Artists

Chitra Ganesh’s solo show Her garden, a mirror, on view at The Kitchen in New York City takes as its point of departure the novella Sultana’s Dream, by the Bengali reformer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Written in English in 1905, Sultana’s Dream is thought to be one of the first literary depictions of a feminist utopia: the female protagonist in the story dozes off in her bedroom one evening only to find herself in the magical Ladyland: a just, peaceful, prosperous, technologically advanced land run entirely by women, where men are conveniently locked away in the zenana. Hossain’s story has long been an inspiration for South Asian feminist artists both in South Asia and in the diaspora: indeed in 2007, Ganesh was part of a group show curated by Jaishri Abichandani, entitled “Sultana’s Dream,” at Exit Art in New York City that used Hossain’s text as an organizing rubric through which to explore the potential of South Asian women’s collectivity. In her artist’s statement for Her garden, a mirror, Ganesh pointedly notes that Sultana’s Dream pre-dated Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s iconic, widely recognized tale of feminist utopia, Herland, by a full decade. Gilman’s text, while being lauded by generations of feminists, has also been roundly critiqued for its eugenicist strains, with its emphasis on purity and hygiene, and its implicit embrace of white supremacy. By using Hossain’s text rather than Gilman’s as the starting point for her powerful visual evocation of a feminist utopia, Ganesh makes clear her own feminist intellectual genealogy: one that rejects what Audre Lorde succinctly terms “racist feminism” and instead draws its inspiration from queer, U.S. women of colour, and South Asian feminist traditions.

Ganesh’s show is comprised of four major elements: 27 linocut prints in black and beige that line the gallery walls, and that depict various scenes inspired by Hossain’s text; a striking large-scale sculpture entitled Totem that recalls sculptural traditions of both South and Southeast Asia, made up of women’s faces that look both timeless and utterly contemporary; Manuscript, a giant raw-silk and aluminum hand onto which is projected intricate, mehndi-like patterns that morph into futuristic visions of deep space; and the video compilation How we do, made up of short how-to videos (on everything from molding clay, to mixing Bhangra tracks, to playing the ukulele) by various people in Ganesh’s friendship and art/activist circles. The show also consists of kollam-style drawings in white paint on the gallery floor and wall, as well as soundcones mounted on the ceiling through which the visitor can hear the text of Sultana’s Dream read out loud. The novella is also available in a newsprint format that calls to mind The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, one of the first women-edited periodicals in colonial India, in which Sultana’s Dream was originally published. The different elements of the show initially appear disjunctive, but upon closer scrutiny the apparent heterogeneity of Her garden, a mirror, coheres both thematically and aesthetically. The linocut series, Totem, and Manuscript all share Ganesh’s distinctive visual vocabulary that draws on Hindu and Buddhist iconography, surrealism, South Asian pictorial forms such as Kalighat and Madhubani painting, alongside contemporary visual culture such as comic books, science fiction, and anime. How we do, which initially seems quite distinct from the rest of the show, in fact speaks directly to Hossain’s vision of feminist self-empowerment by enacting an ethos of collective knowledge production that values the mundane, everyday modes of sharing and caring that are typically seen as without value within patriarchal capitalist structures.

The wide-ranging art-historical influences in Her garden, a mirror include German Expressionism and Die Brücke artists, who popularized the use of woodcut and linocut prints; as the curatorial statement notes, Die Brücke formed at the same historical moment that Sultana’s Dream was published. For Die Brücke artists, a turn to the “lowly” medium of linoleum and the relatively accessible technique of linocut signaled their desire to break with the status quo and champion an avowedly anti-elitist vision of society. They famously looked to Primitivism in order to fashion their utopian vision, one that was unfettered by bourgeois social norms and more in tune with the natural world. In citing Die Brücke as one of her art-historical precursors, Ganesh embraces the movement’s radical egalitarianism and desire to break with sedimented power hierarchies, along with linocut’s association with protest culture. But by foregrounding the simultaneity of the different modernist utopian visions of Die Brücke and Hossain, Ganesh also enacts an implicit rejoinder to Die Brücke’s problematic embrace of Primitivism. She instead claims multiple strains of modernism, both those emanating from Europe as well as South Asia, as intertwined strands of her own art-historical legacy. The curatorial statement also cites Belgian artist Frans Masereel’s 1925 novel-in-images, The City, made up of 100 woodcuts, as a key influence in Her garden, a mirror. Masereel’s stark black and white portraits of everyday urban life offer snapshots of a radically non-egalitarian cityscape of smoke stacks and vertiginous buildings where extreme wealth and poverty are in intimate proximity.

