This week’s SAM Object of the Week was written by University of Washington student Ji In following a presentation given by SAM Assistant Curator of South Asian Art Natalia Di Pietrantonio to the class “Gender and the Hindu Goddess” in the spring of 2022. This essay has been edited from its original form by SAM staff for brevity but the overall content remains the same.
Painted in 1986 by Baua Devi, Kali, as the title explains, is a portrait of the Hindu goddess Kālī. Most recently on view in Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Timeat the Seattle Asian Art Museum, this artifact is a medium sized painting made on paper with ink and color. This essay will explore the format and iconography of the painting that illustrates the goddess’s benevolent yet captivating assertion of power by focusing on the gaze depicted in the portrait. Stylistically, the painting belongs to Maithili art. Historical background on the art style, including a brief biography of Baua Devi, will help explain the significance of Maithili art which has given female artists renewed identities and empowerment adding special elements of power to this painting.
The format of the painting—ink and color on paper—and its technical features, bring out the intensity of Kālī’s gaze focused straight at the viewer, lending an aspect of assertiveness. The painting depicts the face of the goddess colored in vibrant and saturated colors. The range of colors Devi uses is limited to a palette of white, black, and dark blue, filling most of the painting to depict the goddess’s skin. Meanwhile, the colors pink, red, and yellow are used as accent colors to bring out certain features like the outline of the goddess’s eyes and lips. Kālī’s features are made up of mostly thick and bold lines, except for the bindi/tikkā on her forehead, suggesting her third eye, elaborated with fine lines of black ink. The overall simplicity of this painting with bold strokes and a limited range of color, allows the viewer to easily focus on the essential aspect of strength in Kālī’s glare that Baua Devi portrays.
The iconography depicts the goddess lacking the typical visual features of Kālī and mainly focuses on the eyes and her benevolent assertion of power. Some elements of Kālī’s typical characteristics are portrayed in this painting, such as her deep black and blue skin, as well as her three eyes. However, the painting lacks a lot of other features associated with the goddess. Kālī is recognizable as a fearsome and destructive female deity, often visualized holding a sword and a severed head, wearing a garland of skulls and a skirt of arms, and with her tongue protruding and dripping blood.1 Baua Devi’s painting lacks these features and focuses only on the goddess’s face with no hint of ferocity. Her typical menacing appearance is replaced with a smile aimed toward the viewer. Normally, a scary portrayal of Kālī’s distinguishable characteristics is important as Kālī’s is known to lead people to liberation, moksa, allowing people to face their fear and the uncertainties of life, while enabling them to be conscious overcome realities.1 At the same time, Kālī still had benevolent elements with iconography of her right hand in a mudra hand gesture that grants boons and assures her people to not fear.1 Such shows how it is only the physical appearance of Kālī that might be unsettling, because Kālī is compassionate to those who worship her and grants them something beyond what this physical world can offer. And possibly, Baua Devi wanted to focus more on such a benign, yet still powerful aspect of the goddess.
Stylistic Composition of Mithila Art
As mentioned previously, the main stylistic composition of this painting is that this artwork is done in Maithili/Madhubani style. Not only the fact that this painting is done by Baua Devi, who is a renowned Maithili artist, there are detectable elements of the Maithili style painting such as bordering of the painting, and usage of bright natural pigmented colors. The artwork has a painted frame that borders around Kālī’s depicted face in a pink and yellow zigzag pattern. Such framing pattern is typical in a lot of Baua Devi’s work and that of many other Maithili artist. The bright colors of the painting can also be a clue to distinguish the work to be Maithili art, which appears to be done intentionally to maintain the original style of this art. In an interview with The Better India, a digital media platform covering popular news, Baua Devi emphasizes the importance of maintaining authenticity by keeping the traditional style of using twigs, fingers, and natural pigments of colors like black from charcoal, yellow from turmeric, white from rice, blue from indigo, and saffron from marigold.
