New York artist Swati Khurana wants to look beyond Bollywood and curry, reports Deepanjana Pal.
Swati Khurana made her first piece of art at the age of three, a year after her family had moved to New York from New Delhi in 1977. In kindergarten, Khurana’s mother enrolled her in an Easter egg decorating contest. While her classmates used pale pastel shades in their decorations, Khurana let red and gold run riot over her egg. Years later, it struck Khurana that her Easter egg, for which she won the first prize, could not have been more stereotypically Indian in it color palette. But considering that she’d drawn very un-Indian tulips all over it, perhaps it was the first time she fused Eastern and Western elements in her art, she told Time Out
in an email interview. This fortnight, you can see how Khurana’s style has evolved as she shows works that are an intriguing study of ethnicity and identity.
For your undergraduate degree you studied history. Were you thinking of pursuing a career in art as a career back then?
When I pursued history, I initially thought I was going to go to law school and that I should study what I love and found interesting. I started making documentaries at that time, and I was interested in the conceptual practice of documentation and archives, something both historiography and art-making shared. That impulse is what brought me to making visual art, and my videos became more experimental and personal, and before I knew it, I was engrossed in making it work, and getting involved with communities of artists. And it was through the community, especially SAWCC(South Asian Women’s Creative Collective), that I met other artists and decided to pursue my practice.
Did postcolonial theory give you a new framework within which to work?
I definitely think that studying postcolonial theory made more aware of ethicity issues, critical race theory and feminist discourse, all of which have informed my practice. These issues are really so complex and intertwined that I haven’t yet sorted out the “construct” of the “immigrant experience.”
How conscious are you of not exoticising South Asian culture through your art?
What seems exotic to some viewers may just be unfamiliar. The Indian bride with henna may be exotic to some viewers while crust-less sandwiches are exotic to others. I’m interested in creating narratives, some of which are disjointed, that play with elements of the familiar in unfamiliar contexts. I am not consciously engaged with making an exoticised depiction of South Asian culture, thoughI understand that my using certain signifiers of “South Asianness” may seem exotic to some viewers.
What does ritual, like the ones you refer to in works like the “Bridal Trousseau” series, mean to you?
I am interested in how rituals become performances and the participants of these traditions are consciously or subconsciously complicit in these performances. The ritual I was initially most interested in was around weddings and the adornment of brides. In my most recent video “Raveling”, bridal mehendi is being applied and then being erased, symbolising the obliteration of rituals and traditions.
Does belonging to a “South Asian” niche appeal to you?
Working in New York and other international metropolises, many artists and activists of Indian origin embrace “South Asian” instead of just saying “Indian” or “Pakistani”, since the diaspora creates different cultural and political idenities beyond national borders. Because my work has certain themes and symbols, it can read as South Asian and may fit in a “niche”. I love the community and critical contexts working as a South Asian artist has afforded me, and I, like most artists, want to be seen as more than just my background, or my gender.
Has the idea of being a South Asian immigrant changed over the past decade?
Everything has changed over the past decade: immigration to the US, India’s standing on the global stage. New York City post-9/11, just to name a few. I would say Bollywood and curry are more familiar in the US than they used to be and South Asian culture is more visible.
Swati Khurana makes her Mumbai debut at Chatterjee & Lal on Fri Jan 8. See Exhibitions.