For biennale’s Chitra Ganesh, comic book-style images push boundaries of gender
>>India’s popular Amar Chitra Katha drawings is a source to draw from to express her discerning views on subjects as weighty as race, feminism and queer rights
Her works narrate stories that push the boundaries of gender and power representations, and for that Chitra Ganesh uses mixed media that interestingly employs comic strips as well.
Thus India’s popular Amar Chitra Katha drawings is a source to draw from to express her discerning views on subjects as weighty as race, feminism and queer rights. In fact, she draws inspiration from myriad sources —from Hindu mythology to Buddhist icons — to explore stories seemingly hidden or nestled within contemporary narratives.
In her work at the main venue of the 108-day biennale, Chitra goes on to express matters that are a nuanced version of historical and mythical texts with focus on iconic female forms. Part-alternate realities and part-badass feminist interventions too form core to the ideas of Chitra who is born to immigrant parents in America and lives in New York’s populous Brooklyn.
“I am interested in working across media. Such as installation, drawings, comics, digital collage and mostly animation,” the 43-year-old artist says. “I also pursue how text and image illuminate one another in my wall drawings.”
Quiz her why the heavy leaning towards the comic-book style, and Chitra says she is interested in graphic as a complex semiotic system. “It’s an assembly of signs and symbols that a wide audience is equipped to decipher. The form has its popularity growing, too,” she says. “For example, we all understand that a certain kind of bubble signifies speech, another represents thought and we know how to create a time-based story from building meanings out of individual images that are stitched together.”
Chitra is also inspired by the comic form’s “relation to more ancient forms such as cave paintings and mosaic murals.”
A graduate from the Ivy-League Brown University, Chitra studied literature, semiotics and social theory. All of these find a steady reference in her works. “My background in literature has influenced my desire to go for experiments in integrating text and image,” says the artist, an MFA in visual arts from Colombia University.
At Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi, Chitra has a digital-animation video installation for the biennale that runs till March 29. Titled ‘The Scorpion Gesture’, the work was originally commissioned by the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, for a show curated by Beth Citron. It has five screens juxtaposed to be visible simultaneously. Together, they merge thousands of animated images to pull viewers into a surreal realm.
The theme follows a broad canvas: art history, politics, everyday life. “I have been continuing an exploration of the inextricable entanglements between deep past and far future. There is a dynamic connection between mythology and science fiction,” she notes. “There are always untold stories trying to rise to the surface. I find these particularly inspiring.”
The work is inspired by select paintings, sculptures and illuminated texts from the Rubin Museum’s collection of Himalayan art. All the same, it is influenced by surrealism, sci-fi, early stop-motion animation, vintage comics and expressionist theatre to shape her treatment of photographic and video material.
“I have tried to weave together scenes that explore concepts of transformation and circular patterns in time,” reveals Chitra, who gave a lecture on her work at the Biennale Pavilion in Cabral Yard on Friday. “Central to this work is the hand symbol, known as the ‘scorpion gesture’. It symbolises unlimited potential for transformation and renewal.”
The artist also delves into the representations of Maitreya, a future iteration of the Buddha whose arrival will mark a new beginning. It is believed to follow an era when the world becomes subject to human and ecological destruction. “I think is very relevant to today’s time. Maitreya, whose prophetic arrival is said to usher in a new age of a time when the terrestrial world has lost its way,” says Chitra. “The endless stream of images of political, social and ecological upheaval that we are bombarded with on a daily basis seem to be in uncanny alignment with apocalyptic moment associated with Maitreya.”
The Biennale work touches on topics like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the Russian band Pussy Riot, in addition to ecological damage and the recent crises of forced migration. With this imagery of a dire world, Ganesh depicts the deity’s arrival in Metropolis, transforming the Himalayan statue into a female cyborg protagonist who ushers in a more equitable age. “I think the topics are very relevant to present-day India as well,” she adds.