History of Mithila Art
The history of Mithila art and its various associated artists—like Baua Devi—comes from an ancient cultural region of India, located in the Northeastern part of Bihar, made up of small rural villages.2 This art form originated from their wall art depicting images of various Indian epics of many deities in people’s personal homes. Such paintings were done by a particular practice known as Bhitti chitra where Maithili women painted on the walls and floors of their mud homes.3 It also served a common social purpose which is to summon gods to bless newly married couples with love and fertility.4 In the same interview with The Better India, Baua Devi also said, “According to the custom, all the women in the village gather during a wedding or a special occasion to draw complex geometric and linear patterns on the walls of the house. The art would usually be scenes from mythology and nature as symbols of love and prosperity.”2 This art was originally very personal, kept only as a regional cultural practice, and wasn’t known to a much greater public. Carolyn Brown Heinz, a professor of Anthropology at California State University Chico, noted on such seclusion of the art until a fateful event of earthquake in 1934 that hit the area and exposed many of the wall paintings to be seen by several people, including William Archer who was a young British official visiting the area to assess the damage.4 Archer was amazed at images of the vibrant colors of goddesses with various features of the deities like water lilies, snakes, and the sun in natural pigments painted in the interior of the houses. Sometime after, a drought in 1966 prompted an urgent need to improve the economy in the area. Chair of All-India Handicraft Board, Pupul Jayakar who was aware of beautiful images of Mithila’s wall art, sent an artist, Bhaskar Kulkarni to Madhubani (city in the Mithila region) to look for female artists of the Mithila to produce paintings on a paper, that could easily be sold. Baua Devi was one of many female artists who were recruited. Heinz highlights how such movement of the art from wall to paper as medium brought many changes to the region and its people. First, it fulfilled its main goal by bringing significant economic relief, especially in the impoverished area of Bihar. Mithila art also became known to a much wider public like tourists and foreigners, bringing a cultural awareness of Madhubani, a region previously rarely visited, which brought a significant change to the artists. Most of the well-known Maithili artists were women. These female artists, who used to make no profits from their art works, now became the main source of income to support their families. Being in a fairly patriarchal society, such an art movement empowered these women by allowing them to gain greater respect and support, and to contribute greatly to not just their families, but to the greater region of the location with its economic and cultural growth.
History of Baua Devi
Baua Devi was also one of the female artists who became successful after contributing to the transfer of Maithili art on paper. She was born in Jitwapur village in Bihar and was taught Maithili art as the usual tradition by her mother when she was 13.2 Her talent was discovered by Kulkarni, the artist sent to recruit Maithili artists, when she was 19 after her infant’s death and was suffering from a physically abusive husband. Kulkarni influenced her art to change from typical Maithili art form to a place where she can be expressive of her thoughts. He advised her to freely paint out of her imagination.3 Such teaching might explain the unconventional portrayal of this painting of Kali. However, his advice to the Mathila artists might have also influenced the deterrence of traditional aspects of Maithili art. Heinz also noted how one negative impact from the movement to paper was that the art might have lost its religious meanings in order to better cater towards foreigners who have no interest in knowing its significance.4 This raises concern about the authenticity of Maithili style art and that it only focuses on the elaborated and visually appealing aspect of the artwork to attract the public’s interest. However, Baua Devi’s artworks testify to how the artist still appreciates and maintains the traditional aspects of the art by continuing to portray Hindu deities and conserving traditional art technique methods like using natural dyes in her art work, while not being limited to add her personal identity through abstract elements as well. She is now an incredibly successful Maithili artist who is recognized all across the world. Devi has won many awards such as the National Award in 1984 and Padma Shri in 2017, and her work is sold in various countries across the globe like the United States, Spain, France, and Japan.5 With such success, this new form of Maithili art has given Devi a new identity and freedom in various aspects. She found the freedom to express her thoughts through her paintings, and to no longer be subjected to patriarchal bondage. Devi often discusses how she can’t choose her favorite painting because she views Madhubani painting as her identity and says, “All my paintings are amalgamations of customs, history, and love.”2 Her statement shows how she believes the Maithili paintings have given her a new identity that has connected her with history.
The artwork Kali made in ink and color on paper depicting the frontal profile of goddess Kālī lacks typical iconographic features to instead focus on the goddess’s intense gaze and benevolent yet dominant assertion of power. The Maithili style of painting, and Baua Devi’s own personal story together embodies the theme of female assertion of power. Kālī being the goddess with power of time, lives as the goddess to many from the ancient times of Vedic era to contemporary period among Maithili artists including Baua Devi.
