By Uzma Z. Rizvi, Assistant Professor, Pratt Institute of Art and Design, Brooklyn, NY.
Originally published by Chatterjee and Lal, for on-line catalogue for solo exhibition “Love Letters and Other Necessary Fictions” January 2010
…it is my desire I desire, and the loved being is no more than its tool. I rejoice at the thought of such a great cause, which leaves far behind it the person whom I have made into its pretext…. And if a day comes when I must bring myself to renounce the other, the violent mourning which then grips me is the mourning of the image-repertoire itself: it was a beloved structure, and I weep for the loss of love, not of him or her. (Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, 1978)
Does a world exist where a Gopi losing suddha bhakti# for Krishna is a possibility? Or does that negate the self of the Gopi, whose raison d’être is, in itself, a submission of self to the divine, through an unconditional, uncontrollable desire for the other? Contesting and negotiating notions of self to reconsider the suspended promises of ritual, and the inscription and incarceration of materials of love, Swati Khurana’s female protagonists (including her self image) reappropriate the conditions of desire and layer meaning through media ranging from Xerox transfer prints to embroidery.
In so far as the Gopi creates conditions for the structures of love, loving the thoughts of being loved and of loving, she owns and dictates her surrender to the other. This desire is situated in her own body, by her own means, away from the other, and her gestures of self love become the stratum within an image-repertoire.# It is within this imaginary that we may locate Khurana’s “Witching Hour” series of drawings, which presents a Gopi’s narrative of self discovery through longing. In Nocturnal Frenzy (2009), the depth of the desire of the Gopi’s depicted mimics the depth of the image, the many layers of drawing, Xerox transfers and vibrant colors that comprise it. Khurana’s use, in one layer, of a familiar Indian visual vocabulary of lust, offset and repeated, moving into the top left corner, are echoes of caressing gestures that allow one to immediately locate meaning. However, the line drawings in the next layer, which connote a hesitation of form, question that very same evocative stance. Additionally, the bold redness of the heart against the tranquility of the green bamboo shoots in the background energizes the image. With each image strata demanding an independent interpretation, the simultaneity of differing meanings force a reassessment of the final image.
Within the many image worlds created by Khurana, the stitched canvases of the “Bridal Trousseau” series are both retro-feminist and very contemporary.# Needlework, in itself, is a heavy referent within a postcolonial feminist context. These canvases are literally stitched images of the self. In Lotus Nest (2009), the artist’s image performs marriage rituals, offering rice to the ceremonial fire, suturing through these offerings devotion to both the divine and the mortal male, who is said to embody the divine. While most of the works in this series rely on such images of self as a bride, engaged in a marriage ritual, the Parisian Peacock (2009) breaks from this norm, allowing the peacock’s resplendent bloom, akin to embroidery work done on a bridal trousseau, to provide both depth and character of the piece.
The bridal trousseau is traditionally hand embroidered by the women of the house, especially the grandmothers of the bride. Acknowledging this custom, Chandelier Muse (2009), one of Khurana’s most personal pieces, is a canvas that traveled between the artist and both her maternal and paternal grandmothers, each woman embroidering a different portion of it. The image Khurana chooses to employ, the female forms echoing Gauguin’s Tahitian women, in an actively lounging and longing posture, chandeliers dangling overhead, resonates with her critique of domesticity and class. Moreover, the fragile and uncertain suspension of multiple light fixtures over the sprawling figures evokes the many beautiful, yet delicate, formulations of love that might envelope young, empowered women. One might wonder if in each stitch, the artist’s grandmothers sewed in stories of love, desire, and betrayal, as one might tell a young girl during her embroidery lessons
This possibility of suspension recurs across Khurana’s oeuvre. Her work tempers love’s freedom, its suspension of self, with the claustrophobia of containment. The series “Ten Years Later” utilizes the metaphor of the golden cage to imprison text and the past. Each of these cages, of different sizes and designs, hold a re-moved memory of a re-inscribed love letter; in Love Letters as Necessary Fiction (2008), they appear in an archive like display, while in Sent and Received (2008), they are literally incarcerated into gilded cages. Powerful emotions, captured in cursive ink on paper, are further hemmed in by the rolling of the paper into a scroll, and firmly tied with a red ribbon. The one video in the show, Raveling (2009), utilizes a similar trope of inscription, the ritualistic application of mehndi (henna), though in reverse. Thus, rather than watching in anticipation for the completion of the pattern, and the subsequent depth of color that might emerge (which indexes depth of love of the husband or mother in law for the bride), and the length of time the pattern might last, the gaze is re-focused on the ritual’s unraveling, ending with the cleanliness, purity, starkness and utter self-hood of a clear hand.
It is the Gopi’s desire and longing, and the images they produce, that Khurana inscribes as love. This love is, perhaps, no more for Krishna, but for themselves and for the possibilities of love outside the structures that bind, regulate, and insist upon unconditional submission. Khurana’s work allows for these new possibilities of self, particularly a female self, to emerge from narratives about heteronormative structures, both of Gopi and Krishna and of a bride and her groom. These stories of love and self, both mythological and personal, embodied in and embroidered on her canvases, continue to make an impact within a feminist discourse. Within this discursive space Swati Khurana’s work asserts that the personal is political and that the self and the other must be extracted into multiplicities of layers in a poststructural construct of love, desire, and the image.
Uzma Z. Rizvi is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies, Pratt Institute of Art and Design, Brooklyn. She has published widely on topics related to contemporary art and archaeology. Rizvi is a member of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC.org), Visible Collective (disappearedinamerica.org), and has worked in both theater and radio. For more information, please visit: http://www.pratt.edu/academics/liberal_arts_and_sciences/social_science/faculty_and_staff/bio/?id=urizvi and http://www.amazon.com/Archaeology-Postcolonial-Critique-In-Society/dp/0759110042.