The play between the dystopian and the utopian evident in Ganesh’s European modernist forebears such as Die Brücke and Masereel marks Her garden, a mirror as well. Like Masereel’s The City, Ganesh’s linocuts are exhibited sequentially but do not coalesce into a straightforward trajectory that follows a clear narrative arc. Rather each linocut is an intricately detailed, extremely labour-intensive creation that distills the essence of Hossein’s text while jettisoning the linearity of its plot. Taken together, the linocuts are a kind of fever dream that depicts a fantastical cityscape of flying cars and public spaces gloriously populated by the heterogeneous bodies of women and girls (surrounded by a riotous plethora of plants and animals) who are busy inventing, studying, leading, cooking, and simply being together. But there are also images of war, violence, and horrific destruction at the hands of monstrous killing machines; of mass protests movements; of terrified refugees being rescued and protected by goddess-like, cyborgian entities.

That Ganesh uses the form of the linocut - one that works with negative space and reversals - to engage Hossain’s text is particularly fitting; given that Sultana’s Dream is in fact predicated on a logic of reversal: the men are kept in seclusion while the women occupy public space. But such alogicisalsopredicatedonthe stability of the gender binary, and Hossain’s text can certainly be critiqued for essentializing what it means to be a “man” or “woman.” Ganesh’s reimagination of Sultana’s Dream goes beyond a mere reversal of binary oppositions. Rather it imagines a world where the dichotomies of public/private, home/not-home, male/female cease to be the organizing rubrics of society: her cyborg-goddesses and part-human/part-animal creations, for instance, far exceed naturalized or fixed understandings of gendered embodiment. Similarly, the traditional gendering of built environments and architectural spaces is completely undone by Ganesh’s transformative vision. At one point in Hossain’s novella, for instance, the narrator is taken to the house of her guide in Ladyland, Sister Sara; the house, the narrator notes, is “situated in a beautiful heart-shaped garden. It was a bungalow with a corrugated iron roof. It was cooler and nicer than any of our rich buildings. I cannot describe how neat and how nicely furnished and how tastefully decorated it was.” [1]Ganesh’s visual evocation of this moment in Hossain’s text takes the form of one particularly remarkable linocut, named House in a Heart Garden. The image translates Hossain’s “heart-shaped garden” into, quite literally, a heart garden: a human heart - replete with valves and vessels spewing air and liquid - encompasses a space-age looking house with human hands (eyeballs embedded in the palms) sprouting from its roof. Ganesh here utterly explodes the equation of so-called “domestic” space (houses, gardens, kitchens, courtyards) with female bodies and instead gives us a vision of housing and un-housing that demands a different, and as yet uncategorizable and unnamable relation between the human and non-human, the biological and the inanimate.

Ganesh’s homage to Hossain’s text, her nod to German Expressionism and European modernism more generally, as well as her documentation of everyday forms of collective knowledge production in How we do, are indicative of her long-standing interest in questions of the archive: both in creating alternative archives and in mining existing archives to bring into the present alternative visions for the future. As such, Her garden, a mirror enacts what queer studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz terms “a backward glance that enacts a future vision,” [2] one that conjures forth what he names a queer utopian potentiality. Muñoz’s notion of utopia draws from Ernst Bloch, the German Marxist philosopher whose work The Principle of Hope (1954-59) theorized the difference between abstract and concrete utopias. As Muñoz writes, “In our everyday life abstract utopias are akin to banal optimism…Concrete utopias can also be daydream-like but they are the hopes of a collective, an emergent group, or even the solitary oddball who is the one who dreams for many. Concrete utopias are the realm of educated hope.” To my mind, Ganesh, like Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain before her, is precisely the one that dreams for the many. There is a deeply moving, hopeful sense of optimism in Her garden, a mirror that is akin to the concrete utopia evoked by Muñoz via Bloch: one that is grounded in a clear-eyed awareness of myriad historical violence and their afterlives, and that nevertheless insists on imagining other ways of being in the world.

The exhibition was on view from 14th September to 20th October, 2018 at The Kitchen, NYC.

Gayatri Gopinath is Associate Professor, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University

Notes:

[1] Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream, originally published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, Madras, 2005. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/sultana/dream/dream.html

[2] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009): 3.

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