– Ji In, University of Washington Student
1 Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott. Hindu goddesses: beliefs and practices. Sussex Academic, 2009. “Behind Painted Walls: The Story of Baua Devi & Mithila Painting.” Sarmaya, March 26, 2019.
2 “Painting Is My Everything: Art from India’s Mithila Region – Exhibitions – Asian Art Museum.” Asian Art Museum, May 4, 2020. https://exhibitions.asianart.org/exhibitions/painting-is-my-everything-art-from-indias-mit hila-region/.
3 Rinder, Lawrence. Baua Devi and the Art of Mithila. University of California Berkeley Art Museum, 1997. https://bampfa.org/program/baua-devi-and-art-mithila-matrix-175.
The Seattle Times arts team helpfully gathered all the “ways to stretch your entertainment dollars in the Seattle area” with free or discounted tickets and events. They mention the free days at SAM’s three locations—Seattle Art Museum (First Thursday!), Seattle Asian Art Museum (Last Fridays!), and the Olympic Sculpture Park (365 days a year!)—as well as other hot tips for free or discounted admission. Now, go ART!
Though the exhibition was no longer on view when Savita Krishnamoorthy’s International Examiner review of Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time was published, it’s still very much worth a read. And you can still see Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s neon installation Kali (I’m a Mess) in the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s park lobby.
“We are witnessing an aspirational South Asianfuturism, dreaming of a world without war and human suffering.”
“‘You felt a sense of community in the fields because it was people talking your language, people hearing the kind of music you hear at home, people eating the foods you eat,’ [Exhibition subject Luz] Iniguez said. ‘It really felt like a community of people that were just working hard trying to make the most of a situation that was hard.’”
“‘I’m calling this the poetics of restitution, which is something I’m trying to explore in the work,’ Julien said in a telephone interview from London. ‘The debates that we’re having today that seem contemporaneous were happening 50 years ago, if not before. I think that’s really interesting.’”
Last week, we shared the exciting news that José Carlos Diaz will be joining SAM in July as the new Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art. He spoke with KUOW’s Kim Malcolm about what he’s thinking about as he makes his way to Seattle.
“I’m going to hit the ground running. I really want to get a sense of where we are, listen to the staff, but also start communicating with stakeholders and think about what the needs are for an institution in the Pacific Northwest, and how that responds to what’s happening in the country.”
“The Seattle Art Museum’s collection of Japanese art is so vast that only a fraction is on display on any given day. But the depth of its holdings allowed curator Xiaojin Wu to create this little gem of a show. Taking the concept of containment and the technique of folding and selecting objects that represent different artists’ responses to those ideas, she has shown how cultural influences flow across media and over time.”
This past Sunday, many in the US celebrated Juneteenth. In case you missed it, the Seattle Times’ graphic team shared information on the meaning of the holiday’s flag (including a link to print your own!). Explore more about its history at juneteenth.com and check out this article written by SAM Marketing Associate Karly Norment Meneses on how to celebrate responsibly.
No change in commute: the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) announced that Tom Mara will be its next executive director. Mara just celebrated his departure from SIFF neighbor KEXP after 30 years with the radio station.
“Elevating these topics (reproductive rights, trans rights, women’s health, and autonomy) to the platform of aesthetic enquiry blasts the logic and word games of political rhetoric to pieces. Art demonstrates the material reality of personal experience in a way that can’t be argued or legislated.”
Best Booths at Basel! ARTnews’ Sarah Belmont takes you there, including to former Seattle-based gallerist Mariane Ibrahim’s inaugural booth, which includes two paintings by Amoako Boafo.
“‘The sculptures are very complex and imaginative, reflecting the fairy world imagined by people at that time, and they demonstrate the diversity and richness of Chinese civilization,’ said Zhao Hao, an associate professor at Peking University.”
“The exhibition…brings together different cultural expressions to demonstrate that water is our shared concern and necessary to our shared survival. In that way, the Indigenous voices are the most resonant in their respectful and deep understanding. But seeing their work and their voices placed among so many other cultures demonstrates the interconnectedness of everyone on the planet.”
“This idea of dynamic identity and reclamation are echoed throughout Embodied Change and are told through the lens of the human body, specifically the female form. One thing that I believe unites these works is the burden of inheritance. There are certain things that we inherit through our heritage without us making the choice to do so. What we do choose, however, is how we carry this inheritance.”
