Art appreciation

South Asian and modern queer aesthetics merge in visually lavish art

LOS ANGELES — For many artists from communities of color, a creative practice is not just about making art; it’s also about larger actions, like exposing social injustices and encouraging the next generation of artists of color. Brooklyn-based artist Jaishri Abichandani’s first museum survey Flower-headed childrenspeaks to this intersectionality, encouraging visitors to discover the full extent of his works, as well as his activism and community involvement.

The artist founded the South Asian Women’s Creative Coalition (SAWCC), a non-profit organization focused on “the advancement, visibility and development of emerging and established female artists in South Asia”, according to its official website. She also previously worked as Director of Public Events and Projects at the Queens Museum of Art, among other contributions to the art world. While some of the pieces in the exhibition are deeply intimate, others capture a collective energy.

Installation view of Jaishri Abichandani: Flower-Headed Children at Craft Contemporary in Los Angeles (courtesy Craft Contemporary)

Jasmine blooms at night (2021), an installation made up of multiple portraits, pays tribute to South Asian feminist activists across the country, including Dr. Anjali Arondekar, who wrote the book For the record: on sexuality and colonial archives in India, and Sri Lankan queer performance artist, activist, organizer and educator YaliniDream. Abichandani highlights the rise of South Asian women in American politics, especially Vice President Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. “Kamala’s Inheritance” reflects the artist’s perspective on Harris as a hopeful figure – a South Asian, black woman in politics, whose presence could potentially usher in even more women of color – but also someone ‘one with “pride, which can push her into positions that have more flash than substance”, according to the text on the walls of the work. The symbols in the piece refer to Greek mythology, the Hindu religion (especially the lotus flower) and to American imperialism.

“Mona,” a portrait of Mona Eltahawy, compares the journalist to the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet. Eltahawy’s bright red hair matches the overall opulence of the work, which is composed of paint, plastic, mirrored glass and fabric. The portrait expresses her uncompromising personality as she raises two middle fingers.

Jaishri Abichandani, “Mother’s Tongue” (2021), fabric, epoxy, hair, metal, plastic, paint on fiberboard (photo by the author)

Other works reference the #MeToo moment, protest and community action, highlighting Abichandani’s 2017 performance at the Met Breuer in which she asked 30 people to join her for a protest. #MeToo. The action took place during the retrospective of photographer Raghubir Singh; Abichandani alleged that Singh assaulted her and openly shared her story.

The exhibit’s text, printed on a shiny gold wall, explains that Abichandani’s works “expand the American art public’s appreciation for the aesthetic that represents an unknown cultural experience.” The show embraces visual sumptuousness; some pieces shine from every angle.

“Unlike other immigrant communities, South Asians have yet to establish institutions for contemporary art and culture,” exhibit curator Anuradha Vikram wrote in a statement. ArtNews article in 2019. “Our institutions tend to be places of worship, folk programs, and classical arts schools.” Overall, says Vikram, “attention to contemporary art by South Asians working in the United States is rare.”

Jaishri Abichandani, “Two Boys in Saris” (2018), mixed media on wooden base (photo by the author)

The show asks viewers to check their assumptions and question their reactions to each piece. Abichandani argues that South Asian devotional art and queer culture have both been viewed as weird and other within Euro-American (primarily straight, white) society. She embraces and exalts queer culture in the show. “Two Boys in Saris” (2018) is set on its own plinth, painted gold to match the surrounding walls. It showcases the artist’s integration of devotional imagery with modern queer aesthetics; each figure’s jewelry and clothing recalls Hindu traditions of dressing idols in temples, while elements like bright blue lipstick evoke the liberation of fashion. It depicts two queer Muslim performance artists whose poses hark back to Bollywood themes.

The show is a reminder that contemporary South Asian artists are ready to make their voices heard whether or not institutions want to catch up.

Jaishri Abichandani: Flower-Headed Children continues at Craft Contemporary (5814 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA) through May 8. The exhibition is curated by Anuradha Vikram.