Art has the unique ability to raise public awareness and engage audiences via social commentary on a huge scale. Artists have a platform to tackle some of the worlds’ biggest cultural issues and at Mana Contemporary, conceptual artist Maya Vardaraj is doing just that. Born in the US but raised in southern India, she talks openly about her upbringing and experience growing up in a primarily male-dominated, patriarchal society. India has a long and turbulent history of violence against women with roots going back centuries. In recent years there have been several widely-reported incidents of sexual assault and rape with little hope in sight. According to a 2018 Guardian article, ‘Justice Madan Lokur of the supreme court pointed out: “The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data observes that a woman is raped every six hours in India.’” With under-reporting from victims, lack of accountability from police and low conviction rates, the country is battling for justice and change.
Maya Varadaraj aims to tackle issues like these in her work. Growing up in the southern town of Coimbatore, Varadaraj’s art points at the core of these issues with thought-provoking installation-based work. In her Khandayati project, she re-contextualizes every-day domestic objects and their inherent meaning by transforming their functions to comment on the relationship between women and consumer goods in India. By pivoting these works in new scenarios, Varadaraj intentionally shifts the viewer’s perception and understanding of the world around them.Investigating a culture’s relationship to materiality is at the core of her practice and to say her work is personal is a serious understatement. We stopped by her Mana Contemporary BSMT studio this month to talk about the cultural weight of commonplace things and how art can be utilized for social change.
Jessica Ross: Let’s start with the basics, where are you from/ currently based and what sort of work do you make?
Maya Varadaraj: I was born in the U.S actually, in Florida, but my parents brought me to India a month after I was born because that is where my family lived at the time. I grew up in the South of India in a city called Coimbatore, at the age of eight I went to an international boarding school five hours away in Kodaikanal. I live and work in New York now.
Actually where I'm from, and my experiences there have really shaped my work. I always felt like I was on the outside looking in while I grew up in India because my family is so different from the surrounding community in Coimbatore, and also because my boarding school was a bubble on its own. So while I was very aware of cultural obligations, and expectations I was rarely required to follow them. I think this allowed me to be sensitive to, but also critical of cultural processes.
Broadly speaking, my work is invested in the study and use of material culture. I find objects and their ability to drive behaviour fascinating; a lot of my work addresses violence perpetrated by cultural conditioning through material culture. I express scenarios through narrative installations that combine objects and 2D work.
A lot of your practice deals with cultural and political issues surrounding women in India. Can you tell us a little bit about your Khandayati project in particular?
I was reading a BBC article about a woman in Uttar Pradesh, India who had committed suicide after she was gang raped. I was so disturbed by this particular incident that I began researching the circumstances around it. I found that Uttar Pradesh is the largest manufacturer of glass bangles in India, it also has the highest cases of gang rape in the country. I knew that I couldn't ignore this correlation because glass bangles are not just a decorative object.
Essentially the bangles symbolize inferiority; they are worn when a woman gets married to indicate that she is no longer available, in some cultures they have to be worn for an interim period to secure the longevity of a husband. In the instance that the woman breaks the bangles within this period, she (not the object) is considered bad luck for her husband and his family. It is recommended that women wear their bangles as they do their chores, as they are thought to increase circulation, to keep them from fainting. When a woman becomes a widow, these bangles are broken off her wrists violently using a stone or other hard objects, to symbolize her unwavering loyalty to her deceased husband. In history, supporters of the national movement would shame non-supporters by sending them glass bangles.
Despite these connotations, glass bangles are worn on a daily basis by women in India, and these women are either oblivious to what they stand for, forced to wear it, or they accept it as a cultural obligation. I became frustrated with this need to protect a cultural habit that promotes gender inequality and I developed Khandayati as an irreverent reaction to this. The work is a process designed to deliberately crush and reform glass bangles using household appliances.
I used household appliances to further critique gender allocations, and also challenge the agency of those machines. The first machine, a wet grinder, a common Indian appliance, crushes the bangles. A vacuum cleaner is attached to it and transports the shards to a mixing bowl. The mixing bowl is taken to the third station, where the shards are arranged in a circular manner in a microwaveable kiln. The kiln is then microwaved for three minutes, reforming the glass bangles into a chakra. I chose the chakra because it is the weapon that goddess Durga, the strongest manifestation of female energy, uses to destroy ignorance. I wanted to keep the reformed object culturally relevant to highlight aspects of our culture that are empowering.
I presented the installation under acrylic vitrines so they read as anthropological protest symbols; an action that has already occurred and recognized versus just an idea. This presentation allowed me to expand the work further by creating larger chakras and 2D collages using idyllic imagery of Indian women.
What sort of challenges do you face with installation and how have you learned to convey your concepts in such a precise manner?
I think the placement of the objects in the space is most challenging when it comes to installations, and there are so many moving parts when it comes to making those decisions. Specifically for me, because I use familiar objects and people already have ideas of where they belong and what they do, the challenge is to get the space to read the way I want it to. I have to be precise and conscious of every decision. With Khandayati for example, the height of the machines, and the angle at which they were placed had to be precise - I wanted each process to be visible and clear while having enough space for people to weave in between.
I studied design for six years, so my process naturally includes an added focus on concept and research. I also think that because I make work about sensitive subjects using sensitive materials it is important to be thorough with research otherwise the work could collapse and I wouldn't be able to defend it.
Do you find it hard to return to 2D work when you’ve been building and creating such intricate conceptual designs? Can you tell us a little bit about your painted photography project?
No actually, I feel like I've set up my practice to move between 3D and 2D work in a way that keeps me interested and challenged, I'm always working on a 2D project based on the 3D project, or vice versa.
Sure! Vintage painted photographs are very common images in Indian households passed on from generation to generation. The images are black and white photographs that are painted over to add embellishment and make the subject matter look richer. Most of these images are family photographs with each member dressed elaborately and then painted over to be even more elaborate.
Since these photographs are such popular forms of imagery in India, I am experimenting with the same process to portray contemporary environments and subject matter with the same grandeur and importance. I've really come to enjoy pulling apart machines, so I want to incorporate them as forms to embellish in these painted photographs. I'd like to challenge pre-existing imagery that usually sexualizes the relationship between women and machines. I'm excited about it.
What do you have coming up later this year and in 2019? Where can we follow your work online / see it in person these days?
Khandayati is being shown as a part of the "Victor Papanek: The Politics of Design" exhibit at Vitra Design Museum till 2019. My studio at BSMT Mana will be open on October 14th at the open house at Mana Contemporary, so all my new work and experiments can be seen during that time.