“We want to show the more soulful and heartful way of Ukraine. That it’s not destruction, that it’s not a ruin, that it’s actually a very rich and deep history that gets passed on and carried on through generations.”
“Extraordinary Monuments to the Mundane”: The New York Times’ T Magazine profiles sculptor Woody De Othello as he looks forward to his inclusion in the Whitney Biennial. As we’ve shared in the past, a sculpture by this rising art world star was recently acquired by SAM for its collection and will go on view later this year.
“As if the result of a solo game of exquisite corpse, these composite creatures are oddly proportioned and at turns alluring and unsettling. Thus, Othello highlights the thrum of spirituality he finds in everyday environments.”
In celebration of the opening of Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, SAM’s Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, Natalia Di Pietrantonio, sat down with contemporary artists Mithu Sen and Bani Abidi to discuss their artistic processes and involvement in the exhibition. Both Sen and Abidi explore themes of gender stereotypes, structures of power, and self-representation while reflecting on their South Asian heritage.
With their artworks in Embodied Change, each of these international artists seek to capture ephemeral gestures of the body. This virtual panel begins with an overview and introduction by Di Pietrantonio followed by a presentation from each of the artists on their artistic practices. The video concludes with a Q & A moderated by Di Pietrantonio.
Visit the Asian Art Museum between 10 am and 5 pm on Friday, March 25 for a day of free art activities and artist interactions including an artist talk with Humaira Abid, a Bharatnatyam and Kathak dance performance by South Asian art collective Pratidhwani, and a take-away Madhubani painting activity designed by artist Deepti Agrawal.
“I find the body an interesting repository for different changes,” Di Pietrantonio said. “Many artists are really thinking about … [the] emotion of the body and expanding the body as part of the landscape or rethinking the parameters of the body. I felt that the body and thinking about emotions was very important to connect to activism.”
“To me, this opportunity comes in the middle of the pandemic, in the middle of API (Asian Pacific Islander) hate, you have January 6,” he says. “It is about ‘what are you going to do in this moment?’ The cultural capital, the social capital (of the Wing Luke) is the Batmobile. What is going to happen in the next year? It is going to take strong institutions like Wing to get through this.”
No matter where I encounter them, Naiza Khan’s artworks always transport me back to a classroom on the campus of SOAS, University of London. It was in one such space where I had the privilege of hearing the artist speak about her series Henna Hands and The Skin She Wears—both deeply connected to Cage-Corset (2007) and New Clothes for the Emperor (2009), currently on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum as part of the exhibition Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time.
These works and series illustrate Khan’s preoccupations with the female body. In thinking through the function of attire as a construct, Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor present clothing as a strategy to discuss gender. This is all the more relevant placed within the context of the back-and-forth between feminist activism and Islamicization in Pakistan that began in the 1960s and 70s, and gained much greater traction in the 1980s. As scholar Iftikhar Dadi has noted, in Khan’s works “the female body finally becomes visible in modern South Asian “Islamic” art as a subject itself, rather than simply remaining a decorative motif.”
Part of her Heavenly Ornaments series, in which Khan turned to metal to fabricate armor, corsets, chastity belts and lingerie, Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor highlight the artist’s engagement with the Bihishti Zewar, an Urdu text written by the Islamic scholar and Sufi Ashraf Ali Thanawi. Written in the beginning of the twentieth century, the text prescribes morals and behaviors pertinent to young Muslim women and girls. Noteworthy, the Bihishti Zewar was written with state and social reform in mind. It posited that Muslim women were capable of becoming educated and moral actors just as equally as men. Thus, the Bihishti Zewar paradoxically asked, why should women conform to the authority of men or the state?
Through her artworks, Khan also references the presence/absence of women within the public sphere, particularly in the context of the roll-back of numerous rights for Pakistani women under the Zia regime of the late 1970s and 80s. Despite these retrogressions, huge numbers of women entered both the formal and informal labor sectors, and the applications of female students to higher educational institutes significantly increased. While the Zia regime attempted to control the presence of women in the public sphere, it inadvertently brought attention to the emergence of the publicly visible female body as an issue that could not simply be “rolled back.” In other works, Khan, unlike women artists before her, made use of the calligraphic form that was purported by the state as within the line of its official policy. Thus, Khan’s artworks demonstrate that simply opposing any state sanctioned idioms and logics are not enough to ensure the freedom of women.
