I had always seen myself as a writer and a historian, with no more than a peripheral interest in contemporary art, mainly because I never had the opportunity to delve into it deeply enough to understand its abstract complexities. That is, until I was charged with directing an exhibition project EMerge: Art of the Indian Diaspora for the National Indo-American Museum (NIAM).
NIAM is the first national institution devoted to capturing and sharing the stories of all Indian Americans. EMerge is its first independently mounted exhibition featured as the inaugural highlight of its first brick and mortar building, the Umang and Paragi Patel Center in Lombard, Illinois. This is also the first time that nine well-known Indian American artists are coming together to display their works, some created especially for the exhibition, on the theme of diaspora. And the curator, who brought them together, is himself an Indian American artist: Shaurya Kumar, Chair of Faculty and Associate Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This is a seminal moment for NIAM and for the Indian American community it represents.
While working on the exhibition installation, interacting with the artists, helping with program development, and publicity interviews, I began to understand more about the works of art on display. The featured artists employ an astonishing array of tools, techniques, and processes in creating their art in an equally amazing variety of mediums, ranging from print, photography, sketches, and paintings to sculpture, video, performance, and room-size installations. But through them all runs the thread of the diaspora narrative – reinvented, explored anew from multiple perspectives, and given new meaning through unconventional treatment. Listening to the artist interviews, and examining their works in light of their own stories, I felt a personal connection to contemporary art I had not felt before because I saw reflected in them parts of my own immigrant story begun more than half a century ago when I first came to the US in 1970.
Back then, the combination of an Irish convent education, orthodox Tamil upbringing, and an English literature degree had taught me a lot. But there were gaping holes in my education as well. I knew more about Chaucer and Milton and the glory of the British empire but precious little about the literature of India or its independence struggle. So I could immediately identify with Kushala Vora, one of the artists featured in EMerge. Like her, I had been taught to “function within parameters set to continue the propagation of colonial thought.” I could admire her sculptures on the hand-painted clay wall at NIAM, so cleverly depicting the double meanings in word-play, and her display of ceramic-coated notebooks representing our “calcified habits” because I, too, had wanted to break out of that stifling mode.*
Another artist whose work I found easy to appreciate is Surabhi Saraf. Her audio-visual installation turns the most prosaic of activities, like folding laundry, into a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of shifting colors and fluid geometric patterns. Accompanied by her soft, melodic humming, it soothes the soul and becomes a form of meditation in itself. If only we could see beauty in such unexpected places! Surabhi Saraf’s installation can be enjoyed for its purely sensory qualities but can also trigger an emotional response and resonate with anyone, especially now during COVID times when so many of us are isolated, homebound, or stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of domestic chores.
Standing in front of Shresta Rit Premnath’s installation Lean/Hold, I marveled at how the combination and juxtaposition of everyday industrial materials like chain-link fences and pliable foam pieces shaped and hardened by plaster of Paris can convey complex ideas of power, oppression, and social injustice. All the images I had seen over the last few years on TV, the Black Lives Matter and MeToo protests, the street marches, and riots, came to me in a rush, but so did the sobering reflection that systems created to protect us are the very ones that can also do us in. The connections to Kushala Vora’s work sprang spontaneously to mind, and I became aware of the art of the curator, Shaurya Kumar, in helping us make these connections.
Other artists featured in the exhibition are Avantika Bawa, Sarika Gulatia, Neha Vedpathak, Kaveri Raina, Nandita Raman, and Kuldeep Singh. (Check them out at www.niam.org, where you can also register to attend NIAM’s virtual programs accompanying the exhibition.) They are all wrestling with questions that we ask ourselves, about belonging or feeling left out, our role in society, and how we transform ourselves as we struggle to fit in, and they do it in diverse, beautifully abstract, and artistic ways. In their art, we don’t find pat answers to these questions so much as a validation of our own immigrant experiences that are at once personal and universal.
*Quotes from Vora’s Artist Statement in the EMerge catalog
EMerge is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the generosity of many other organizations and individuals.
Padma Rangaswamy is co-founder, Past President, and current Board member of the National Indo-American Museum (NIAM) and Project Director of EMerge: Art of the Indian Diaspora on display at NIAM’s Umang and Paragi Patel Center, 815 S. Main, Lombard, Illinois, until March 27, 2022. She has a Ph.D. in American history and has authored many books, journal articles, and encyclopedia entries on Indian Americans. Among her publications are Namasté America: Indian Immigrants in an American Metropolis and Indian Americans, a secondary level reader chronicling the achievements and struggles of Indian immigrants in North America. She has taught courses on Immigration History, World History, and Global Cultures at leading Chicago-area universities and is passionate about preserving, documenting, and promoting the understanding of Indian American history and culture.