arts and crafts projects with us, to getting a degree in fashion design from F.I.T., to launching her own clothing line, producing plays and dances in the community, and now teaching Hindi to college students. So I grew up being around art and creativity. As a kid, I always thought I would be a lawyer, and it’s still shocking to me that I am not.

My interest in art began with my interest in independent films and documentaries. As the South Asian scene in New York City was growing, I began to see myself as one of its many documentarians. I started making documentaries such as Julpari, 1996, and Desi Dub, 1997 with Leith Murgai 12 years ago, and was very surprised (and pleased) at how they were received by film festivals and university audiences. It was an emboldening experience to be a 19-year-old giving talks after the screenings to other college students, many of whom were excited to see people from their community being creative and out there in non-traditional ways. It affirmed my own interest in continuing to make videos, and my desire to experiment with the form. That’s why I shifted to making more personal, experimental videos, and to really developing my own voice.

LO: Some artists are very structured in their approach and others are looser and keep chance in the mix. How do you conceptualize your work? What is your working process?

SK: I see myself as very loose, disorganized, and cluttered with my artistic process. I’m a collector, so I have too much stuff, too much music, too many tear sheets, too many journals, too many plastic flowers, too many hard drives with too many images and movie files. But I keep it all, because I hold onto a piece of text, a source image, or song that I want to incorporate in a piece. It often gets shelved for a while, until another text or image or song comes up that complements the first one, and then I ferociously work to complete it. One night, I made sixteen drawings, but that was after collecting source images for eight days and imagining different combinations and compositions in my head before I committed ink to paper. With video, I often start with laying down a mish-mash audio track, and then working with a few clips to assemble the narrative. I like to edit really intensely, in 16-hour sessions, and be really engrossed with every frame, and then look at it a few days later, to fine tune it. I’ve never written a script or a shot list. I don’t have a sketchbook. I envy artists who are structured, organized, and semi-minimalist.

LO: Your work deals with ideas about romance, love, and marriage from a female, Indian, and Eastern perspective. How does this perspective differ from a Western one, if at all?

SK: I like to think that I come from two patriarchal cultures (Indian and American,) but patriarchal in different ways. To immigrants, Bollywood films become a lifeline to India—what we remember or never knew existed. They became a way for me to define an essentialized, melodramatic, fantasy based culture as a cornerstone of my identity. I think every culture has its own product of romance that socializes young girls, and I definitely saw my share of American romantic comedies and teenage angst films. In my experience, the thread in Bollywood films is falling in love and getting married, whereas in American movies, it is falling in love, going to the dance, and losing one’s virginity. In either scenario, a young woman defines herself through her relationship to the man in her life and some rite of passage. The difference is fundamentally about scale. The essence remains the same.

LO: You had a very traditional Indian wedding that was so fantastic it was featured in a mainstream wedding magazine, “Bridal Guide.” But ideas put forth during the wedding did not sustain themselves in the long term and you and your husband divorced. How did this experience affect you and your work?

SK: I was 22 when I got married, and it was a pretty fantastic three-day affair. But the wedding was very strange to me. It seemed appropriate in my culture to get married so young (and we had dated for six years,) but I had hardly any friends who were married, and none my age, so I felt isolated. While I was married, I made a video, called Bridal Guide, where I explored how much I felt like an artifact and the wedding a ritualized performance.

I knew little about what happens in a marriage, or even in an adult romantic relationship. My wedding was planned by my parents. I didn’t have much to say. I felt like I went from being a daughter to a wife, without having grown up at all. That was probably the source of the problems: adulthood happened and the way we connected didn’t evolve. I was incapable of seeing at 22, how un-grown-up I was. When we separated, I took a break from making art, and began building up my life as an autonomous adult. That was pretty scary. But after I came back to my work, my art and I both started to evolve.

I began using the figure of the Hindu bride in videos, collages, and drawings. In Love, Life-Support, and the Pursuit of Marriage, a video trilogy, I recasted myself as an Indian bride in the non-Indian tragicomic characters of Laura Palmer, Persephone, and Frida Kahlo. Through my staged performances, the bride operates as a stand-in for a princess, abductee, corpse, virgin, and trickster—femininity itself. In the Malabar Bride collages, I digitally combined drawings of my own traditional Hindu wedding photos with found images of sumptuous imperial architecture, ethnic-chic interior design, and animal coloring books, to reveal a glossy world of captivity.

LO: What are your upcoming bodies of work, shows, residencies, and projects?

SK: My most recent project is in collaboration with Anjali Bhargava, and is called UnSuitable Girls, where South Asian women pose with custom-designed trophies with engraved text that celebrate our reluctant disheveled, improper selves. We have shown the series of photographs and trophies at Exit Art. As I am an artist in residence at BCAT/Rotunda Gallery, I will direct an experimental video that will be an UnSuitable Girls awards ceremony. I am curating an experimental shorts program at Art in General for New York South Asian Arab American Film Festival. This spring I will be in Moultrie, Georgia, for an artist residency, Sandarbh U.S