Khan’s Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor demonstrate the entanglement of social, political, religious, and spatial relations that inform questions of subjectivity, freedom, and control imposed upon females. Then, as a starry-eyed master’s student, as now, the quiet subtlety of Khan’s artworks ring true. The artist does not simply claim her works as agents of freedom for those living under repressive regimes, but rather, brings attention to the ways in which such systems and its mechanisms, just like her corsets, are constructed, negotiated and navigated.
– Ananya Sikand, PhD Candidate, University of Washington
 Iftikhar Dadi, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 2010, 198.
Images: Cage-corset, 2007, Naiza Khan, Metal and fabric, 11 13/16 x 11 13/16 x 11 13/16 in., Purchased with funds from Dipti and Rakesh Mathur, 2022.1.1, Ⓒ Artist or Artist’s Estate. Installation view of Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time at Seattle Asian Art Museum, 2021, photo: Natali Wiseman. New Clothes for the Emperor (II), 2009, Naiza Khan, Black & white digital photograph on archival Canson Infinity paper, 33 x 22 1/2 in., Purchased with funds from Dipti and Rakesh Mathur, 2022.1.2, Ⓒ Artist or Artist’s Estate.
“On a recent Sunday afternoon, three art critics sniffed, prowled, jumped and climbed their way through a new exhibit. Khione gravitated to a colorful installation featuring cloth orbs and plastic linked chains. Oliver climbed on top of an austere, spiraling sculpture made out of 4x4s, plywood, masonite and carpet. And Luna sat in a small separate room, processing her impressions.”
Via Artnet: Another Super Bowl “friendly wager” of art sees a Robert Henri painting from the Cincinnati Art Museum heading to LA’s Huntington Library. SAM’s adventures in Super Bowl-ing in 2014 and 2015 are mentioned.
Tatler names “4 Power Couples of Design” from history, including the architects of the 1991 Seattle Art Museum building, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi.
“Halsey said it was one of her dreams in life to design a stage for Clinton to perform on that would match the scale of the maximalist P-Funk concerts of the 1970s. And why not? If nothing else, Clinton’s career has been an ongoing argument that anything is possible. He has a handful of live performances on the horizon, and when asked if he was planning to ever go back on tour, Clinton responded, ‘Oh, hell, yeah.’”
Welcome back to #SAMSnippets! In this live series on our Instagram you get an up-close look at works in SAM’s permanent and semi-permanent installations. Each month, we choose a new gallery to walk through, offering you art appreciation wherever you may be!
In January, we featured a diverse collection of artworks from Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time. The first special exhibition to open in the remodeled and renovated Seattle Asian Art Museum, the featured works explore social, political, and religious perceptions of humanity and the human body through the lens of past and contemporary South Asian artists. Many of them utilize female and feminized forms in a myriad of ways, including as a devotional object, as a mode of self-representation, and to question the safety of public spaces. Watch the video now to get a peek at what’s on view at the Asian Art Museum now and learn more about the works shown below. Get your tickets now to see the entire exhibition before it closes on July 10!
The tour begins with a look at Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s Kali (I’m a Mess). For more than 30 years, Burman has used a variety of mixed media to advocate for female empowerment, racial equity, and her Punjabi heritage. Kali (I’m a Mess) was a part of Burman’s recent installation titled Remembering A Brave New World, superimposed over the Tate Britain’s entrance. Perched atop the building’s pediment, the Hindu goddess of destruction and protection obfuscated the statue of Britannia. The text above Kali reads, “I’m a Mess,” a message usually not associated with Kali. Burman takes Kali seriously as a potent symbol of liberation and rebellion and uses this text to speak to political and social concerns that occurred in 2020. Kali (I’m a Mess) is one of a few works in Embodied Change which was acquired into SAM’s permanent collection as a result of being included in this exhibition.
As we enter the exhibition, the camera pans across five earthenware and clay terracotta figures. Originating from the Indus Valley civilization in modern day India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, these works date back to 2600–1900 BCE. Archaeological digs in the area have revealed numerous small, female figures, usually sculpted with wide hips, small breasts, stocky appendages, and abundant jewelry. Early scholars deified these figures as “mother goddesses” (a manifestation of Devi), creating a tie between past religious beliefs and present-day Hindu practitioners. This interpretation has been reevaluated, questioning whether these items were truly representative of religiosity. Their meaning remains a mystery but the near absence of male figures suggest the body held significant importance.
Next, we see two photographs by Brendan Fernandes: As One III and As One IX. Fernandes is Canadian of Kenyan and Goan (South Asian) descent, and his last name evokes the complex circuits of exchanges between the Portuguese colonial apparatus and western India. In his work, Fernandes is invested in bodies that move, showing that the human body has a range of permutations, meanings, and identities. The artist and his practices does not hold a fixed identity or a singular idea of Europe, Africa, or India. Overall, he envisions “a different process of communication,” one that is body-driven.
These two photographs were created locally. Fernandes used dancers from the Pacific Northwest Ballet in the auditorium of the Seattle Art Museum alongside African masks from SAM’s permanent collection. Using gestures derived from classical French ballet, the two dancers address the African masks with formality and etiquette. Compositionally, the dancers’ heads are hidden, which allows for the masks to stand in for the dancers’ missing faces. Through such juxtapositions, Fernandes forges a bridge between the inanimate and the animate.
Adeela Suleman’s Helmet is part of a series repurposing kitchen objects. Made from utensils including a colander and tiffin (lunch box), the form is gendered as it uses objects typically located in the interior space of the kitchen, often associated with female domesticity. In performance photographs, Suleman dons these helmets, suggesting that women need special armor in their day-to-day movement in the public arena. The rigid and hard helmets provide little real protection. One wonders how much protection Suleman wants her pieces to afford; she seems to gesture to the futility of such an attempt.
In a glass pedestal adjacent to Suleman’s Helmet, we see Humaira Abid’s Sacred Games-I. Made entirely out of wood, the open suitcase contains clothes, a holy book, a cap, and prayer beads, all the possessions of a religious practitioner who is undertaking a spiritual journey. The gun that is placed alongside the belongings symbolizes both religious extremism and violence toward religion, including attacks on mosques, churches, and other religious buildings. In the artists’s own words, “all societies have extremists who twist religion as well as other social institutions and use it to their own benefit, to oppress women and vulnerable and defenseless people.”
The final section of the video is focused on portraits. Here, the featured artists use the theme of portraiture to challenge bodily ideals and the role of the female body in the arts.
The first portrait we see is B. Prabha’s Untitled. Active in the 1960s when there were few professional female artists, her trademark was elongated figures of rural women with a subdued color palette. Hailing from the small Indian village of Bela, near Nagpur, India, Prabha gravitated to rural village scenes. She painted lower caste women at work and at leisure. In this portrait, the unknown woman rests her back against a tree as she enjoys the company of a bird. Although Prabha typically depicted the silent labor of rural women to show their plight and suffering, she also endeavored to give them grace and personhood by depicting them enjoying moments of rest.
The camera next pans two works by Chila Kumari Singh Burman: Auto-Portrait, from Fly Girl series and Punjabi Rockers. In this first large collage work, Burman distorts her portrait through a range of different guises and manipulations. Her face is stretched, magnified, compressed, and painted with bright colors. Through the act of repetition and the reproduction of the print form, Burman crafts new personas, enacting fantasies of the self as the goddess Kali and as pop icons. As Burman explains, “These self portraits position the construction of racial and sexual identity as a process that is crafted and fluid within the process of representation. My manipulation of the photographic image questions the idea of the photograph as a document of the empirical reality to reveal ‘an image of myself.'” In other words, Burman resists a singular identity. Through the act of printmaking, she can reconstruct multivalent identities for herself.
In Punjabi Rockers, Burman, a member of the British Black Arts Movement, mines both South Asian histories and pop culture to overwhelm and challenge Euro-American perceptions of South Asian women. She has declared, “My work is about reclaiming the image of Asian women, moving away from the object of the defining gaze, toward a position where I, [an] Asian woman, become the subject of display. My self-portraits construct a femininity that resists the racist stereotype of the passive, exotic Asian woman, imprisoned by male patriarchal culture.” Together, these two prints burst forth with levity and joy to convey Burman’s political message of empowerment.
We then see Rekha Rodwittiya’s Untitled. Consistently, Rodwittiya paints female figures with vibrant, bold colors. The scale of her portraits tends to be quite monumental to celebrate the female form. Even in such large compositions, a sense of intimacy is present. In this canvas, a local schoolgirl shows off her spinning top. With her content smile, she is both anonymous and knowable. Regarding her practice, Rodwittiya states, “I live and breathe as a feminist so therefore that is the prism through which I perceive everything around me, and so therefore it would patina my art as well.”
The final work in the video is Mithu Sen’s Miss Macho (Self Portrait), from the False Friends series. Sen paints a mustache on her self-portrait along with overgrown floral vines in her hair and a phallic building on the bridge of her nose. Consistently throughout her practice, Sen applies a confrontational approach to topics related to the body, including sex. This work is part of the series called False Friends, in which Sen asked strangers to take photographs of her. According to Sen, during her childhood, she was considered the “literal black sheep” of her family since she was visibly darker-skinned than her light-skinned female family members. Here, Sen’s face occupies the entire canvas, making space for herself in her social and professional world. Her gaze is both otherworldly and visceral.
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Video Artworks: Kali (I’m a Mess), Chila Kumari Singh Burman, 2020, 6mm 12v silicone LED neon, galvanized weld mesh, 12v switch mode transformers, IP67 plastic box, 137 13/16 x 70 7/8 × 1 3/16 in. (180 × 35 × 3 cm), Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, 2021.25. Goddess Figurine, India, Earthenware, 2300–1750 BCE, Earthenware, 4 3/8 x 1 3/4 x 11/16 in. (11.11 x 4.45 x 1.75 cm), Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 41.23. Half Figure of a Goddess, India, Earthenware, 2300–1750 BCE, Earthenware, 2 3/4 x 3 x 1 in. (6.99 x 7.62 x 2.54 cm), Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 41.24. Fragmentary Figure, India, Terracotta, ca. 3rd millennium BCE–2nd century CE, Terracotta, 7 1/2 x 2 5/8 x 2 in. (19.05 x 6.67 x 5.08 cm), Gift in honor of Millard B. Rogers, 93.31. Fragmentary Figure, India, Terracotta, ca. 2nd–1st century BCE, Terracotta, 3 7/8 x 2 1/2 x 1 1/2 in. (9.84 x 6.35 x 3.81 cm) Overall h.: 4 3/4 in. Overall w.: 2 3/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.36. Fragmentary Figure, India, Terracotta, ca. 3rd millennium BCE–2nd century CE, Terracotta, 4 1/8 x 1 3/4 x 3/4 in. (10.48 x 4.45 x 1.91 cm), Gift in honor of Millard B. Rogers, 93.32. As One III, Brendan Fernandes, 2017, Digital print, 34 x 48 in., Gift of Christopher and Alida Latham, 2019.27.1. As One IX, Brendan Fernandes, 2017, Digital print, 34 x 48 in., Gift of Christopher and Alida Latham, 2019.27.2. Helmet, Adeela Suleman, 2008, Metal with foam and cloth, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan. Sacred Games-1, Humaira Abid, 2020, Carved pine and wenge woods, Collection of Christopher and Alida Lantham. Untitled, B. Prabha, ca. 1960s, Oil on canvas, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan. Auto-Portrait, from Fly Girl series, Chila Kumari Singh Burman, 1993, Mixed media and laser printer, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan. Punjabi Rockers, Chila Kumari Singh Burman, 1993, Mixed media and laser printer, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan. Untitled, Rekha Rodwittiya, ca. 1990s, Acrylic and oil on canvas, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan. Miss Macho (Self Portrait), from the False Friends series, Mithu Sen, 2007, Mixed media photocollage on archival paper, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan.
The Stranger’s Chase Burns catches up on Sundance flicks; Matt McCormick’s short 2002 film the subconscious art of graffiti removal, narrated by Miranda July, is the one that sticks with him.
“The relationship between tagger and remover is an ongoing one. Often, a remover will cover an original tag, only for the tagger to return and tag on top of the remover’s masking. This back-and-forth can continue for years, with the remover coming back and using different shades of paint, creating a layered, more colorful image. This can be accidentally beautiful.”
“‘The thing that’s interesting is because this uncertainty is still in place, we still don’t know what those changes are going to be,’ Cruz said. ‘We have learned that we have to be nimble, and we’re learning to be nimble.’”
“It’s exceedingly common for artists’ output in popular, ephemeral contexts—cartooning, illustrating, advertising, and the like—to be taken less seriously than their endeavors in more traditional artistic media. In this case, that needs to change, and Bearden’s images should be kept in mind as the conversation about Guston continues to play out.”
Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time opens this Friday, January 14! Our first special exhibition to open in the reimagined and renovated Seattle Asian Art Museum, Embodied Change sees past and contemporary South Asian artists—including Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Chitra Ganesh, Mithu Sen, and Naiza Khan, among others—question social, political, and normative realities tied to humanity and the human body.
Ahead of your visit to the museum, learn about the exhibition from the curator herself. Watch this overview from Natalia Di Pietrantonio, SAM’s Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, to discover the histories and stories behind the works on view in our newest special exhibition.
Want to see the exhibition for free? Attend our community opening of Embodied Change on Friday, January 28 and participate in an artist talk with Humaira Abid or grab a take-away art project designed by artist Deepti Agrawal. As a reminder, every Last Friday is free at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Reserving tickets in advance is recommended. Click here to learn more about discounted admission opportunities at all of SAM’s locations!
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Image: Miss Macho (Self Portrait), from the False Friends series, 2007, Mithu Sen, Indian, born 1971, mixed media photocollage on archival paper, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan, T2021.15.2.
Colorful, riotous, and vibrant are but three words that come to mind when thinking about Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s neon artworks. Burman’s neon lights first appeared on the Tate Britain’s façade in 2020 for her commission Remembering a Brave New World, which disrupted the neoclassical building’s exterior with a roar of color. Her installation was awarded the 2021 Dezeen Award for Design of the Year.1
The artist traces her love for neon to childhood visits to Blackpool, a seaside resort known for its annual lights festival. While traditional glass neon lights were not conducive to achieving the shapes and structures that Burman wanted, new developments in the medium allowed her to bend and shape silicon neon lights to create complex and multi-colored sculptures. Some of her signature works include pouncing tigers, images of Hindu deities, uplifting quotes, and her father’s ice cream van. Burman’s Tate Britain installation was unveiled in time for Diwali, the South Asian festival of lights, but also in the midst of the global Black Lives Matter movement and raging COVID-19 pandemic.
With all of this in mind, Burman communicated an uplifting message, but, more importantly, highlighted the significant role and contributions of Black and Asian British artists in the United Kingdom. Burman has also noted that the neon works are an extension of her previous practice, stating, “paradoxically, [the installation’s] concerns are the same themes I explored back in the 80s along with my colleagues in the Black British Arts Movement [that] are still so prevalent today…”
“It’s undeniable that the Tate Britain commission I was awarded was finally a step in the right direction, in acknowledging the significance of my work and practice—as well as the significant contributions of my contemporaries—that have, to be frank, been overlooked for so long,” Burman said. “In doing so, Tate have sought to re-address the biases and hypocrisy often prevalent in both our British art establishments and the wider art sector. This shift, inevitably signifies a slow erosion of the inequalities prevalent in the art world.”
“That being said,” she continued, “I saw my selection for this commission not as a final step in this process of erosion but as a beginning. I was adamant, therefore, that my commission serve as an opportunity to critique the role of the Tate—and by extension all of our British establishments—in much the same way as I have done throughout my practice.”
SAM acquired one of Burman’s neon works, Kali (I’m a Mess) with funds from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, and additional support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Previously perched atop the Tate Britain’s pediment, obscuring the statue of Britannia, the piece will be on view in the upcoming exhibition, Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time, opening January 14 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.2
Kali (I’m a Mess) brings both a disruptive and inclusive message of liberation and rebellion. Through this artwork, Burman asks: Can Kali fast forward us into a brave new world where we will no longer be in a mess?
– Ananya Sikand, PhD Candidate, University of Washington
The author wishes to thank the artist, Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman, as well as the artist’s studio team, especially Kemi Sanbe, for kindly providing answers to interview questions. Thanks also to Dr. Natalia Di Pietrantonio, SAM’s Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, for providing the opportunity to write this blog post.